Our new fig tree and how to grow figs

I can’t believe I didn’t write about this sooner but I guess I’ve had other things on my mind…

When Stefan’s family was here two weeks ago, his aunt brought us a lovely little fig tree. It has several figs on it and I would say that they are beginning to ripen as well….but I thought I better do a bit more research about the plant before I do something wrong :-)


Traditionally, a fig tree is given as a gift to bring prosperity for a newly married couple or to celebrate a new home. I never realized this at all and have never really even heard of this tradition…but I am always excited to receive new plants, especially when I manage to keep them alive!!

I found some great information from ParadiseNursery.com and noticed that they will be removing a lot of their gardening pages so I thought I would repost everything I find valuable here and hopefully you won’t all hate me for it! This is a bit of my garden journal, after all :-)

From what I’ve read on their site, our best bet is probably to keep it in a container which can be moved around since we do get some snow and cold temperatures. I think we will need to re-pot the plant soon as well so I will have to determine where I can put it without it becoming a good target for the dog…Actually I just need to start breaking that habit of Ayla’s since she thinks everything in the courtyard is hers to destroy whenever she sees fit!!

Anyway, there’s a whole lot of information that follows so if you don’t plan to grow figs, you can stop reading now. But they are quite interesting plants in my opinion so maybe it will encourage you to try it out ;-)


Everything you need to know about growing figs

Fig trees, generally propagated as rooted cuttings, have been handed down as heirlooms through many generations of families. The figs common to the Eastern US do not require pollination, so in a small garden one fig tree will provide a delicious crop of figs all on its own.

Figs enjoy lots of sunlight and will ripen better fruit in a warm, sunny location. Plan to provide at least 2/3 day sun – in hot areas of the country, afternoon shade may be welcome. The amount of sunlight needed to ripen a tasty fig crop is proportional to how far north you are – farther north, figs need more sun!

Figs are hardy from Zone 7-8 southward and have been grown much farther north with a warm microclimate, like next to a south-facing brick wall. In the north, many are grown as container plants that are moved to a protected location during the winter months.

Fertilizing Figs

Fertilize your fig trees at planting and every few months after – until midsummer – with a good dose of rich compost or a pelletized “timed-release” (3 – 4 month) balanced fertilizer (amounts of all nutrients close to equal) that includes “minors” (minor mineral nutrients).

Figs are heavy feeders – they produce a great amount of foliage and fruit – so watch for leaf yellowing. If the tree is not stressed (it has not recently been transplanted and it has not dried out), the problem may be lack of nutrients.

If you have acid soil, or are planting in a commercial potting mix (container planting), add a few tablespoons of granular horticultural lime to the planting hole and around the tree in the spring. On large trees, several cups of this lime can be spread around the tree each spring before you add new mulch. If you are colder than zone 8, we don’t recommend fertilizing after the end of July – it encourages new growth which will not harden off sufficiently before cold weather.

Irrigation

In hot and dry areas, figs do well on drip irrigation. We don’t recommend overhead irrigation – it’s generally too little for a tree this productive and keeping damp foliage encourages fig rust and other fungi.

Give your tree about 6 – 8″ of mulch for the summer to keep the underlying soil moist and cool. Make sure that your trees do not dry out, especially when developing fruit. Drought stress is the usual cause for fig fruit drop. This said, well established, older figs are famous for surviving in hot and dry areas. In North Carolina and Virginia coastal areas, it is not unusual to see large fig trees growing close to the dune lines. Their roots have developed enough depth to keep them moist.

Pruning Figs

The shape and size of a fig tree is largely a matter of personal preference combined with growing environment. Although fig trees mature into large, beautiful shade trees in the far south and western states, on the east coast figs are more popularly grown as small trees or large “bushes”. Some folks like all their fruit trees to look the same and want their figs to be a single trunk with a standard canopy. This is just fine and the fig will do well. Many prefer a broad, multi-stemmed tree that creates its own environment underneath a ground-hugging canopy. This can be a life-saver in dry climates.

Whatever you choose, pruning is best done when the tree is young, when it’s barely necessary and very routinely. If you begin lightly training a young fig tree by removing excess basal shoots (leaving one or two new stems each year if you like the multi-stemmed figs) and trimming back mis-growing stems, you will have a lovely landscape addition for life. Figs regrow rapidly and will replace cut wood each season. Most varieties will produce figs on new wood, so often there is no reduction in harvest as a result of moderate pruning. Although we have found that most varieties marketed as “dwarf figs” are not reliably dwarf, figs prune so easily that size control is not particularly difficult, especially if the tree is pruned back each year.

Figs are easily maintained with a light annual pruning but, unfortunately, many times they are ignored to grow way out of bounds then hacked severely to bring them into line. If you must, you can do the drastic pruning in the winter. Pruning a large, old fig tree is best done in stages. Figs can withstand a lot of pruning, but every tree has limits.

Most pruning is best done when the tree is dormant, during the winter when it is leafless. Even during the spring and summer, however, you can start by removing all branches and stems that are obviously dead.

The rest depends on how your tree is growing (single trunk or multi-stemmed), what kind of results you would like (how large, small or what shape) and how long the tree has been unpruned. Our rule of thumb is to go by thirds. Remove about a third of the wood that you would eventually like to have gone. On multi-stemmed figs that are becoming large, we recommend selecting a few oversized stems and thinning those out to the ground, rather than “heading” all the branches to stubs. Let the tree rest for the summer and see what new growth appears. We recommend keeping fig trees small enough that all the fruit can be easily reached from the ground but in some areas of the south and southwest, folks treasure the deep shade of the larger figs. The final shape and size are up to you.

We always use the basic “4 D” pruning rules: start by pruning out anything Dead, then anything Damaged or Diseased. Finally, stand back, evaluate your tree and site and begin pruning for Design.

If pruning in active growing season, one word of warning – do not get the white sap from the branches on your skin. Some folks are very sensitive to the chemical ‘ficin’ in the sap without realizing it – and you don’t have to be in any way allergic to fig fruits to have a skin irritation from the sap. The key is not to get the sap on your skin when exposed to a lot of sunlight, as on a sunny garden work day. Use of a good sunblock (30+) will prevent most fig “burns”. (This is the same as for St. John’s Wort and Rue as well as some other plants.)

Problem solving

Figs are tough plants. Planted in a suitable spot and given even moderate care, figs will provide a bounty of tasty fruit for the home grower. They have few pests in most environments and are well adapted for organic growing. A thorough spraying of the foliage with water will remove most insect pests.

Fruit ripening is affected by many factors, including adequate sunlight and moisture. If your fig tree dries out while trying to grow fruit, the figs will often drop or turn into unappealing hard little faux figs. Make sure that your tree is well mulched so that root moisture stays fairly constant. Northern gardeners and those in very humid areas should keep figs pruned so that sunlight and warmth reach most areas. Desert and midwest? Let your fig develop as much canopy as possible, pruning only to keep figs within easy reach. A full grown fig tree shades its own roots – one of the reasons it survives in hot, dry areas.

In humid environments, figs may develop “rust” (a fungal-type disease) on their leaves, causing leaves to develop brown spotting, curl and drop. The problem generally shows up in the same conditions that bring out powdery mildew or black spot on roses and is treated the same way. You can spray the plant with a copper-based fungicide or ignore the problem if the symptoms are mild. As these leaves drop, new leaves tend not to show the problem. Severe “rust” will also cause fruit drop, so watch this carefully. Follow the instructions on the fungicide package. We recommend “Bourdeaux” mixture, which is a reasonably organic sulfur type fungicide. Some organic growers prefer to use a baking soda solution.

Many fig trees, especially in the western states, seem to be infected with Fig Mosaic Virus, an incurable disease which is spread from one plant to another by insects or by pruning without cleaning pruners between plants. Mosaic causes blotches of chlorosis (roundish yellowing blotches) on leaves and can stunt the trees and reduce fruiting. Varieties respond to the virus differently – some kinds of figs don’t seem to show symptoms, others are really stunted by the virus. The only solution for this disease is to remove infected plants if you notice the symptoms present. Before you pitch your fig be sure that the yellowing you observe isn’t the result of lack of nutrients or environmental stress.

For prevention of rust and most plant diseases, clean up fallen leaves and fruit each fall. Never mulch fruit plants with their own dropped leaves, these often carry fungi or the eggs and pupa of insects that attack that species. Keeping your planting clean is much more sensible than spraying everything all the time!

Winter Protection for Figs

Young fig trees need protection in areas where the temperatures drop below 20 degrees F. Older established trees, with woody bark, may freeze back but the main tree will generally survive if the tree is healthy. Below 20 degrees, figs require wrapping, burying or other protection. Much depends on where you have planted the tree and well-protected you have planted it (i.e. between houses, near walls, etc. to minimize exposure).

Allow your fig tree to drop its leaves in the fall. If unripe figs are still on the stems, removing those figs will help prevent diseases – they will not ripen over the winter. Clean all dropped leaves and figs from around the tree to make sure that the area is free from insects and disease that might overwinter in the dropped debris.

Pile lots of hay, leaves, dirt and whatever around the base of the tree -the real trick is to make sure that the roots Do Not Freeze. Then wrap the tops up in some burlap or other material (carpet, canvas, old sails… be creative lol). If you have white plastic (ONLY white, not dark or clear both of which increase heat & humidity and cause damage), you can wrap a bit of that over it all to keep the wrapping dry but you don’t want to do that until the days are no longer warm because it can also perk your little figs in the heat. Some folks just pop a large tomato-cage type structure over smaller fig trees, fill it with packed hay and then cover. Anything to keep the cold wind off.

Before wrapping small figs and for larger fig trees in marginal areas, you can spray the exposed fig stems with a product named “Wilt Pruf” which is an antidessicant. It is the drying effect of wind and cold that kills the fig stems and this product seems to help prevent damage. Dormant oil sprays also seem to have this effect – and are effective at killing overwintering pests at the same time. (Dormant oil sprays are considered an organic pest preventive.)

The traditional method of protecting fig trees has been to “bury” the tree. To do this, you cut through the roots of the tree on one side. A trench is dug out from the tree on the opposite side and the tree is bent and pushed over into the trench. Dirt, hay and/or leaves are piled up over the tree (which may have to be tied down). In the spring the covering is removed, the tree is righted, the roots replanted and the trench filled.

Personally, we (Paradise Nursury) find that selecting the perfect microclimate and protecting the tree when young are much less work. If you are in a seriously too-cold-for-figs area but are determined to have figs – keep reading! (I have to say there is not a chance that I would even consider the “burying” method! Yikes!!)

Over-Wintering Northern Container Grown Figs

First, let your fig trees go fully dormant. This may mean leaving them out for a couple of frosts, so that the leaves all drop and the sap is already moving downward in the stems. This increases the plant’s cold hardiness and reduces the need for extra care. Be sure to remove any old leaves, unformed figs and anything else extraneous on the branches.

Check the plants, the pots and the soil for any pests: beetles, slugs, etc. and make sure to get rid of those – for your plant’s health and your housekeeping peace of mind. If you’ve had any problem with minor pests, once you’ve moved your plants out of sunlight you can spray your plants with a light coating of dormant oil spray which will smother any “invisible” insect eggs left on the branches and stems, or rub the stems down lightly with olive oil to do the same.

Move the plants to their winter location in an unheated or cool basement or shed. If the surrounding temperature will drop below 15 degrees, consider wrapping some paper or fabric around the plants and pots for additional insulation. Also if the area receives a lot of light, wrapping the figs in newspaper or dark fabric will reduce any early response to sunlight before it is time to bring the figs out in the spring. Check your chosen spot – folks have been surprised at unexpected heat sources from vents, ducting, etc that have caused figs to begin growing early. This also applies to figs that have been wrapped and cuddled up next to a building or shelter outside – watch that the chosen spot doesn’t get so warm that the fig thinks it’s spring in February!

The pots should stay almost completely dry. At this stage it is easier to rot the fig plant with over-watering than to kill it with dryness. A good way to check soil moisture is to shove a bamboo stick or part of a yardstick into the pot when you pu

t the fig tree away for the winter (the stick must be bare wood). Every month or so, pull out the stick and check for any moisture – the wood will look darker and feel slightly damper. As long as the stick shows ANY dampness, do not water the pot. Just let the fig sleep in complete dormancy until spring.

When warm weather arrives and you can move your fig to a sunny, protected location, bring the pot out for the new season. In a protected sunny spot close to the house, you can “jump” a few weeks on those who have their figs in ground. Water the soil very well, allowing excess to drain out the bottom holes. Fertilize with a balanced, timed-release fertilizer or one of the good organic fertilizers, add a few spoonfuls of lime to the pot surface and prepare to enjoy the warm fig-growing months.

If a sudden frost or freeze threatens, bundle up the fig (lightweight beach towels seem to be very popular for this with smaller fig trees, but give some additional support) and keep it safe until the weather warms up. (Paradise Nursery recommends paper or fabric wrap to plastics which can overheat when the sun comes out if you are not there to remove the cover at once.)

Voila! It takes about an hour to get a good-sized fig tree set down for the winter and about 1/2 a hour to get it back up for spring – for that little effort, you are now ready to start a new gardening season with a beautiful fig tree, larger and healthier than last year – more figs for everyone!

  • Austin

    thank you for the info!

  • The Muehli’s

    Glad to help!
    Unfortunately our little fig tree is no longer with us…but hopefully we can get ourselves another one at some point!

  • Anonymous

    We have an old fig tree that produces hundreds of figs, unfortunately, most of are small and in clusters of 4-6-7. How many should we leave of each cluster to insure that at least one of them will grow into a full size fig?

  • The Muehli’s

    Hi,

    As I mentioned we’re not experts on figs and since we killed ours already we may not be the best people to ask…but I think you would be able to get larger fruit through pruning. Fig trees fruit from two sets of blossoms: last years and new ones from this year. So you may be able to get multiple seasons (summer & fall) out of one tree if you live somewhere really warm.

    But regarding the large number of fruit, you can either prune the tree back when it is dormant which will eliminate some of “last years” buds OR you can just remove young fruit and/or blossoms which would then allow the tree to focus on the fruits you leave behind.

    Hope this brings you some new success with your bountiful tree and thanks for stopping by!

  • adriane

    thanks so much! i was looking everywhere for information about how to care for and train a fig tree. you had just what i needed. thanks again.

  • J

    We have a fig tree in a container that we have had for a few years now. However, it has yet to produce any figs. Is there something we should be doing?

  • http://bowmanlot31.blogspot.com/ Judi B

    My MIL just brought home a fig and I don’t know what to do. I live in VA and I’m trying to turn our modest .5 corner lot. If I try to grow this in a container how big of a container am I going to need?

  • Margie

    I have a large fig tree in a container because I live in zone 6. I’ve tried thinning the fruit and not found it to be help make the fruits left behind any bigger. My tree is unforgiving when it comes to being allowed to dry out, so I concentrate on light fertilization early and making sure the pot does not dry out on my sunny deck. The extra fruit drops off on its own.

    Also, it likes to have its roots pruned in early in the spring. It’s in a pot that is as large as I can handle when I store it in the basement for the winter, so I have to control the tree by pruning it both above the ground and the roots. I take advantage of the root pruning to cut off at least one shoot with roots to pot up and give away. When I skip the spring root pruning, the fruit production suffers. Again, light fertilizatoin (too much fertilizer and you get all leaves). Don’t give up on having a fig tree, I’ve had mine for 9 years and it’s a conversation starter – my friends are always surprised to find out I grow my own figs.

  • L

    Hi,
    I was given a “brown turkey fig” in August 2009. I repotted it and it seemed to thrive. I live in zone 3 (central Vermont). I put the tree in our basement over the winter and placed it in a warm sunny room in early March 2010. It grew like crazy and produced a bounty of delicious figs from July through mid-September. I need to prune it because I will never get it back into the basement if I don’t. We’ll see what happens next year when we resurrect our fig.

  • C

    A wealth of info thank you. My little fig tree outside has only given me a couple ripr fruits so far in the 3 years it’s been in my south facing zone 8 garden. The winters are the most stressful time for me with it and I thought I lost it completely last year. Armed with this advice I will be more confident.

  • A

    Not all figs are self pollinating , a fig that drops its figs before they mature is probably one of those that need a male an female plant to produce mature fruit.