Figs have been grown since ancient times and are actually one of the oldest cultivated crops. They are one of the quickest bearing fruit trees, often producing fruit the very first year after planting. They are also very easy to grow and relatively disease and pest free. I’m guessing that these attributes plus the bonus of delicious, sweet fruit are the main attractions for growing them. Apparently if your only exposure to figs has been Fig Newtons or dried figs, you have been missing out on a real treat by never trying fresh figs.
Most of the fig questions we get are from people who are growing them in colder areas and are wondering either how to protect them over the winter or how to deal with winter dieback in the spring.
The common fig (Ficus carica) is a semi-tropical plant that is winter hardy without protection only as far north as Zone 8. Many varieties can be grown in colder areas if they are provided with winter protection or if they are grown in pots and brought inside during the winter. ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Hardy Chicago’, and ‘Celeste’ are a few of the most cold hardy cultivars and these normally do well in Zone 6 and 7 if they are planted in a sheltered location and provided with some type of winter protection once the leaves drop in the fall.
Fig trees grow and produce best when they are provided with lots of sun and moist but well-drained soil. Feed them with a good organic fertilizer like Espoma Holly-tone in the spring and fall. Although they are fairly drought tolerant, they should be watered during dry periods in the summer. They really aren’t too fussy. The main thing is to plant them in a protected spot in colder regions.
In general, a southern or western exposure is best. A really good sheltered location would be along a south facing wall because this not only provides a windbreak but it can absorb heat during the day (especially a brick wall) and radiate it back at night protecting the plants from temperature extremes.
Here’s something else to think about when contemplating a good planting spot for figs and other plants that are prone to winter damage:
When they are planted outside in Zones 6 and 7, they need to be protected in some way during the winter. One of the best ways to do this is to surround the tree with black roofing paper and carefully pack straw or oak leaves inside around the branches and stems. Use stakes to hold the cylinder of roofing paper in place. The black roofing paper will not only provide a wind screen, but it also absorbs heat from the sun and keeps the fig warmer in the winter. You can also create an enclosure with wire fencing surrounded with burlap but this won’t absorb heat the way the roofing paper does. It may be necessary to tip back some of the branches to make the tree easier to cover and if the fig is very wide, you can carefully draw the branches together with twine before making your enclosure.
The other option for growing figs in areas where they are not winter hardy is to grow them outside in a pot during the summer and move them inside for the winter. In this case, you might want to choose one of the dwarf varieties like ‘Petite Negri’, although ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Celeste’ also do well in containers and they normally stay under 10′ tall. Plus, they can always be pruned to keep them at a manageable height.
Ideally, figs should be pruned in the late winter when they are dormant. Thinning out the center of the tree to allow more light penetration is important. Remove dead, damaged and diseased branches, crossing branches, weak branches, and those that are growing straight up (water sprouts) on the main branches first then, if necessary, cut back the remaining branches to a height that will allow easy harvest of the fruit.
In colder areas, dieback in the winter is very common and once they break into growth, you may find that more pruning is needed to remove this dead wood. Damaged branches should be pruned back to healthy tissue. You can identify healthy tissue because it will bleed some white sap and the tissue under the bark will be green. Cut the branch just above an outward facing bud.
Figs generally produce fruit on both old wood (an early summer crop) and new wood (a late summer crop). It is important to avoid any major summer pruning as this will limit your late summer fig crop. In colder climates, the early crop may be lost if buds freeze over the winter.