Growing Figs in the Southeast
The fig is a traditional, easy-to-grow Southern fruit—although its existence is not entirely trouble-free. Hard winters often damage fruiting wood, especially of the Celeste variety, which bears almost entirely on last year’s growth.
Hot, dry weather often causes the fruit to shrivel and get hard. And even if all goes right, birds, raccoons, opossums, nematodes, and other varmints often get the figs before the grower does. Regardless, they still produce one of the easiest to grow, the most nutritious, and the most delicious crops. They need mulching annually, measured and thorough watering when it’s dry, and a net to keep the varmints from harvesting the crop. As far as spraying is concerned, figs almost have to be grown organically because very few pesticides are needed on them.
So plant the easiest to grow tree!
Soils and Fertility
Figs are very tolerant of a wide range of soils but grow best in a deep clay loam soil. Figs can be grown successfully on very light sandy soils, but nematodes (these are microscopic roundworms that feed on the root system) can be a serious problem.
Adding organic matter at planting time will help control the nematodes. The organic matter also provides the nutrients and moisture retention figs need. A heavy layer of mulch, perhaps, 8 to 12 inches thick, will allow the fig to grow and produce where nematodes are a problem because it improves plant growth, promotes soil moisture retention, and maintains a moderate soil temperature.
Figs do not need fertilizer when planted in most southern soils. Too much fertilizer can cause fruit splitting and increase the chance of frost injury. The slow breakdown of the organic mulch should provide all of the nutrients the fig tree will need.
Pruning and Training
Figs really do not need pruning. In fact, figs produce best with little or no pruning. As far as training (modifying tree shape for maximized production), two main training systems are used: The single-trunk system, in which trees are trained to have one main trunk and two vase-shaped branch structures, should only be used in the very deep South where freezing weather is not a problem. The other system, the multi-trunked bush, is by far the most popular and the best for Southern growers. This system keeps the crop more accessible and makes the trees less vulnerable (than single-trunk trees) to severe, killing freezes.
Fig Thinning and Harvesting
Along the Gulf Coast, most figs produce parthenocarpic fruit (fruit produced without pollination). Parthenocarpic fruit is very sensitive to stress. Thinning is not required because overproduction causes stress and the tree thins itself.
Figs should be harvested as soon as they become ripe. You will notice a change in color and the fruit will become soft. Some people may have to wear gloves and protective clothing because a few people have allergic reactions to the sap or latex that the plant exudes.
Figs are fairly easy to propagate with stem cuttings. In early winter you should collect 6- to 8-inch terminal shoots from vigorous, healthy one-year-old wood. Small diameter, weak cuttings make inferior plants and should be avoided. Tie the cuttings in small bundles and place them in a trench with the cut end sticking up (cuttings are upside down). Cover the cuttings with 2 to 4 inches of good soil and wait for the development. Around April, remove the cuttings from the soil bed and place them right side up in well-drained soil with about two inches sticking out of the soil. The cuttings will root and be ready to move to a permanent location by the first dormant season.
Figs can suffer damage if temperatures fall below 15°F. Figs should be planted in a protected area, or one should provide protection if temperatures routinely fall below 15°F. In northern parts of the Gulf Coast, figs can be grown if they are protected during the winter by a frame covered in plastic and filled with leaves (for insulation). If figs are cold conditioned they can withstand cold injury. Also, since most figs in the southeast assume a bush-like rather than a tree-like growth, this deters a lot of expected freeze damage.