Sunday, February 3, 2013

Pruning the Fig Tree... wood for smoking and heat!

Our fig tree last summer - pre-pruned.

Yesterday, two men came to the house. After a phone call for translation (my Portuguese was about as good as their English!), I learned that the owners of the house we rent had sent these two men to prune the fig tree. Learning how to prune the fig tree was actually on my list of things to do... along with literally a few hundred other things! The tree was quite large and "leggy" in appearance with long, skinny branches and not many leaves except at the tips. I knew the tree needed to be pruned back, but I had no idea how to do it, so I was excited to see how it was done.

The fig tree post-pruning.

To be honest, I have no idea if these men were professional fig tree pruners, if they were professional or skilled tree trimmers of any kind, or if they were just a couple of guys who had some tree loppers and were available for hire. It did appear that they had at least done this before. They removed about half of the branches and really opened up the tree's framework. When I took the time to research pruning fig trees, it turns out that it is pretty simple. Figs will be produced on new shoots in the same year from even severe pruning.

The pile of pruned branches. 

There were five or six piles of branches left in the yard after the pruning was complete. This morning my boys and I, okay it was mostly me, moved all the branches onto the patio area. This was for a few reasons. I wanted to have a clear area to work. I wanted a place for wood to dry out, and that patio gets a lot of full sun. It gets hot in the summer since it is all white and walled in. Also, the patio was really close to the piles, so a close location minimized the work.

The (mostly) cut and trimmed pile of branches.

I ended up cutting up all the branches in to smaller lengths for kindling and firewood. There are many places in the world (Spain and Portugal included) where people think burning fig wood is hazardous; they think it releases deadly toxic fumes. However, this is not true. In Turkey, for instance, skewers are often made of fig wood to give a unique flavor to the meats. As it turns out, fig wood is used for smoking meats in some of the finest restaurants in the U.S. A New York Times article states that, "At Mercer Kitchen in SoHo, the chef, Chris Beischer, uses the wood to roast lobsters and make pizza. Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., uses it for smoking meats. Oliveto, also in Berkeley, burns it for spit-roasting."

This whole process got me thinking about a few things...

  • First - trees produces a LOT of biomass. The fig tree looks like it got a trim, but it was not radical. We are left with a lot of cut branches... from just one small tree. The wood from trimmings and wind damage and die back from even a small forest garden will produce a lot of wood, likely all a small homestead will need. I can't wait to get mine started!
  • Second - this just reinforced Permaculture Principle Six: Produce No Waste. I can't help but think of growing up in the suburbs of South Florida. There would be so much "yard waste" picked up by the garbage trucks each week that, at a minimum, could be used for compost or chipping, but ended up in a landfill. Ughh!
  • Third - Experience is so important. I had never seen a fig tree pruned before in my life. Now that I have, I feel confident I could do it myself next time. Time will tell if this project was done correctly, but I will always have this as a reference point to go back to, either to repeat or to refine.
  • Fourth - It is important to challenge tradition. Don't do it just for the sake of doing it, but do so when you have reason to doubt. I am reminded of the Apostle Paul writing to the Thessalonians to "test all things; hold on to what is good." The context was a bit different, but I have applied this to my life in general, and it holds true. The local knowledge here says not to use this fig wood. I didn't heed or ignore that tradition blindly. I questioned it. I researched it... quite a bit, because I don't want to put my family or myself at risk, and I am now choosing to ignore it and not waste a valuable resource.
  • Fifth - Cutting this many branches was a lot of work, but it felt good to be working outside! It felt great to be working with branches and wood. It felt good to know that this work was going to be directly used for a purpose for my family. Many people in the modern world do not get to experience this anymore. It is just one of many things our modern culture has lost and needs desperately to gain again.
  • Sixth - It has been too long since I have smoked some meat. Now I have some good motivation to get smoking!


  1. Wish to appreciate people pertaining to giving the high quality information with us.

  2. can you take a cutting or 2 from any fig trees around town? I'd love to try to grow some Portuguese figs here in america. I'd happily pay the shipping and can send you a great variety of garden seeds in return. Thanks and I look forward to hearing back from you.

  3. Can I use the timber from the fig trees to build a Hugelkultur raised beds?

    1. i used fig for my hugel beds, brilliant results...

  4. Valter - yes, you can! In fact, I may use your question for an article here soon. Thanks for the great question!


  5. Hello,
    how did the fig tree perform last year?


  6. John K. I came across your excellent post. Written with feeling it was. I know because I feel the same today. I just finished a severe pruning of mmy big fig tree here im Cyprus. I had seen how they should look from those on neighbours properties. So I went for it
    A chain saw whilst not very eco was a godsend. Now with piles of cut logs I can feel like you having made a family contribution.

    Peter in Cyprus (not cold next winter)

  7. The wood holds moisture a long time(West Coast Canada) may take a few years to get decent burning wood out of it, I can see how it would be good for smoking. Such a beautiful tree love the figs.

  8. An usefull post,thx to admin for the article

  9. The problem with using fig timber for anything structural is that it shrinks by an unbelievable amount, thereby splitting. Some of the logs we cut last year look as if quarter-sections have been chopped out of them.

  10. Thanks for the wonderful article! I will be asking Tree Service Brooklyn NY my normal service about some of the things I have learned here! Thanks again!

  11. Never knew fig wood did so much! Thanks for the fun and educational read

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  13. I have just cut down a twenty year old fig tree and wish to use most of it for smoking in the distant future...I'm guessing a year or to for it to dry and season. My question concern is the bark. Should the bark be removed before tossing into the pit. I've never met a bark I've liked before. (for smoking purposes) Any thoughts?

  14. Sorry "to" should have been two.


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  19. I am so glad I found this post of yours. We had been helping prune a friends olive grove and he was providing us much needed firewood in compensation. Included in some of the wood we got was some Fig wood which our friend says was not that great wood... that the local Italians didn't like it. I thought nothing of it. We took all the wood home, burned a mix and noticed an amazing incense-like perfume in the air. It was the fig wood. After we got home today from another stint of pruning I noticed a comment on my facebook post about the fig wood warning me that it emitted toxic smoke and I panicked. Not so much for us but for our 20 year old cat who sleeps 24/7 in front of that fire. I would sure love to know what is behind the old superstition. Maybe figtrees were sacred to some pagan god and...

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