What is the best time of year to grow fig trees from cuttings?
- Rod B., Rio Rancho, NM
The short answer: not now. Fig trees (Ficus carica) are one of the relatively few species that propagate easier from hardwood cuttings than softwood. Hardwood just means dormant, older growth. Softwood, by comparison, is the soft, usually green, new season growth. So, the best time to harvest the wood for fig propagation is in the wintertime (January–February).
A greater number of woody species are propagated using softwood cuttings, including ginkgo, lilac, redbud, sumac, and wisteria. Others still can be propagated by either method, but there are different tricks for each.
I asked Dr. Margaret Pooler, a researcher and woody plant breeder with the USDA U.S. National Arboretum (http://usna.usda.gov), to explain differences between propagation methods for woody plant cuttings. She said that they usually use softwood or semi-hardwood cuttings because roots develop more readily than with hardwood cuttings, and semi-hardwood cuttings aren't quite as floppy and difficult to manage compared to softwood cuttings. The drawback of softwood is that it is very susceptible to drying out, so providing high humidity is key.
For hardwood cuttings, the opposite is true—don't let the bare sticks get too wet and rot before roots have a chance to establish.
Rooting hormone is recommended for the home gardener when attempting propagation from cuttings. You can get it from your local garden center in a powder or liquid form and apply it to the open wound before placing the cut end in the soil. Be sure to follow label directions. Visit https://nmsudesertblooms.blogspot.com for tips on proper cutting angle, location, and care.
I also asked Dr. Pooler why rooting hormone helps root development when propagating from cuttings, but has not been shown to increase rooting when they are transplanted in the landscape. She pointed out that roots naturally make their own rooting hormones, so when root tissues have already developed, there's no need for added root stimulant.
Collecting and planting seeds is the easiest way to propagate lots of woody and herbaceous (non-woody) species. For more information, see the NMSU Extension Guide H-112, "Seed Propagation of Plants" (http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/H112/welcome.html).
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm a big fig fan. To be clear, I like both large and small figs, bigly. My Las Cruces sources informed me that local figs started ripening a few weeks ago, and many fig trees are at their prime this week in Albuquerque (Fig. 2).
For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms (http://desertblooms.nmsu.edu/) and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page at http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/.
Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, office: 505- 865-7340, ext. 113.