By Andrew Weidman | Oct 10, 2017
While the forbidden fruit Eve fed Adam wasn’t an apple, the experience did open their eyes to “fig leaf fashion.” According to Scripture, God took notice of their new outfits right away, and we’ve been fig-leafing delicate conversations ever since.
The common fig (Ficus carica) shares a genus with nearly a thousand other figs, including Banyan trees, Sycamore figs, Strangler vines, and even the potted Ficus trees so often neglected in office foyers. Only the common fig grows reliably in temperate regions, thriving well outside its comfort zone (with a little winter help).
The genus Ficus belongs in the family Moraceae, along with 37 other genera. Other family members include breadfruit, Osage oranges, and mulberries.
Figs are a botanical oddity, in that the figs aren’t fruit — not really. They’re hollow fleshy stems called synconiums, containing tiny flowers, and later, fruit flesh inside. Even stranger, wild figs and some cultivated varieties, called ‘Smyrna’ figs, need to be pollinated by tiny fig wasps with pollen from male “caprifigs.” Today, ‘Smyrna’ fig growers in the Middle East and California hang braids of inedible caprifig fruits in their orchards at pollinating time. Contrary to certain sensational online articles, ripe figs do not contain dead wasps.
Fortunately for the rest of us, there’s a third type of fig, the common fig, that doesn’t need caprifigs, wasps, or even pollination at all to set fruit. Even better, there are plenty of varieties to choose from. Some estimates name up to 600 varieties of common fig, although likely there are more than a few varieties with multiple names out there.
Confused yet? It gets worse. One of the most common varieties, the ‘Brown Turkey,’ isn’t even a variety at all, more like a description. There are actually several different ‘Brown Turkey’ figs out there, because the name really just means a brown fig that came from Turkey.
All that really matters, however, is figs are delicious, they can be hard to find in stores except as jam or a dessert, and you can grow your own figs at home. You’ll be joining a long tradition of fig growers when you do.
Figs of the future
Bands of New Stone Age hunter-gatherers snacked on small, seedy figs they plucked from wild trees as they roamed across Western Asia and between the rivers of the Fertile Crescent. Archaeologists have uncovered fig pips and wood in dig sites dating back nine millennia or more. By comparison, pyramid construction began only five millennia ago.
Figs were one of the first fruit to be tamed, along with dates, olives, and grapes, in Mesopotamia. By this point, Sumerian farmers had just worked out the finer points of coaxing domesticated wheat from wild grasses and needed a new challenge, sometime around 2000 B.C.
From there, it didn’t take figs long to spread across the lands surrounding the Mediterranean and Balkan Seas. Figs figure prominently in Hebrew, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu holy scriptures, as well as Greek and Roman mythology. Spartan warriors trained on a strict diet of figs along with other Mediterranean specialties, including olive oil and red wine. The Greeks awarded Olympic champions with crowns of fig leaves and feasts of fig fruits. According to myth, Rome originated beneath a fig tree.
Figs came to America in two waves. Spanish missionaries brought figs with them to Florida, Central and South America, and later, California in the 1500s. American settlers and plantation owners spread Spanish Florida figs across the Deep South, and north as far as Virginia and Maryland. There, winter conditions regularly froze the Mediterranean transplants, effectively stopping their northward expansion. Even so, the roots survived, throwing new shoots each spring, sometimes even producing a crop of figs. Many of these perennial thickets remain today, often marking the sites of former plantations.
The second wave brought figs north of the Mason-Dixon Line later, as Southern European and Middle Eastern immigrants brought mementos of the old country with them to America. These mementos were often dormant fig cuttings, little more than sticks, tucked carefully away in steamer trunks, clothing bags, and even hatbands. Once rooted, they found new homes in backyards and back alleys in New York and Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago.
What was different about these Northern figs? How could they flourish when Southern figs failed? Were they hardier, more adapted to the cold? The difference was in their care and in where they were planted. The first part of the secret lies in location. Most Northern figs were planted in cities and towns. Urban microclimates tend to stay as much as 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. Buildings also act as windbreaks, sheltering figs from drying winter winds. Figs can usually survive winters as far north as Philadelphia with no more protection than that.
The second half is in how the figs are grown. The further north you go, the more winter protection your figs will need. There are three ways to protect figs in the winter: wrapping, potting, and burying. Each method gives an extra level of protection, allowing figs to grow farther north — even as far as Canada. It all depends on how much effort you want to put into it.
Fixin’ to grow figs
First, let’s talk about what figs need to grow well, wherever you are. Figs prefer conditions that mimic their Middle Eastern origins: plenty of warmth, plenty of sunlight, and plenty of drainage. What they don’t need is much feeding; subtropical soils tend to be lean and nutrient poor. In northern regions, too much fertilizer will promote rapid, tender growth, which quickly freezes back to the ground.
Position your fig tree against a south-facing wall with plenty of sun exposure, and preferably a windbreak. That wall will serve as a heat sink, soaking up solar energy during the day, and radiating it back on to the fig tree overnight.
Figs can be grown as a tree form with a single trunk, or as a bush or thicket, with many shoots coming from ground level. A single, statuesque trunk may be appealing visually, but bush form delivers more fresh figs at an easy height for picking, it can endure winter temperatures better, and it’s easier to protect in the wintertime. Any pruning should be to open up the center, allowing light and air to reach all branches and ripening fruit, and to encourage new growth. In spring, just as new growth begins, prune branches back by up to half to encourage branching and remove dead wood. Cut just above a bud, branch, or node (collar in the bark). Long stubs of bare wood die back and create pest and disease risks.
So how do you handle your figs in the winter? Below USDA Zone 8, you really don’t need to do anything (which makes Yankee fig growers incredibly jealous). North of the Mason-Dixon Line, give or take, you need a plan for overwintering your figs. There are three options available to you: Keep your figs in pots, wrap in-ground figs, or bury in-ground figs.
Potted figs grow well in soil-less potting mix (pro-mix). Select the largest pot you can handle, at least a 10-gallon pot, for each fig plant. Figs make great accents and focal points for outdoor decor, so be sure to pick an attractive pot. There are some beautiful molded plastic pots available that are lightweight and durable. As an added bonus, you can easily increase drainage by drilling extra holes in the bottom with a drill and a wood-boring bit.
A potted fig adds a touch of Mediterranean class to your patio or deck, and the fig will love the extra heat provided by the location. Water it every day, especially in the summer heat. Too little water and your fig will drop its fruit. Too much water just before harvest and the fruit will be bland and may split open.
You can gauge how much water your potted fig needs with a simple “rocking” test. Allow the soil to dry out until the fig just starts to wilt. Rock the pot gently back and forth, gauging the weight of the pot. Water it well, until the soil is saturated but not waterlogged. Rock the pot again, getting a feel for the weight difference between dry and watered. Whenever the pot gets light, water deeply.
Potted figs resting on soil will often send roots through the drainage holes down into the surrounding earth in search of water. This will significantly ease watering pressures. In the fall when the time comes to move the pots to their winter resting place, simply sever the escaping roots where they exit the pot; this will not harm your fig at all. Don’t use the rocking test if you want the roots to escape the pot.
Once your potted figs have gone fully dormant, dropping their leaves, you can move them into their winter quarters. Any cool, dark area sheltered from the elements will serve: an attached garage, an unheated cellar, or an outbuilding that doesn’t freeze will do well. I store mine in the enclosed outside entrance to my cellarway. They won’t need sunlight once they’ve gone dormant, although they will need some water about once a month. Alternately, if you have a cool greenhouse, you can move your fig pots there for the winter. The greenhouse temperatures need to stay in the 40s to keep the figs dormant until spring.
If you want a bigger, more productive plant, or you simply don’t have a good winter storage place, you can plant your fig in the ground and either wrap it up for the winter or bury it. It all depends on how cold your winters get and how much effort you want to spend on cultivating your figs.
Wrapping a fig bush is a fairly simple and straightforward operation. The idea is to create a windbreak, as drying winter winds cause more damage than freezing temperatures. When your fig has dropped its leaves and gone completely dormant, usually at or just after Thanksgiving, bundle the branches together as tightly as possible. Use soft, strong twine or rope, such as sisal baling twine, to tie them into a secure upright bundle.
Drive tall wooden stakes into the ground around each fig plant. Staple or nail a dry, breathable fabric wrap to the stakes, enveloping the bundle. Burlap, old blankets, discarded carpet, even roofing tar paper can be used for this step. Wrap from the bottom to the top, so each layer overlaps or shingles over the one below it, to shed rain water. Taper the top wrap into a chimney effect, and cap it with a plastic bucket or large coffee can turned upside-down. For added protection, you can wrap the entire bundle with a plastic tarp.
Some people prefer packing their figs in fall leaves or other insulation. At one time, I stacked paper lawn-waste bags of leaves around my fig trees before wrapping them with tar paper. This does create an effective winter barrier, but it also provides ideal nesting material for field mice and other rodents — which enjoy a midwinter snack of fig bark. I no longer “crate” my figs in bags of leaves after losing a 5-year-old ‘LSU Golden’ fig to mouse damage.
Colder climes require more drastic measures, and many growers in New England and the Upper Midwest bury their fig trees each fall. Bundle dormant figs exactly as you would for wrapping. Dig a trench to one side of the fig, long and wide enough to lay it down in. On the opposite side of the fig, use a sharp shovel to sever the roots to a shovel blade depth, about a foot or so away from the base. Gently rock the bundle back and forth to work it free and lay it over into the trench. Cover it with discarded carpet or cardboard, pile leaves on top of the bundle, including the root ball, and mound soil over the entire mass.
Regardless of the method you use, “uncrate” your fig early in the season, as soon as the risk of killing frosts has reasonably passed. Be ready to cover your figs with old blankets in case of a surprise cold snap. You want to give your figs as much chance to ripen a crop as possible.
Many varieties will produce two crops a year, called a “breba crop” and a main crop. Breba figs are borne on year-old wood, and are often lost to winter damage. Main crop figs are borne on new wood, are often larger and better quality than breba fruits, but may not ripen in short seasons.
The key to getting ripe, fresh figs in your own backyard depends on choosing the right variety to grow. One way to do this is to simply take a drive, watching for the distinctive leaves of a fig bush or tree in neighboring backyards. When you spy a fig growing in your area, knock on the owner’s door and strike up a conversation. Most fig growers will be happy to tell you what variety they have (if they know it) and may even offer you cuttings or a rooted shoot to take home.
Otherwise, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your local nursery, or try the following varieties: ‘Chicago Hardy,’ also known as ‘Bensonhurst Purple’ or ‘Brooklyn Heights Purple,’ is an excellent general-purpose fig suitable for fresh eating, drying, preserves, or cooking. It grows easily in-ground or in a pot, and does well in Zones 5 through 10, needing little protection along its upper range. The dark purple fruits have a small, closed eye, resisting insect damage and water spoilage.
‘Celeste,’ or “sugar fig” in the South, grows in a tight, compact form. It does well in pots or in-ground, and requires minimal pruning. The fruits have violet skin and juicy rose flesh made crunchy with small, edible seeds. It resists splitting and souring.
‘Petit Negri’ translates to “little black fig,” although only the plant is small, doing well as a potted plant. The fruit are large, dark purple to black with red to purple flesh. ‘Petit Negri’ does not do well in-ground north of Zone 7.
‘Conadria’ is a so-called white fig, ripening to a yellow or greenish-yellow skin with juicy light-red flesh. The flavor is best when dead ripe. It can reportedly be ripened outside as far north as Wisconsin.
‘Ischia’ is also a white variety, with large fruits (up to 2 inches) with green or yellow skin and reddish flesh. White varieties often confuse birds at harvest time, meaning you get more figs for yourself. ‘Ischia’ is described as tasting like jam when ripe.
Whether you live in the Deep South, where growing figs is as easy as strolling out to the tree at the end of the yard, or north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where winter demands a certain amount of planning, figs bring a touch of the Mediterranean to your garden. It doesn’t matter if you buy a fig, trade cuttings with a friend, or receive a shoot from a neighbor; you can grow figs just about anywhere in the USA, worthy of showing off with or without a fig leaf.
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Zone 6, Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where he grows his figs in pots (for now), and plans to grow them in the ground (again) in the near future. He is vice president of the Backyard Fruit Growers, a grassroots group dedicated to growing as much good fruit as they can in their own backyards. Special thanks go out to fellow BYFG Bassem Samaan, for sharing his extensive fig-growing expertise.
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