Figs, with their exotic appearance and sweet, rich flavor, seem as if they should be much more difficult to grow than they actually are. However, common fig trees (Ficus carica) grow well in all but the very coldest areas, and, even then, they can be grown in containers and sheltered over the winter.
If you're interested in growing fruit organically, figs are a great place to start because these trees need very little in the way of fertilization and are not bothered by many pests and diseases.
Even if you don't end up harvesting the fruit, these fast-growing deciduous shrubs or trees are popular in terms of their ornamental value. They have a spreading habit and attractive lobed leaves. The flowers are insignificant, but they form into fleshy fruit that start off green and turn purple when ripe. They can be planted during their dormancy period of early spring or late fall.
|Botanical Name||Ficus carica|
|Common Name||Common fig tree|
|Plant Type||Deciduous tree, shrub|
|Size||10-35 ft. tall|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Neutral to acidic (5.0 to 7.0)|
|Hardiness Zone||5-10, USDA|
|Native Area||Mediterranean and West Asia|
|Toxicity||Sap is a skin irritant to people and pet|
How to Plant Common Fig Trees
Figs are really mostly carefree. For the most part, you'll want to concern yourself with making sure that your fig gets enough water and keeping an eye out for any pests or diseases. In most areas, figs can be planted directly into the ground and grown as trees. They can also be grown in containers successfully.
Positioning in a sheltered area is best in order to protect them from harsh weather. The south or southwest side of your house is an ideal spot.
It is generally recommended that you plant figs an inch or two lower than they were growing in their original nursery pot. This helps protect the shallow root system from temperature extremes and drought, and will not harm the plant.
Common Fig Tree Care
Figs need a full eight hours of sun to produce well. They can also grow in part shade but their fruit production may not be as prolific.
Good drainage is key for healthy growth. Although figs can grow in a wide variety of soils, they have a preference for loamy types. Heavy, wet soil can result in an overly leggy plant that will not produce as much fruit.
During the growing season, give your fig tree regular waterings which can be reduced towards the end of fall. Generally, this will be at least an inch per week for those planted in the ground, and as needed for those planted in containers.
Temperature and Humidity
Known for coping in a wide range of temperatures, there are many different fig tree cultivars and this can impact how cold-hardy they are. If you live in a cooler region and would prefer not to overwinter the tree indoors, it is worth doing your research to select one of the most cold-hardy varieties.
Whether you are planting in the ground or in a pot, you should not add any additional fertilizer to the soil at planting time. This will just result in lots of weak, bushy growth.
Each spring, topdress the soil around your fig with an inch or two of compost. This is all the fertilization your fig will need. Additional fertilizer will result in lots of leaves and no fruit production. However, if you notice that the plant doesn't seem to be producing many leaves, feed it with manure tea or fish emulsion in early summer.
Are Figs Toxic?
The fruit is edible and the tree itself is not toxic. However, the sap is known for being a skin irritant and some people and pets can have a more extreme reaction than others. It is worth keeping pets that are likely to chew on the branches away from the tree and you should wear gloves when pruning or harvesting.
Symptoms of Poisoning
The extreme reaction is called Phytophotodermatitis. This can result in pain that some describe as burning, itchy skin, redness, and swelling. The reaction usually occurs around 24 hours after contact.
Common Fig Tree Varieties
There are many Ficus carica cultivars, but if you are looking for a cold-hardy type then 'Brown Turkey', widely grown 'Celeste', or 'Chicago Hardy' are all readily available and known for tolerating cold snaps well.
Figs are ready to harvest when the "neck" area (the narrow area where the fruit connects to the plant) starts to shrivel a bit and the fruits droop on the plants. If, when you pick them, you notice a milky liquid coming from the stem, they are not quite ripe yet. Wait a couple more days to harvest any others. This liquid can irritate the skin, so you may want to wear gloves when harvesting.
If you are growing your fig in the ground, you can train it against a wall or fence to make it easier to harvest and to protect the branches from the elements. You don't really need to prune figs planted in the ground, other than to remove dead branches.
If you are growing your fig in a container, don't prune during the first year. Starting in the second year, you can cut each branch down by about half to keep the plant manageable. Just make sure that you are making your cuts above a node to encourage lateral growth and fruit production.
How to Grow Fig Trees in Pots
If you are planting in containers, use a pot that is at least 18 inches across and at least 1 foot deep. Fill it with a good quality organic potting soil, and, if at all possible, leave three to four inches of space between the top of the soil and the rim of the pot. This will allow for plenty of space to topdress your fig with compost every spring. Any pot you use should have good drainage; make sure there are plenty of drainage holes so your fig doesn't become waterlogged and rot.
In USDA zones 6 and above, you can generally plant right in the ground and get a good crop of figs. In zones 5 and below, growing in a container (which you can shelter in a covered porch or garage during the winter) is probably your best bet. However, there are cold-hardy figs available on the market.
Figs really aren't bothered by many pests and diseases. Root-knot nematodes can be a problem in some areas. These soilborne pests are not usually detected until plant vigor has been affected. The nematodes attack the roots, causing galls that prevent adequate water and nutrient uptake. The best way to prevent it is to be sure to plant in nematode-free soil—a soil test is the best way to ensure this.
The other major problem you'll deal with is birds and other animals going after the nearly-ripe fruit. You can protect your fruit with netting or cages covered with floating row covers until the fruits are ready to harvest.