Figs hold a special place among the many kinds of fruits we eat. They have a unique quality that goes well with savory foods, especially ham and soft cheeses, or added to salads. Until recently, outside fig-growing areas, only dried figs were available, and these have absolutely no resemblance to the fresh version of this wonderful fruit. But fresh figs are always expensive, because their quality depends on being ripe – there are few things as boring to eat as an unripe fig. Ripe figs are fragile, hard to ship, and have a very short life, turning over-ripe very quickly. If you have only ever eaten store-bought fresh figs, then you have been missing out on one of the most sensual eating experiences there is. Warmed by the sun, the aromatic and delicately-flavored fig is an experience of pure pleasure.
Given all this, growing your own figs is clearly the best way to eat them at their best – often the only way. Let’s consider the needs of fig trees, and see how you can grow (and eat) your own, no matter where you live.
Ways to Grow Figs
- As a tree – in warm areas you can grow a fig as a free-standing tree.
- On a wall – in cooler places tie your tree to a sunny wall to increase the yield and ripen the fruit
- In a pot – in cold regions, grow your tree in a pot and store in a frost-free place indoors during winter
- From the roots – planted in the ground in cold areas, some figs will re-sprout from the roots and carry a good crop
How to Grow Fig Trees
The fig (Ficus carica) is a native tree in the Middle East, and it has been grown for centuries for its valuable fruit, eaten both fresh and dry. Coming from these areas it loves heat and dryness. For the fig tree, the hotter the better, so always grow it in full sun because even partial shade will reduce fruiting dramatically. Find the hottest spot in your garden – that is the place for your fig tree.
Secondly, fig trees like to grow in poor, dry soil. Fast drainage is a must, so never plant in a low-lying spot, or in soil that is often wet and drains slowly. Stony, sandy soil suits a fig tree perfectly. A newly planted tree should be given water regularly, while it sends out roots, but after that no watering is needed, except in the most severe and extended drought. If the leaves look firm, don’t water, it’s that easy.
If you have rich soil a fig tree will grow rapidly and produce lots of leaves, but not much fruit. Gardeners in that situation often build a box in the ground, out of bricks or concrete, with no bottom, perhaps 3 or 4 feet square. The box is then filled with soil mixed with a large amount of sand and gravel. This way the fig is on a restricted diet, and it produces much more fruit.
You will never really see your fig tree flowering, instead it produces tiny fruits that gradually become larger. This is because the flower is inside the fruit – a unique thing among plants. Unlike many other fruit trees, you don’t need a pollinator tree – a single tree, or several trees of the same type, will produce a big crop. Fig trees can produce two crops a year. The first crop comes from small figs that develop late in the year, stay all winter, and then grow and ripen in spring. This is called a ‘breba’ crop, and although good, the fruit is not considered quite as tasty as the main crop, which is produced on the new stems that develop each spring. To grow that main crop needs a long time, which is why you need the hottest, sunniest spot to grow your fig tree well.
After going to the work of growing your own figs, don’t pick them too soon, or the value of home-grown will be lost. Figs turn from green to purple before they are fully ripe, and a fig is ready to eat when the stem joining it to the tree turns soft and collapses. Those are the tastiest and sweetest figs, so be patient and wait. Birds like figs too, and you might need to throw a net over your tree during the harvest season – unless you don’t mind sharing.
Growing a fig tree on a wall
In cooler areas, zones 6 to 8, or in places with a lot of rain, it is best to grow your fig tree on a sunny, south-facing wall. This could be a wall of your house, between the windows. A wall holds the heat of the sun, and a house wall transmits warmth from winter heating. Plant the tree right up against the wall, where the soil is always drier, and spread the branches out as they grow. Wires stretched across the wall make tying in the branches easy. Besides saving space, this method gives you the best chance of fully ripening a good crop.
Growing a fig tree in a pot
In zones 5 and 6, or even in zone 4, you need to choose the hardiest variety of fig – the Everbearing, or Turkish Brown fig. Grow it in a large pot and place it in a sheltered, sunny spot. Use soil for cactus plants and don’t overwater. You can spread it on a wall in summer too. In winter the tree will lose its leaves, and you should keep the soil in the pot dry once the leaves fall. When the temperatures are more than a few degrees below freezing bring the pot indoors to a cool place, like an unheated garage. Just a few degrees above freezing is best – not too warm. Since it has no leaves, your tree needs no light during this time. When the warmer weather returns in early spring, put the tree back outside.
An alternative way to grow a fig in colder areas is to let it be killed by the cold and then re-sprout in spring. Often those new branches will bear a crop of figs, especially in a hot place, or against a wall.
Choose the right variety of fig tree
Figs come in several varieties, and you should match the variety to your growing zone.
In zones 9 to 11 the top choice is the Black Mission Fig. This delicious historical variety was brought to southern California by Spanish Franciscan priests 250 years ago. It grows best in hot places, and it is sensitive to frost. This fig produces large breba crops and a main-crop as well, so you have figs for many weeks of the year. They are top-quality figs for flavor and sweetness.
In cooler areas a good choice is the Celeste Fig, also called Celestial. It has a delicious flavor and grows well in zones 7 to 11. It is more frost-resistant than the Black Mission Fig. If you are in zone 5 and 6, this fig will die back in winter, but it will carry a main-crop on the new shoots that come back from the roots in spring. This is also a good fig for growing in a pot and over-wintering indoors
In the coldest zones another top choice is the Everbearing, or Brown Turkey Fig. This is the classic fig grown in cooler areas, and the most frost-resistant. It too will fruit on shoots from the roots, and it’s a great choice for a wall or for growing in a pot.
Whichever variety you choose, you will be surprised at how easy figs are to grow. They rarely suffer from pests or diseases and grow well in the poorest soil. When you taste that first tree-ripened fig you will know that your small effort has harvested a big reward.