The Fig Tree is an extraordinary tree with a long history. It originated in the Middle East and has been grown around the Mediterranean for centuries. Many historians believe that Figs were being eaten as much as 6,000 years ago. It is an excellent fruit tree for hot, dry areas where other kinds of fruit will not grow. Figs are widely grown today in all drier parts of the world, from Sicily to Spain and California.
If you live in a drier part of the country, you may be looking with envy at those who can grow cherries or peaches. You should remember, however, that they are paying a lot for a few figs at the grocery store, when you could have a tree in your garden giving you all you need. A mature tree may produce 200 or even 300 figs in a year, so you will have plenty of figs to eat fresh or to dry.
Using Fig Trees on Your Property
The Fig Tree is a small to medium sized tree that usually grows just 10 or 15 feet tall. Figs are worth growing just for their foliage alone, but of course it is the fruit that is their star feature. Fig Trees can be grown as free-standing trees, but in the cooler zones it is best to grow them against a wall, where they will be more protected and the fruit will ripen better.
The fruit on Fig Trees form in summer. Depending on how hot it is where you live, they usually begin to ripen in July or August and continue producing and ripening up to the first frost. In very mild areas there may be two distinct crops, one in early summer from fruits formed the previous fall, and another in late summer from fruits formed in spring. Fig Trees can also make a beautiful background among large shrubs or small trees in a drier garden, as once established they will withstand a lot of drought. They even thrive in areas like New Mexico, so no matter how dry your garden, you can grow a Fig Tree.
In cooler regions figs can be grown in large pots or tubs. These are very decorative on a terrace or patio, or set out around the pool. In winter they can either be brought inside behind a sunny window, or perhaps a better and easier way is to store them in a shed or garage. They will drop their leaves but should be watered if the soil in the pot becomes completely dry. Bring them outside once the risk of a hard frost has passed, water them well and they will soon come back into growth.
Fig Tree Appearance
Although the Fig Tree can reach 30 feet, most trees are a lot smaller, being perhaps 15 feet tall and often as much across. The bark is smooth and gray and the tree usually develops several trunks. The leaves are large and beautiful, being lobed and up to 10 inches long and 7 inches across. The fruit is actually a special hollow stem, with many flowers inside it. There is a small hole at the end and a particular tiny wasp enters to pollinate the fruit. Trees that are grown in home gardens develop without being pollinated, so don’t worry about searching out these special wasps. Botanists call the fruit a syconium – an excellent word to use when you are donating excess fruits to your neighbors.
The fruits are beginning to ripen when they darken in color. The Brown Turkey Fig Tree comes from that country and is not related to the bird. Its fruits turn a rich, dark mahogany color when ripe. The Chicago Hardy Fig Tree actually comes from Sicily and the fruits turn a rich purple color when ripe. Figs have very little taste until they are completely ripe on the tree. The perfect fig is ripe when the neck begins to sag and bend. That is the point to pick your figs and enjoy. Even the best figs from the store do not taste like a fully tree-ripened fig. You may want to drape a net over the bush as the fruits ripen as birds may want to share your harvest. However the trees are hardy, pest and disease free and are very rarely eaten by deer.
Hardiness and Growing Conditions
Figs vary in their hardiness and resistance to cold. Most will not tolerate winter temperatures below 100F when the branches will begin to die. Young branches are most susceptible to cold damage. The Chicago Hardy Fig Tree will grow down to zone 5, while the Brown Turkey Fig Tree is hardy to zone 7. All figs thrive in warmer areas and are happy to grow all the way into zone 10. They are also drought resistant once established and will thrive even on poor soil. In fact they will often fruit better on poor soil, so if your garden is hot, dry and sunny, fig trees would love to grow for you.
Planting Your Fig Trees
Choose a sunny location for your fig tree, one that is especially sunny in the late summer and into fall when the fruit is ripening. Figs will grow in all kinds of soil as long as it is well-drained, so don’t plant your fig tree in a low-lying or damp spot. In areas with high rain-fall they will do well planted right up against a wall, where the roots will stay dry. In colder regions don’t plant in too sheltered a spot as this may encourage early growth that can be damaged by a late frost.
Planting in Rows
If planted in rows, place the trees 10 to 20 feet apart, depending on how much you intend to prune them. Prepare a hole two or three times the width of the container. Place your tree on a small soil mound in the center of the hole. Replace most of the soil, firm the soil down around the roots and fill the hole with water. When the water has drained away, replace the rest of the soil. Your tree should be standing on a slightly raised mound a few inches above the surrounding soil. Water your young tree once a week during the first year. After that, water will very rarely be needed and you need only water if you see the leaves drooping.
Planting in Pots and Containers
For planting in containers, choose a container a little bigger than the pot your fig tree arrives in. The soil should be well-drained, so add some rotted leaves or perlite to regular potting soil. Also add a couple of tablespoons of garden lime, chalk or ground limestone to the potting soil. Figs in pots usually fruit well as the restricted root growth encourages fruiting, not leaves. They will need more attention for watering than plants put directly into the garden. Pots can be stood outdoors in summer or planted into the ground. Planting your pots directly into the ground saves much of the work of watering, especially if you are growing in terracotta pots, which are recommended for figs. The plants will also grow better that way.
When the weather starts to turn cool, dig up the pot, trim the roots that will have grown through the drain-hole and store the plant in a dark place that does not go below 200F. The plants will go dormant, drop their leaves but they will not die. Do not allow the pots to go completely dry over the winter. Figs in pots do not need to be re-potted until they have grown so large that they fall over.
Points of Interest
Most people eat figs raw, but they can also be stewed in sugar syrup and served warm or cold. They are also excellent sliced in a salad with bitter greens like Arugula and a lemon and oil dressing.
Figs are also very easy to dry so nothing will go to waste of your crop. If you live in a hot sunny area, you can simply spread the figs out on a tray and leave in the sun for a couple of days to dry. Cover with some netting to keep insects away while they dry. If the sun is not really hot, cutting the figs in half from top to bottom will make them smaller and so easier to dry. Your figs are dry when you cannot squeeze any moisture from them. They can be stored for many months in a cool, dry place. If you live in cooler areas, figs can also be oven-dried at around 1100F.
Figs need little care; in fact they thrive on neglect and should not be over-fertilized. A low-nitrogen fertilizer applied in early spring may improve the yield but it is best not to stimulate a lot of growth as few fruits will be produced. They also need very little pruning as fruits develop best on older branches. If necessary tall branches on your tree can be cut back in winter and over-crowded branches should be removed. Against a wall, just tie the main branches back to the wall and trim growth back so it does not grow too far forward.
Fig Trees are often not the first choice when deciding to grow fruit trees, but they make an excellent fruit crop for hotter, drier areas as well as warmer regions with normal rainfall. When grown in pots they can be cultivated even in colder zones. Because they are so easy to grow they make an excellent choice for dry-landscaping gardens and for relaxed gardeners.