How to Grow and Fruit Figs in your Garden or Container
By Laurelynn Martin and Byron Martin
| Fig ‘Texas Everbearing’
| Fig ‘Chicago Hardy’
| Fig ‘Petite Negra’
| Fig ‘Ischia’
|Byron Martin- Owner Logee's|
Figs (Ficus carica) are some of the best fruiting plants for both the garden and containers. They are almost fool proof in their culture and yield a surprising amount of fresh fruit in one season.
Figs can be grown in most areas of the country as a landscape shrub or tree in the south up to zone 8 or higher and with protection as far north as zone 5 or even zone 4 depending on the planting site. Under most growing conditions, they are deciduous, shedding their leaves to bare stems in late fall and winter. This gives the gardener an advantage as the dormant plants can be easily protected for wintering over in colder zones.
The Potted Fig
Figs can also be grown as container plants year-round. The pot size will restrict growth, which helps contain the size. Some varieties, such as 'Petite Negra,' grow well and produce an abundance of fruit in a pot as small as 6". They can be moved outside in the summertime and back inside during the winter months. Do not be alarmed when your fig drops its leaves while inside. It is simply going into its winter dormancy. Reduce the amount of water given to the plant during dormancy but never allow the soil to dry out completely.
Ripening The Crop of Figs
One of the greatest challenges in growing figs in the north is being able to ripen the crop. Planting on the south side of a building is ideal for this purpose. In many areas of the north, we don't have the high temperature days needed to properly ripen our figs, so the gardener must utilize microclimates for this purpose. Once the weather has warmed, figs put out new growth and it is on that new growth that the young fruit will develop at the leaf nodes along the soft green stems. The fruit first appears as small buds but as the season progresses they form into green fruit that with enough heat will ripen into delicious figs. Fruit formation will happen either on growth from the terminal bud or auxiliary buds so previous pruning does not disrupt this process.
The Breba Crop
Another way that figs produce fruit is through a breba crop, which happens as the plant begins to grow in the spring. On the previous season's growth, figs will form at the leafless nodes. This is usually the first crop and, for northern growers, it is one that will ripen reliably.
Figs originally came from areas with a Mediterranean climate that were somewhat arid and had poor soils. This gives fig plants the ability to handle drought and have lower fertilizer requirements and still be productive. However, for the best growth and fruit production, uniform watering is best. In containers, the soil should dry out somewhat between waterings although don't allow plants to wilt severely.
Plants can be pruned any time they are in a dormant state and it is usually a matter of heading back excessive top growth or thinning out old woody growth. Left un-pruned, your figs will become small trees, which is okay if you have the room. As is the case with most plants, those planted in the ground will grow faster and fruit more than those in containers since the container restricts the root system and keeps the plant smaller.
Feeding Fig Plants
When feeding plants in pots or in the ground, a moderate level of fertilizer is best. We recommend a balanced fertilizer, either a liquid, a slow release or organic fertilizer can be used. As a general rule, an elevated middle number encourages flowering and fruiting (i.e. 7-9-5). A word of caution: do not over feed your fig plant. This will result in excessive leafy growth and fewer fruits as well as stimulating undesirable late season growth that's prone to winter damage. The easiest way to fertilize your fig tree is to top dress with an organic granular fertilizer once in the spring and then once more in early summer. Once the figs have formed, do not fertilize any more; simply allow the fruits to ripen. Figs are tolerant to a wide range of garden soils. Most garden soil will grow a fig easily. In containers, we grow them in a peat light mix that has a ph of 5.8 to 6.5 and is well drained.
In general, figs are relatively disease and insect free. They can have problems with spider mites under dry atmospheric conditions and mealy bugs will feed on the plants but if other plants are around, the mealy bugs will go there first. Fig plants can get a rust disease on the leaves. This is usually under high humidity and although unsightly doesn't seem to kill the plant, although it will reduce the vigor. Root diseases are generally a minor problem but on occasion they will affect plants especially in containers. And in some southern growing areas, nematodes can weaken plants.
Wintering Over the Garden Fig
The outdoor garden fig is tolerant to sub freezing temperatures into the low 20's or even teens for short periods. In areas that have cold winters where temperatures dip into the single numbers or below zero and the winters are long, we have found that wrapping your fig is a great alternative to digging up the plant and moving it.
Winter Wrapping Technique
Prune or head back your fig to 4-5' in height. We generally choose this height for ease of management of the branches. Gather all the branches together to form a column of stems. Wrap the stems with a rope. A great deal of binding and pulling can be done without harming the branches as they are amazingly flexible. This tied up column of branches is then wrapped in paper-backed fiberglass insulation. Originally, gardeners would use old rags but fiberglass insulation gives better results for the effort. Once the column is completely covered, wrap the fiberglass in plastic sheeting. Make sure the sides and top are secure and covered in a way that sheds water. The outer plastic sheeting is held in place with a rope and a pot or can is placed on top like a hat to help deflect water. We usually mulch the base with straw or old hay for extra insulation. Some rodent control needs to be placed near the trunk as mice can girdle the tree's bark near the soil. Once the danger of frost passes, the wrapped fig plant can be uncovered to awaken it for the spring season. Often there is new growth that's already initiated while the plant was covered. This new growth is white or pale in color but the sun will green it up and the new growing and fruiting season has started all over again. When growing figs outside of their cold tolerant range, it's best to plant them in a protected sunny spot where the late and early freezes will miss them and the summer heat will get intense.
Wintering over the Potted Fig
As a potted plant in the north, figs can be left outside until the first freeze has dropped the leaves. The plant is then moved into a garage or shed or even into a greenhouse, cold frame or an area in a home where temperatures are kept above the mid 20's but don't get excessively warm. In an attached garage, the pot and plant should be set next to the house side where it can get some additional protection. It's important to keep the root ball from freezing and thawing. In northern areas, insulation material can be placed around the pot. In the spring, once the days have warmed up and the danger of frost is past, the potted fig plant can be brought outside. Keep the plant out of direct sun and strong winds for a few days while it is hardening off.