Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
I grew up in growing zone 5. As an adult, I moved south to zone 6. I see plants growing here that won’t survive in the colder climate of zone 5. A good example are fig trees. Fig trees are grown in peoples’ yards with winter protection in zone 6. Further north, they are rarely grown because they have to be grown in containers and brought indoors in the bitterly cold winter weather.
What are Fig Trees?
Fig trees (Ficus carica) are a member of the mulberry family. They are native to the Middle East and western parts of Asia. They are hardy in zones 8 – 10. Newer cultivars have been developed that will withstand colder temperatures as far north as zone 6 provided they are protected in the winter. They are dioecious meaning there are male and female plants. Both male and female plants must be present to produce fruit. Only the female plants produce fruit provided they are pollinated by a male. Pollination is provided by a wasp known as a fig wasp that is only present in Asia. It was successfully introduced in California in 1899. Since then, cultivars have been developed that don’t need to be pollinated to produce fruit. The resulting fruit is seedless. These are the figs that are grown today.
Fig trees are multi-stemmed trees. You can prune them to a single stem if you prefer. In their native environment, they can grow to over 30 feet tall. Here in the US, the varieties that are commonly grown reach heights of 10 to 15 feet tall. Trees that are grown in containers are kept pruned to 6 feet tall to make them more manageable.
The flowers are tiny and need no pollination to produce fruit. The fruit develops and ripens in June in the South (zones 8 - 11) and in August through September in zones 6 and 7.
Unlike a lot of fruit trees, figs do not require regular pruning. During the winter when the trees are dormant, prune away any dead or diseased branches. This is also a good time to “head” or cut off the growing tips on your trees to encourage branching and to control height.
How to Grow Figs Outdoors in Your Yard
Gardeners who live zone 8 or warmer can grow any kind of fig tree. Gardeners who live in zones 6 and 7 should choose cold hardy varieties such as ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Brunswick’, ‘Celeste’, ‘Hardy Chicago’ or ‘King’. Fig trees should be planted while dormant in the spring or the fall. Plant them at least 20 feet away from buildings and other trees to accommodate their deep roots. They need full sun and well-drained soil. The first year as your trees are getting established, deeply water them once a week. Thereafter, you don’t need to apply any supplemental water because fig trees are drought tolerant.
A layer of mulch is a good idea to keep the soil moist during dry periods and to discourage weeds from growing. Fig trees normally don’t require fertilizer but if your tree is not growing well, less than 12 inches per year, give it a feeding of high nitrogen fertilizer four times from late winter through mid-summer. You don’t want to fertilize your tree at the end of the summer or in the fall because that will encourage new growth that will not survive the winter.
After the trees drop their leaves in the fall, it’s time for northern gardeners to add protection to their trees to help them survive the cold winter weather. Fig trees should be wrapped in hardware cloth or chicken wire and which is then filled with straw or leaves to act as insulation. Never use any kind of plastic as a wrap because that can heat up and cook your trees. Hardware cloth is permeable. Don’t forget to cover the top of your trees also. The top covering can be something as simple as a tarp or a bucket. You can uncover your trees in the spring after all danger of frost has passed.
How to Grow Figs in a Container
Gardeners who live north of zone 6 won’t miss out on harvesting delicious figs if they grow their trees in containers and bring them indoors in the winter. Any cultivar can be grown in a container. Ideally, you should be using a 30 gallon container or even a half wine barrel but these can both be too heavy to move easily. Consider putting them on casters or using a smaller container and keeping your tree pruned smaller. A good size is an 18 inch pot that is at least 12 inches deep. Use a rich, loamy potting soil. It is recommended that you leave a few inches of space from the top of the pot to give you room to add mulch or compost every year.
Place your tree where it will receive full sun (6 to 8 hours daily). Because it is being grown in a container, it will need to be fertilized regularly. Add a high nitrogen fertilizer every 4 weeks during the spring and the summer. Water only when the top inch of soil becomes dry. Fig trees are drought tolerant. Too much water will kill them.
Refrain from pruning your newly planted tree the first year to give it a chance to get established in its container. Thereafter, you can prune up to half of the branches in the spring to keep your tree a manageable size while stimulating new growth.
Bring your containerized tree indoors when the nighttime outdoor temperatures reach 45⁰F. At this point it should have dropped all of its leaves and gone dormant. You can store your tree in your garage or in a shed provided they don’t get any colder than 20⁰F during the winter. Alternatively, you can store your dormant tree in your basement until spring. Be sure to keep watering it when the soil becomes dry to keep the roots alive for the spring.
How to Harvest Figs
To ensure the largest harvest, cover your fig tree with bird netting. Both birds and squirrels love figs and will steal all of the fruit before it is ripe enough for you to harvest.
The most important thing to know about harvesting figs is what color the ripe fruit will be on the cultivar that you are growing. Depending on the variety, ripe fruit could be green, gold or brown. Another clue is the softness of the fruit. Ripe fruit is soft. Check your tree daily for ripe fruit. In warmer climates, you can expect to harvest twice in summer, in June and then again in late August. In northern climates, zones 6 and 7, there is only one harvest per year in late August or September. Keep an eye on the weather forecast also for an early frost. You want to harvest your fruit before the frost.
Only harvest fruit where the stem of the fruit has started to shrivel and the fruit droops from the branch. When you pick the fruit, if the stem produces a milky liquid, it was not quite ready to be harvested. Wait a few days before picking any more fruit. By the way, that sap can cause skin irritation so it’s a good idea to wear gloves when harvesting your figs.
How to Store Figs
Store your figs whole for best results. You can refrigerate your newly harvested figs for 2 to 3 days in your refrigerator or freeze them. Another way to preserve your figs is to dry them in a food dehydrator. Store your dried figs in a tightly sealed container. They will keep 6 to 12 months at room temperature.
How to Grow Fig Trees From Cuttings
It is possible to grow fig trees from cuttings but woody cuttings are notoriously difficult to root. An easier way is to bend one of the branches down until it touches the soil and anchor it into place using the same pins you use to anchor floating row covers in your vegetable garden. Cover the part of the branch that is in contact with the soil with more soil, leaving a few inches of the end with leaves bare. When you see new leaves on the end of the stem, you know that roots have developed. Simply sever the branch from the tree and plant it where you want your new fig tree to grow.
How to Grow Fig Trees From Seed
Most modern cultivars grown in the US today are seedless but if you are able to get your hands on viable fig seeds, it is possible to grow your own trees. Just keep in mind that there are male and female trees and only the female trees bear fruit. When you grow from seed, you won’t know which gender you are getting until the trees are big enough to bear fruit.
Fig seeds need to be soaked for 24 to 48 hours before sowing. They are ready to be planted when they fall to the bottom of the container in which they are being soaked. Use a soil-less medium, such as vermiculite to germinate your seeds. If you use regular potting soil or compost, you risk also growing mold which can kill your seedlings. Surface sow your seeds. They need sunlight to germinate.
Fig seedlings need humidity to germinate and grow so cover your container with the seeds with a plastic bag to provide humidity. Place your covered container in indirect light. Germination should occur in 8 weeks. Keep the growing medium moist until the seedlings are about 2 inches tall. At this point, they can be transplanted into pots filled with regular potting soil. Water well for the first two weeks, then only when the top inch of the soil becomes dry thereafter. Keep your containers in indirect light for 4 weeks before moving to direct sun.
© 2019 Caren White
Linda. Trump Hooker on November 29, 2019:
I have a fig in a pot next tothe porch. It’ s crowded so I wil be moving plants around so, hopefully it will. Bear fruit this spring. Great articl e. Rated 5
Caren White (author) on September 10, 2019:
So glad that you enjoyed it!
Dianna Mendez on September 09, 2019:
You have me craving figs! Thanks for the education on how to grow these wonderful fruits.
Caren White (author) on August 28, 2019:
Thanks for sharing your experience.
RTalloni on August 28, 2019:
A fig tree was on our property when we purchased it and I began propagating small ones from limbs. Using the air layer method worked great but when I discovered how easily low limbs root with just a brick on top I prepared pots in the summer, placed them under a limb and put a brick on the limb in the pot. The next spring I had more fig trees ready to plant around our place, to share with others, and one year I sold a few. we now have several in a little fig orchard.
If it's very hot this time of year the figs can sour on the tree, but our cooler days have given us a bumper crop to share with others this season. In the past I have used a dehydrator to dry them for storage and it work well. Though we call them fruit, people are usually surprised to learn that figs are actually inside-out flowers. They are an amazing food rich in nutrients and I am particularly eating them for their calcium content this year.
Caren White (author) on August 28, 2019:
It's worth the work of growing them. Nothing can match the taste of freshly harvested figs.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on August 23, 2019:
Growing a fig tree sounds like a lovely idea. Thanks for sharing the information. Some people grow the trees in my area. I'm very tempted to try after reading your article.