How to Grow Figs in Cool Climates


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First, a little history: Common figs (Ficus carica) are native to the Middle East. A recent archaeological dig near the modern city of Jericho uncovered the remains of dried figs which are estimated to be 11,500 years old! What is truly amazing is that these ancient figs were the self-fruitful type, suggesting that the trees had been intentionally cultivated by humans. Grains were not domesticated for another thousand years!

In the Bible prosperity is defined as "everyone under his own vine and fig tree" (1 Kings 4:25). Figs have been grown in America since the arrival of the first Europeans. 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. In New York city, in certain neighborhoods of the Bronx and Brooklyn, seemingly every third house has a fig tree planted in the yard.

Most figs grown in their native area require a fig wasp for pollination. Figs grown in temperate climates where this wasp cannot survive are parthenocarpic and will develop delicious fruit without pollination.

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 can be successfully grown in wide range of soil types, provided that it is well drained. Siting a fig in a full sun location will help insure that the fruit ripens in the late summer. The advantage to planting a fig directly in the ground is that the large root system will seek out water and can be considered drought resistant once established.

Figs in containers: To control size or for easier winterization, figs can be grown in containers. For the first year or two, a 5 gallon container will do. However, for permanent container growing at least a 10 gal. or even 25 gal. container is necessary. Make sure that the container has plenty of drainage holes. Container grown figs will need more fertilization and constant monitoring in the summer to ensure that the soil does not become too dry and cause the immature figs to drop.  

Cultivation and Pruning: Figs are best transplanted when dormant, either in the early spring or fall. 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. 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 or Espoma Tree-tone 6-3-2. Container grown figs require at least bi-weekly 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.

Figs are very vigorous growers and after a few years in the ground 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. Cutting more than 12’’ from the tip of a branch will decrease the number of figs that it will bear the following season, however the vigor of a healthy fig will overcome any human pruning error in one growing season. Pruning can be done in either the late fall or early spring. As the tree grows larger, remove any crossed or weak branches.

Figs are ready to be harvested when they are soft to the touch and the fruit droops slightly. Another sign of ripeness on some varieties is a drop of nectar exuded from the 'eye' at the base of the fruit.

Winter Protection of Figs: Figs are not (yet) hardy to New England, except for along the warmest areas of the coast. In zone 6 and below it is necessary to protect your tree against the coldest days of winter. Unprotected, bud damage will occur once the temperature drops below 20 degrees.

There are several methods for winter fig protection. Container grown figs can be stored in an unheated garage provided that the pot is kept raised off the cold cement floor.  Stored figs should be watered once a month beginning in January and taken outside finally for the season when danger of a hard frost has passed.

For figs planted in the ground the classic method is to bend the branches down to the ground in the fall after the leaves have fallen off. The branches are then covered with a 6'' layer of soil and a thick 2' layer of mulch.

Another option when the tree is still young is to the keep the main structure of the tree pruned so that it will fit beneath a plastic garbage barrel. Wrap the tree with burlap, old comforters, and bubble warp. Winterizing with the garbage barrel method has been successful but there is a danger of mold damaging some of the buds. To prevent this, leave an air hole which can be closed up during snowy or very cold days but opened on clear dry days to allow for some air circulation.

Winterized fig trees are susceptible to rodent damage. To prevent mice from girdling your fig tree, wrap the trunk with 1/4’’ wire mesh. Figs should be unwrapped when the danger of a hard frost has passed. They are extremely resilient plants, so even if all above ground growth is winter killed, a well established plant will send up new growth from the roots in the spring forming a fig bush.

Happy planting and growing! Should you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us at info@crickethillgarden.com

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