Figs are one of my favorite fruits. Not only are they delicious, but they are also an attractive plant that adds interest to a garden. In the right climate, growing figs is fairly simple. However, in other areas they can be a bit finicky. In fact, I have a 10-year old Brown Turkey fig tree and this is the first year it has produced well. Figs aren’t very cold hardy, they are susceptible to pests, and they take their sweet time to ripen. So, why would anyone bother to grow one in a less than ideal gardening zone? If you have ever enjoyed a fresh fig, you know its taste is like nothing else out there. Figs have a short shelf life, so if you don’t grow them, you may never know the pleasure and delight that is a fresh fig.
Growing Figs in the Home Garden
Figs are one of the oldest cultivated crops, predating even wheat. The ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians enjoyed figs. It was a fig tree that Adam and Eve used to make clothing—and that was a very, very long time ago! Given that figs originated in the Middle East and Mediterranean, figs are a semi-tropical tree that prefer long, hot summers. There are many cool season varieties that do well in colder zones and produce well in the Pacific Northwest and even Canada.
They can overwinter in zone 7-8 and they can be grown as a tender container tree for any zones below 7. In the colder spectrum, plant figs in the sunniest part of your garden and mulch it well. Figs respond very well to heavy pruning and will fruit prolifically even when subjected to a heavy-handed lopper. If the tree gets damaged over winter, don’t be afraid to prune it as necessary. It may even grow back from the roots if there is extensive damage.
Size and Characteristics
Figs are an attractive deciduous tree and can reach up to 50 ft tall. More typically, their heights range from 10 – 30 ft. The leaves are large and bright green, lending a tropical feel. The flowers are tiny and out of sight—clustered inside the green “fruits.” Technically, figs aren’t fruits, but synconium, a special structure of a bunch of tiny flowers that are arranged within this cavity. Pollinating insects (for most varieties, a tiny wasp) gain access to the flowers through an opening at the apex of the fruit.
Popular Types of Figs
There are more than 200 fig cultivars in North America. Here are 5 popular varieties that you will probably find in a garden center.
- Black Mission fig is the popular fig of southern California, first planted there by Franciscan missionaries in the mid-1700’s. Fruiting requires pollination by the fig wasp, and so it is best planted in areas adjacent to existing populations. The fruits feature bronze-black skin and melon colored pulp.
- Brown Turkey fig, also known as Texas Everbearing fig, often grows two crops per season. The first crop is made up of fewer, larger fruits, followed by a prolific crop of smaller ones. The figs have a copper-bronze skin, red “eye” on the bottom, and amber colored pulp.
- Celeste figs are small to medium sized with dark purplish bronze flesh and red pulp. The plant is more compact and cold hardy than many other varieties, making it a suitable choice for containers and northern gardens if protected.
- Kadota fig is an ancient Italian variety with green skin and an open eye. The fruit splits and sours easily in wet weather, but is excellent for preserving.
- LSU Gold fig is one of several improved varieties developed at Louisiana State University Agricultural Center. It produces large reddish-blushed golden figs with pink pulp. The plant is hardy to around ten degrees. An established plant may die back to the roots in colder winters and yet regrow the following summer.
Figs require full sun all day to ripen and long, hot summers. If you live in an area with less than 120 days between frosts, grow figs in containers or as espalier trees against a south-facing, light-colored wall to take advantage of the reflected heat. Figs love well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter and prefer a PH between 6.0-6.5.
Figs do not require much pruning, but you can prune them heavily to keep the size easier to harvest. Shape the tree during the dormant season by removing dead or diseased branches. New, young trees need regular watering until they are established. Established trees should get around one inch of water per week (rain plus irrigation). A layer of mulch over the root area will help to conserve moisture.
Figs in containers will need more frequent watering. If you live in an area with cold winters, you’ll need to protect your fig (if planted in the ground). In late fall, tie the tree’s branches up to make it compact, wrap chicken wire around the tree and fill it with dry straw for insulation. Wrap the outside of the cage with layers of burlap and plastic. Remove the insulation in the spring before new growth begins.
Diseases and Pests
Figs are more prone to fungal diseases. Fig rust causes leaves to turn yellow-brown and drop in late summer or early fall. Leaf blight causes spots that start yellow and appear water-soaked. Pink blight appears on the interior of overgrown figs, appearing as a pink to white, velvety coating on sickly or dead branches. The best way to prevent fungal diseases is to practice sanitation and beware of how much you’re watering your fig to reduce favorable conditions for fungal germination.
As far as pests, birds are the biggest culprit. Use a net to protect your fruit (depending on how large your tree is). My tree is huge, so I sacrifice some of the figs to the birds. Ants may be another pest that can attack ripe fruit. I have issues with them as well. To help control ants from destroying your figs, keep the area around the tree clear and use a barrier of diatomaceous earth around the base. You can also use ant traps near the base.
Figs must be allowed to ripen fully on the tree before they are picked—they will not ripen if picked when immature. A ripe fruit will be slightly soft and starting to bend at the neck and, depending on the variety you have, will be yellow, purple, or dark purple. Harvest with the gentle hand to prevent bruising. Fresh figs do not keep well and can be stored in the refrigerator for only 2 – 3 days (this is why it’s hard to find fresh ones at the store). Figs dry well and can be stored for 6-8 months when dried. Figs make delicious jams, check out some of Garden Therapy’s fig recipes. Also, the fig leaves are edible! They can be used as a wrap (similar to grape leaves) or steamed with rice or sauces to impart a subtle coconut flavor. It’s a perfect addition to curry.
If you can, give growing figs a try. You won’t regret it!