If all you've ever known of figs are Newtons, then your first bite of a fresh fig will be a revelation. Figs are a deliciously sweet eat-right-off-the-branch fruit with warm, jammy flavors. They grow on a small yet quite drought-tolerant tree. In stores, you'll find dried figs year-round, with just a small window of time when there are fresh ripe figs ready to bite into. The good news? With our fig tree care guide, you can plant a fig tree and gather a flavorful, bountiful harvest year after year.
How to Plant a Fig Tree
The fig trees you find at retail plant nurseries are self-fertile, meaning you'll only need to plant one fig tree - they don't need another for cross-pollination. Although, don't let that stop you from adding more to your yard to bolster your fig harvest. For a fig tree to be successful, it needs mild winters, as most varieties won't survive temperatures below 10°F (-12°C). On the upside, you can keep your fig tree small, meaning you can grow yours in a container that you bring indoors during the winter - which is a perfect solution for colder climates.
There are a wide variety of figs to choose from, ranging in color from brown, to purple, to black, to green, to yellow. They can be the size of a small pear, though the varieties with smaller fruit usually have the most concentrated flavors.
Fig Tree Site Selection and Preparation
Figs are most likely to thrive in rocky soil, much like their native Mediterranean habitat. These tasty fruit trees are surprisingly resistant to deer. But pesky gophers and squirrels will attack the tree from underground.
- Because figs produce the best in dry, infertile locations, it isn't necessary to give them the best spot in the garden. What is important is that the planting site provides good drainage.
- Adequate heat is necessary to ripen the fruit to perfection. Likewise, a warm microclimate can help prevent losses from freezing in cold climates. Therefore, planting against a south-facing wall or in the middle of a concrete patio is a good idea.
- If you're planting your fig tree in a container, use a half-wine barrel planter or other pot that's at least 20 gallons in size. This will provide your fig tree with adequate space for the roots to grow.
To grow a fig tree, you first start with a cutting, and not a seed. If you're nervous, you can practice propagation with a snake plant.
Caring for Fig Trees
Once you have all their environmental needs met, figs are very easy to care for and will often thrive on neglect. Too much water or fertilizer can be detrimental and result in excessive vegetative growth and less fruit.
Figs are very drought tolerant, not unlike snake plants, but they do need water to get established. Water thoroughly and deeply once a week in the first summer, every two weeks in the second year, and finally, just once per month in the third. After three seasons, you'll find yourself with an established fig tree. Your newly established fig tree will no longer need supplemental irrigation, except in the most arid and dry climates.
For those who are growing figs in containers, water them once a week on an ongoing basis.
Your fig tree requires zero pruning to encourage fruit growth. Think of pruning as more of an ornamental and shaping choice, especially if you want to keep yours to a particular size. For the purposes of keeping a fig from growing too large and to control the size, it's best to cut it back in late summer or fall after the fruit is gone, but before it goes into dormancy. To shape the tree, it is easiest for you and best for the tree if you prune during the winter dormant period.
Cold Climate Care
In cold climates, a deep straw mulch over the roots can prevent them from freezing, even if the branches die off. If you're growing your fig trees in containers, bring them indoors (if you're cold, they're cold) after all the leaves have dropped, but before the temperature goes below 20 degrees.
Successful Fig Tree Harvest
Figs often thrive and produce the best crops in locations where they are root bound, or constricted. This tendency allows them to grow quite successfully in containers. Consider planting yours around natural rock outcrops, between a garden wall and patio, or any other tight spot where they can take advantage of their ability to thrive in places where most fruit trees would fail.
Many, but not all, fig varieties produce two crops per year. The first, called the breba crop, is borne on the previous year's wood. It ripens in early summer and is usually a lighter crop of slightly smaller and lower-quality fruit. The main crop appears on the current year's growth and ripens in late summer.
Varieties of Figs
There are three important criteria for fig varieties: taste, climatic adaptability, and tree size.
- Some of the most cold-hardy fig varieties are Celeste, Sal, Brown Turkey, Hardy Chicago, Marseilles, Dark Portuguese, LSU Gold, and Brooklyn White.
- Black Jack and Negronne are two natural dwarf varieties.
- Black Mission figs are perhaps the most well-known variety for their flavor, though they do not perform well outside of California.
- In the southeast, Brown Turkey is usually the easiest to grow, though not the most flavorful.
- Celeste is also easy to grow in the South and is often more flavorful.
Most commercial production is of Smyrna-type figs that require pollination. The small wasps that pollinate these figs must be carefully introduced and controlled for effective pollination to occur, so they are generally not grown by home gardeners.
Obtaining a Fig Tree
Many retail garden centers offer fig trees in areas with mild winters, where they can grow outdoors year-round. You'll have the most luck locating a fig tree in the spring when they are most commonly available. If you can't find a local source, there is always the option of ordering one online and having it shipped.
Add Fig Trees to Edible Landscapes
Their tasty fruit aside, figs are a beautiful addition to the home landscape. With their unique foliage and light-colored bark, they make an excellent specimen for an edible landscape. A low-maintenance tree that thrives in small spaces and gives you fruit? That's fig-tastic!