(For details on growing many other vegetables and fruits, visit our Crop at a Glance collection page.)
Native to western Asia, figs (Ficus carica) are among the easiest fruits to grow organically in warm climates. Adapted in Zones 8 to 10, figs also do well in Zone 7 when grown in a protected site. In other areas, semi-dwarf varieties can be grown in containers that are kept outdoors in summer and moved into a greenhouse or other protected area in winter.
Figs can grow into small single-trunk trees where winters are very mild, but in temperate climates they tend to grow as broad bushes.
Types of Figs
Eastern figs that are frequently recommended for the Southeast are self-pollinating, and have no open hole at the end of the fruit through which insects can enter. ‘Alma’ bears green fruits that are excellent for drying. The ‘Celeste’ fig has good winter hardiness. Although not as cold-tolerant as some types of figs, varieties with LSU in their name are among the most disease-resistant cultivars in this group.
Western figs benefit from pollination by a specialist wasp, and therefore have an open eye at the end of each fruit. Varieties like ‘Black Mission’ fig and ‘Desert King’ can produce huge yields in hospitable climates. To prevent pest problems, several western states have shipping restrictions on figs.
Semi-dwarf figs are self-fertile cultivars that bear good crops when grown in roomy planters that are kept outdoors in summer, and protected from freezing in winter. They also can be trained as espalier. ‘Black Jack’ and ‘Petite Negri’ bear late crops of purple-skinned figs, while ‘Chicago Hardy’ fig ripens to rosy red.
How to Plant Figs
Set out figs in spring, after risk of a hard freeze has passed. Figs grow best in fertile, well-drained soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. Enrich the site with plenty of organic matter so that the top 12 inches of soil will retain moisture well. Allow at least 6 feet between plants, or 15 feet between them in climates where figs grow into trees.
In most climates, figs are most productive when trained to grow as multi-stemmed bushes. Top back the plant by half its size after transplanting to encourage the development of new stems. Mulch figs to suppress weeds and keep the soil moist.
For recommended planting dates for your local climate — and to design your garden beds — try our Vegetable Garden Planner.
Allow new figs to grow freely their first year. In early winter, select three to five strong, widely spaced branches, and prune out all others close to the ground. As long as the selected branches are not damaged by winter cold, they will bear a light crop in early summer, and a heavier one a few weeks later.
Each spring, feed established plants with a balanced organic fertilizer or a topdressing of composted manure before renewing the mulch.
Pruning fig plants is best done in spring, after surviving buds have begun to grow. Pruning figs back to live wood is often necessary in Zone 7, where plants are occasionally frozen back to the roots. In other areas, prune to thin plants back to about five strong branches, and to remove old and damaged wood.
Harvesting and Storing Figs
Figs change colors and soften as they become ripe. Taste-test sample fruits often, because ripe figs do not hold well on the plants in hot weather.
Wear gloves and long sleeves when picking figs, because the plants’ sap can irritate your skin. Refrigerate your harvest immediately. For long-term storage, figs can be dried, frozen, or canned in syrup using a water bath or steam canner.
Figs are very easy to grow from rooted stem tip cuttings taken in late spring, and sunk into warm, moist soil. When new plants are desired, simply stick 10-inch-long cuttings in a nursery bed, and keep them moist for a few weeks. They should be well-rooted and ready to transplant by fall, or you can wait until the following spring.
For growing advice for many more garden crops, check out our complete Crops at a Glance Guide.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.