How to Grow Figs in Cool Climates
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First, a little history: Common figs are native to the Middle East and are one of the oldest cultivated plants. A 2006 archaeological dig near the West Bank city of Jericho uncovered the remains of dried figs which are estimated to be 11,400 years old! What is truly amazing is that these ancient figs were the self-fruitful partencopic type widely grown today, suggesting that the trees which bore these fruit had been intentionally cultivated by humans. Grains were not domesticated for another thousand years!
In the Bible, prosperity is defined as "every man under his vine and under his fig tree" (1 Kings 4:25). Figs have been grown in America since the arrival of the first European colonists. Spanish missionaries in northern Mexico and California introduced the variety which we know today as the 'Mission Fig.' Thomas Jefferson cultivated several varieties of figs at Monticello. With the influx of immigrants to the US from southern Europe in the late 19th century, figs became widely planted in many cities along the East Coast of the United States. In New York City, in certain neighborhoods of the Bronx and Brooklyn, seemingly every third house has a fig tree planted in the yard.
As wild plants, fig trees are dioecious, meaning that individual plants are either male or female. The flower is inside of the immature fruit and is pollinated by a specialized fig wasp in the wild. Figs grown in temperate climates where this wasp cannot survive are parthenocarpic. These are female trees with a natural mutation that enables them to produce fruit without pollination. Generally, all fig cultivars for sale from nurseries are these self-fruitful types.
Planting: In ground and container grown figs prefer a soil with a pH in the range of 6.0-6.5. If your native soil is acidic, amend the planting area with 1 cup of limestone dust prior to planting. Further addition of lime should be done in reference to a soil test. Figs grow best in fertile, humus rich soil with good to moderate drainage. Siting a fig in a full sun location will help ensure that the fruit ripens in the late summer. Figs are only recommended to be planted in ground in USDA zone 7 and above. Even in zone 7, it would be advisable to grow a young plant in a container for a few years and protect it for the winter to allow it to achieve a larger size before planting it outdoors.
Figs in containers: To control size and for easier winterization, figs can be grown in containers. For the first year or two, a 5 gallon container will do. A good rule of thumb is to transplant up into a larger container once there are a significant amount of roots emerging from the drainage holes of the plant’s current container. For permanent container growing, a 15 gallon or 25 gallon container (half whiskey barrel) is necessary. Make sure that the container has plenty of drainage holes. Container grown figs will need more fertilization and near daily watering in the summer. Figs are thirsty plants and a day or two of drought stress will cause the fig to drop its young fruit.
For potting mix, one has an array of options. Using a mix designed for potted perennial plants which contains peat moss, bark chips and perlite is a fine choice as it is lightweight and will drain very well. A mix like this will require more fertilizer and more frequent watering. Another option is to use ⅓ perennial potting mix described above, ⅓ topsoil and ⅓ compost. A mix like this will make for a heavier container but will contain more nutrients and may not dry out as quickly.
Cultivation and Pruning:
Figs are best transplanted when still dormant in early spring. Young plants can be transplanted while leafed out during the growing season provided the roots are not allowed to dry out at all and the plant is well watered for the first few days following the move. It's a good idea to let a newly transplanted, actively growing fig get settled by placing it in a shaded spot for a week before moving it back to a full sun location.
Figs benefit from an annual application of compost around the drip line of the plant. You can also use a well balanced, organic fertilizer in the early spring such as North Country Organics Pro-Gro 5-3-4. A plant in a 5 gallon container could use 1 lb of Pro-Gro, while a large fig in a 25 gallon half whiskey barrel planter would be well fed for a season with 5 lbs of Pro-Gro. Container grown figs require near daily watering in the summer. A mild soluble organic fertilizer such as Neptune's Harvest Fish Fertilizer can be used once a week when watering in the summer. This should not be the sole source of nutrients, but rather an excellent supplement which will make for a very happy fig.
Figs are very vigorous growers and after a few years in the ground or in a container, they benefit from a yearly pruning to encourage new fruit bearing shoots. Keeping trees smaller by trimming back excessive summer growth also allows for easier winterization. Vigorous vertical growth should be pruned out, either in late summer or early spring before new growth commences. These are the equivalent to water sprouts on apples and pears. These shoots should only be left if one desires it to become a new stem or branch on the plant. Cutting one of these vertical branches halfway will produce lateral shoots. Less vigorous lateral shoots will produce many figs the following year and should generally be left unpruned. Prune with confidence! The vigor of a healthy fig will overcome any human pruning error in one or two growing seasons. As the tree grows larger, remove any crossed or weak branches. A mature (10 yr old) container grown fig can produce well over 100 fruits per year.
Figs are ready to be harvested when they are soft to the touch and the fruit droops slightly from the branch. Another sign of ripeness on some varieties is the “eye'' at the base of the fruit opening. In zone 6 New England climate, ripening time for first crop ‘breba’ figs, produced from overwintered buds, is late July or August while main crop figs produced on the current year’s growth is September to October, depending on variety. In our experience, the so-called ‘white’ figs (with green to golden skin and golden or reddish interiors) will ripen first, followed by the Brown Turkey or Celeste types. The Black figs, which are the sweetest, are the last to ripen and may not fully ripen in New England even when grown in a container.
Winter Protection of Figs:
Figs are not (yet) hardy to New England, except for along the warmest areas of the coast. In USDA zone 6 and below it is necessary to protect your tree against the cold of winter. Unprotected, bud damage will occur once the temperature drops below 20° F. In areas where figs are only marginally hardy in-ground, they will behave like a herbaceous perennial, sending up vigorous growth every spring, but dying back to the ground again in winter. The roots are significantly more hardy than the top growth. Allowing figs to grow in this way does not often lead to harvesting ripe fruit. Although fruit is formed on the vigorous new growth every summer, it often does not have adequate time to ripen before the end of the season.
There are several methods for winter fig protection. Container grown figs can be stored in an insulated garage, barn, or sunroom. Light is not required for figs in dormancy and ideally the temperature will stay between 30° and 40° F. Occasional dips into the 20s° F will not damage the tree. Stored figs should be watered once every 4-6 weeks beginning in December to when they are again taken outside. In Connecticut, we keep our containerized fig trees indoors from mid-November to mid-April. If figs are stored in a warmer area such as a basement or heated outbuilding/garage, growth will often commence in late winter, earlier than desired. If new growth has advanced beyond 1-2’’ at the time of moving the tree outdoors, it's recommended to allow this new growth to acclimate by putting the tree in the shade on the north side of a building for a week.
Tender new growth is also vulnerable to late spring frosts. Experience has led us to try to keep our containerized figs dormant as long as possible by keeping them in a cool place for the winter. If new growth is nipped by a late spring frost, never fear, as long as the plant is healthy it will send out a fresh flush of growth and will still produce fruit.
There are a variety of methods for protecting in-ground figs. We do not have much experience with these, as we grow all of our figs in containers. How much winter protection is necessary for in-ground figs very much depends on where one is gardening. The basics are that the branches need to be covered with some sort of insulation against the cold; temperatures below 20° F damage the buds. The insulation material can be soil, mulch, chopped leaves, or some type of commercial building insulation. A consideration with inorganic forms of insulation is that they will prevent air circulation which leads to mold that can destroy the fig buds. Rodents are also likely to find a heavily mulched fig an appealing winter nest, with a very convenient (and tasty!) food source.
For those with space in a greenhouse or high tunnel, figs will grow very well in the ground under these structures. If unheated, the figs would still need some kind of additional protection. If supplemental heat is available, the temperature should not be allowed to drop below 20° F.
Happy planting and growing! Should you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us at email@example.com