I have to say, I honestly feel sorry for anyone who’s never had the opportunity to eat a fresh fig. If that’s you, don’t despair, you still might be able to grow your own, even if you’re not in the ideal climate.
Like Alpine Strawberries, you’re not likely to see fresh figs in farmer’s markets or grocery stores, even if you do live in the proper climate where they grow. They do not transport well, and they definitely don’t keep long. Most people know figs from those cake-like cookies ‘Fig Newtons’, or from bags of the dried fruit. These aren’t bad, but fresh is just so much better. Fresh figs have a texture almost like strawberry jam, and a similar taste. They pair nicely with both sweet and savory ingredients, and are equally perfect eaten fresh.
*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*
The trees are easy to grow, however climate will be a deciding factor as to how to grow them. The figs grown for fruit will be some variety of the “Common Fig”, and most do not tolerate zones colder than 8 without some help. Some varieties are more cold tolerant than others, like Brown Turkey, so be sure to select one suitable for your zone. All figs will tolerate hotter temperatures, and will actually thrive better and produce more fruit when given a long, hot summer. Just be sure to give your tree proper water. If leaves start yellowing and dropping or are sparse, or if fruits are tough, lack of water could be your culprit. However, if fruits start splitting frequently and turn mushy before being properly ripe, you may be watering too much. Keep soil mulched to conserve moisture and keep soil temperatures cool.
If your winters dip below 20 F for extended periods of time, you may want to consider growing figs in large pots to be brought inside during the cold months. Since the trees are deciduous anyway, this works out very well. Once temperatures stay above 20 F, you can bring your tree back outside in a sheltered location to readjust to the outdoor conditions. Keep in mind that even though your tree may be dormant, it will still need some light and water. If you have a greenhouse, this is an ideal environment to keep your potted tree protected however, still keep an eye on the temperature. I have an easy tip for keeping plants warm here.
Pruning your fig is not necessary, but can be beneficial in keeping it properly shaped and sized if space is a constraint. Most fig varieties don’t grow very large, but occasional pruning does help to increase side shoots on longer branches, and will increase fruit and leaf production as a result. Pruning should be done during the winter months after all leaves have dropped.
Some figs will have young fruits that will overwinter on the tree and then ripen in early spring, and go on to produce another crop at the end of summer. However, winter frosts can damage them and they should be removed before they rot. Most fig varieties available don’t need a pollinator to get fruit set, but a few do, so be aware of that before selecting a variety. No matter what, all figs tend to be prolific producers starting around August and going into October, so be prepared for several weeks of good eating!
Figs are fairly resistant to pests and diseases, but not bullet proof. There are a variety of fungal diseases that will cause damage to leaves and can be controlled through copper-based or other anti-fungal treatments. Some insects will either burrow into stems and trunks, or into the fruit itself. Birds will love to eat your fruits, so you may want to consider bird netting to keep them out. Birds can also be deterred by hanging old CDs by string near or on the tree, or tying sparkly ribbon onto branches, where the flashing light reflecting off of them will spook the birds (up to a point, then they may get used to it). Another potential pest is root-knot nematodes that damage roots to the point the whole tree may die. This is a more serious and harder to treat problem, so if you have these pests in your soil you may want to consider a different location or growing in a pot.
Figs should be harvested when they have nearly or completely reached their final color, which could be light green, brown, or purple. They should also be somewhat soft. Plan to use or preserve them within a day as they don’t last long. Harvest regularly to keep pests away and to help the tree put more sugars into the remaining fruit. It is not unusual for there to be a particular variety of small beetle inside which are harmless. Just pick them out! Figs left too long on the tree will rot readily and should be removed and composted to get rid of potential pests. Figs can be eaten whole but I prefer to remove the skin when eating fresh, but I leave the skin on for everything else, including freezing and drying. I cut the figs in half before doing either of those processes. The figs will ooze a white, sticky sap that can be irritating to skin so be sure to wash thoroughly or wear protective clothing when harvesting.
- Perennial: Trees have been known to live upwards of 200 years!
- Height: depends on variety, anywhere from 12-20 feet, sometimes more
- Width: depends on variety, anywhere from 10-15 feet
- Sun: full sun
- Water: Requires regular water, but soil should not stay wet to avoid root rot
- Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
- Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
- Key nutrients: Avoid fertilizing unless really needed, use a balanced fertilizer
- Planting time: Trees are usually planted as bare-root in spring as soon as danger of frost has passed