Days to germination: Figs are started from seedlings
Days to harvest: Two years
Light requirements: Full sun
Water requirements: Adequate, even dry during the summer
Container: There are dwarf varieties for containers
Figs are a Mediterranean fruit, and can only be grown in very earm areas such as zones 7 through 11. A potted tree that can be sheltered during the winter may even survive as cold as zone 4b. Their large leaves make figs excellent shade trees and they are very attractive in any yard.
Many people are familiar with dried figs, but they are more delicious when eaten whole and fresh. Either way, they are extremely high in fiber as well as potassium and manganese.
Starting Your Tree
Figs are self-fertile, meaning they will produce a healthy crop of fruit even if you only have one tree. If you do plant several, keep them at least 10 feet apart. As for total space, the average fig tree will be around 15 to 20 feet tall and their canopy usually spreads out wider than that. They will severely shade anything around them, so plan your location accordingly.
Choose the sunniest spot you can for your fig tree and keep it well away from any underground fixtures like septic systems or pipes. Figs have very tough roots that will damage anything underground near the tree.
Do your planting in early spring, and cut the tops of the seedling back after planting to minimize stress on the roots. If your seedling has a large root ball to start with, this may not be necessary. When you dig the hole, set the seedling about 2 inches deeper in the soil than it was originally. Mix a little compost in with the soil, and water well.
Figs are different from most other fruits, in that they do better in dry weather when they are producing fruit. If your trees are watered too much during the summer, you will have weak-tasting fruit at harvest time. You can always cut back on your own watering but the rain is out of your control. Regions that get heavy rains in the summer are not great for growing figs.
That doesn’t mean you should let your trees get parched either. A long dry spell should still prompt you to water your trees once every 2 weeks. If the leaves start to yellow, it needs water.
Pruning is not a real issue when growing figs. Look for dead branches, and occasionally trim the central branches down to keep the tree short.
Feeding with fertilizer each year is very helpful, and a low-nitrogen mix is best so that your tree doesn’t get overly leafy (and low on fruit). Each spring, you can give your trees a generous sprinkling of lime to help in fruit production.
There are varieties of dwarf fig that make great container plants, and allow you to grow figs in areas that would otherwise be too cold for this tropical fruit. A potted fig tree can be moved to a sheltered location during the winter, even indoors. If you do bring your plants right indoors, it will still need lots of light during the day to thrive until next spring.
You can look for figs like Violette de Bordeaux or Lattarulla. Even with a dwarf, you will need a pot that is about 3 feet across and 2 feet or more deep. Give your tree a feeding each year with a low-nitrogen fertilizer. A little pruning can keep it small but it’s not that necessary.
Pests and Diseases
Nematodes (microscopic roundworms) are one of the biggest threats to fig trees, and they are unfortunately hard to get rid of once they become a problem. They live underground, and attack the roots causing large swellings or knots. If you have nematodes, your tree will start to wilt and drop leaves for no visible reason.
Your first step is prevention when you buy your fig seedling. Take the plant out of its pot and take a good look at the roots. Wash off a little soil if necessary. If you see any knots in the roots, do not buy the plant.
Even with a clean seedling, they can still migrate to your trees through the soil. If you suspect nematodes, you can either have your soil tested or gently dig up some of the roots and check for lesions yourself. There are products you can treat the soil with (nematicides) and you can also add a very heavy load of organic mulch around your tree. Nematodes prefer poor quality soil and the added nutrients can actually kill them.
Larger pests can also attack your new fruit. You can protect your trees from birds with a large covering of net or mesh over your tree. Make sure it’s not too fine or it will shade the tree.
Harvest and Storage
You can tell your figs are ripe when they start to soften on the tree and their color has completely changed (not all varieties have the same color at maturity). They should come of the stem with just a slight tug. If there is any sap still in the stem, your fruit is probably not quite ready yet.
And speaking of sap, you should wear gloves when working with your fig trees because the sap will irritate your skin.
Your tree will start to produce figs at about 2 years of age, and they usually are ready in late summer. Depending on your immediate climate, you may even get two crops of figs from your tree. If the winter weather is warm enough, the new growth at the end of summer may result in a small crop of figs in the spring as well as the main crop towards the end of the growing season. Early figs are sometimes called brebas, and they will be smaller than the regular harvest later on.
Figs will not ripen any further once you’ve picked them, so you need to do your harvesting at just the right time. You can store your fresh figs in the fridge for about a week. Figs are good candidates for drying, and they can be dried by a few days out in the sun or several hours in a dehydrator. They will last for several months if thoroughly dried. A dry fig is still pliable, not hard to the touch.