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I've recently purchased a house that has a rather large fig tree next to a two-story garage. It's gotten a bit unruly as you can see from this photo:

Fig tree that's gotten pretty big

I've read that fig trees should be pruned in the winter, which is just starting here. (Well, as much as winter ever starts in southern California.) I've seen useful tips such as removing deadwood, suckers and secondary branches, but I haven't found any suggestions for reducing the height of the tree. I love the shade, but not the branches that are reaching above my garage. It just seems like a recipe for roof damage the next time we get strong winds.

I see figs aren't especially bothered by pruning, so my concern is less about harming the tree and more about how to reduce the overall size without losing too much of the shade or aesthetics. I should note that the garage already shades quite a bit of the yard since it is to the south. Also the main trunk was topped at about 10 feet, so most of the height is from two very long vertical branches.

On the one hand, I could cut the branches fairly high up so they are just below the level of the roof. On the other, it seems like it might be alright to do a more drastic pruning to make the tree shorter and more spread out. Or should I start small and prune more each year until I have the tree size that I'm looking for? What should I be aware of as I prune my fig?

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    I won't be able to answer the whole questions, so I will just leave a few comments. Don't start new. Use what you have. Figs take amazingly well to all kinds of pruning. Go well below the roof line. Depending on the type of fig, your weather and irrigation it can grow feet in a year. If you want spread don't let it grow up, keeping pruning it through out the growing season. That way the plant has no choice but to go outward. I would prune it at least twice. early/Mid-summer would be the other time. I don't know your weather well enough to give you a better date. – GardenGems Dec 3 at 0:46
  • Update: After trimming some of the taller branches I discovered spiky seed pods, which leads me to believe I misidentified the tree in the picture. I now believe it to be an American sweet gum. I don't think my mistake invalidates the answers here. From what I read, this tree is similarly robust to extensive pruning. – Jon Ericson Dec 6 at 21:47
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The UK recommended time is early spring not "winter", but I guess in California you don't usually get daytime temperatures below zero and snow and ice on the ground for very long.

You can prune as hard as you like, but don't remove more than about 1/4 of the tree in any one year.

For a tree that size, take out branches right down to the trunk. If you want a replacement branch to grow, leave two or three inches of the old branch rather than cutting it off as close to the trunk as possible.

Pruning will produce a lot of vigorous new growth. The simplest plan is to aim to have completely "new tree" in four or five years time, in whatever shape you want it to be, rather than try to keep the old wood.

Once you have the basic shape of your "new tree", cut off the tips of new side shoots after they have produced about 6 leaves, usually by June. That will keep it under some sort of control.

Also, remove any figs that failed to ripen at the end of the growing season, but leave the pea-sized fruit that will be next year's crop.

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I have a fig ( Anna) that is that broad but not as tall because I prune. I prune so that most fruit can be reached from a 6 ft ladder. I also like early spring , not a problem if the buds are swelling. As noted you will have heavy production as figs bear on new wood. I try to take a third but it is so much work I usually get no more than a quarter of the wood. Don't be afraid to cut big branches. I try to open the center. You will get to prune every year, probably not as heavy as the first year, and try different plans. An electric pole chain saw works very well. Make a partial cut on the bottom of a branch first because if you cut all the way from the top , at some point the branch will break and may tear bark into the trunk.

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