How to Plant, Grow and Care for a Fig Tree
Big on taste and good looks, fig trees ripen candy-like fruit on a plant packed with textural appeal. Best of all, this edible beauty is surprisingly easy to grow.
Fig 'Texas Blue Giant'
Purple-skinned 'Texas Blue Giant' thrives in hot climates, as you might guess from its name. The amber flesh is delicious for eating fresh or drying. Hardy in zones 7 to 10, the self-fruiting trees grow 8 to 10 feet in height.
W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
Figs don’t just come tucked inside a cookie. These sweet fruits form on a tree or shrub that’s as eye-catching as it is easy to grow. While other edible crops might need pampering to yield their bounty, figs are more of a plant-it-and-forget-it addition to your landscape.
With their unassuming personality, figs make a terrific choice for edible gardening. They blend easily into shrub borders, flower beds or vegetable gardens and also grow well in containers. Enhance your success with growing figs by following these simple tips.
Find the Right Variety
Native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, figs are landscape fixtures in warmer regions (Zones 8 and warmer), where they can grow unprotected year-round. But you can also find varieties that grow and bear fruit in colder areas, where winter dishes out snowstorms and freezing temps for weeks on end. Most winter-hardy varieties do need some kind of cold weather protection to ensure strong fruit production.
- For Zone 6 winters, consider these varieties: ‘Michurinska 10’ (developed in Bulgaria), ‘Celeste’ or ‘Marseilles.’
- For Zone 5 winters, try these varieties: ‘Chicago Hardy,’ ‘Brunswick’ (also known as magnolia fig) or 'Brown Turkey' fig (sugar fig).
If you’re tucking your fig into a pot, focus on varieties developed for container growing, such as 'Brown Turkey,’ ‘Blanche’ (Italian honey fig), ‘Celeste,’ ‘Verte,’ ‘Negronne’ (also known as ‘Violette de Bordeaux’) or ‘Ventura.’
Choose a Planting Spot
Figs need two things to thrive: sunshine and elbow room. Select a spot that provides at least six hours of sun daily. In colder regions, help figs survive winter by giving them a southern exposure or placing them near a south-facing wall that will retain heat.
Double-check your fig variety’s mature size and give it plenty of room to spread. Figs are self-pollinating, so you don’t need multiple plants to get fruit—but you do need to avoid crowding plants if you’re adding more than one to your yard.
Some fig varieties have invasive roots that may damage pipes, sidewalks or driveways. Be sure to research this before planting your fig, especially in warmer regions where plants grow more aggressively. Tuck your fig into a spot on the edge of a garden to give its roots room to roam.
Soil, Food and Water
Give your fig a good start by adding composted manure or well-rotted compost to the planting area. On the whole, figs don’t have large appetites. Spreading a layer of compost (2 to 3 inches thick) over mulch beneath the fig in spring should provide sufficient nutrients for a healthy plant.
In their native environment, figs survive on rainfall. The most critical time that figs need water is in early spring, just before stems start shooting and fruits begin to form. On the whole, though, established in-ground figs don’t usually need watering except during times of drought.
Like tomatoes, nearly ripe figs can split (see photo above) if they receive a sudden burst of water, like a summer thunderstorm. This occurs with figs grown in-ground or in containers, although potted plants are more susceptible. Aim to water figs in containers to achieve consistent soil moisture and avoid severe soil drying.
Some varieties produce one crop of figs each year, while others produce two. Figs typically form on new stem growth each year and ripen months later. Most fig trees take three to five years to start ripening fruit. Prior to that, figs may form along stems where each leaf attaches, but they won’t ripen. Potted figs may bear fruit sooner.
Unripe figs are green, firm and perpendicular to the branch. As a fig ripens, it changes color (look up what color your figs should be when ripe) and softens. The telltale sign of a ripe fig is when the fruit droops down from the branch.
If you pick figs too early, they’ll be hard, grainy and lack sweetness. A fully ripe fig is a tasty treat, sweet and juicy. Figs don’t ripen more once you pick them, so you want to get this right. Wait a day if you’re unsure. When picking, pinch or use a knife to cut the fruit stem (green part) between the fig and the woody branch. Figs typically store up to three days in the fridge, but they won’t last that long if you break off the fruit stem.
As fruit starts to ripen, it’s a good idea to cover plants with bird netting or install shiny scare tape. Otherwise, you’ll lose much of your crop to birds, squirrels and their critter pals.
If your plant isn’t producing figs, it might be due to too much fertilizer, extreme heat or drought, crowded branches or not enough sunlight. It might also be that you’ve planted a variety that needs a longer season to ripen than what your growing zone provides.
Typically figs only need pruning during the first few years, when you want to train the plant as a shrub, tree or espalier. It’s safe to prune at any point in the growing season, although spring pruning can lead to larger fruits. Remove dead wood or branches that rub. Shorten branches that become too tall, removing one-third to one-half of the entire stem. Figs have milky, latex-like sap that can cause skin irritation, so wear non-porous gloves when pruning.
In cold-winter regions, if figs die to the ground, spring pruning can stimulate new growth. Determine if existing stems are alive by scraping the bark with a fingernail. Living stems show green; brown or gray means a stem is dead.
New stems grow from the roots each spring. Let stems grow roughly 12 inches tall, and then thin to leave 10 to 12 stems. Remove the thinnest ones and any that are touching or rubbing. Figs need good air circulation inside the plant. Removing stems helps accomplish this and also helps yield higher-quality figs.