Edible Landscaping

Edible of the Month: Figs

There's nothing like the taste of fresh figs picked off your own tree. Figs are easier to grow in your yard than you think.

Planting figs in a container is a good way to grow them in a small yard, or if you live in a cold climate and need to protect the trees in winter.

Figs are one of the oldest fruits known to mankind. They were used by the Sumerians in 2500 BC, mentioned in the Bible in the Garden of Eden, considered sacred to the Romans, and often used in trade between Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages. Figs originated in Western Asia and made their way to America with the Spanish explorers in the 1500s. It seems everyone is desirous of figs for good reason. The tree is easy to grow, produces abundantly for years, and the fruits are sweet and tasty eaten fresh or dried. Figs were even used as a sugar substitute during the Middle Ages. If your only experience of figs has been packaged, dried figs or Fig Newton cookies, you're missing something special.

Fresh figs are soft, sweet and creamy. They can be used in baking, to sweeten meats or in desserts. One of my favorite recipes is fresh figs topped with warm mascarpone cheese and drizzled with honey. It's to die for! The fruits are high in iron, fiber, potassium and calcium. They can also be used as a laxative, so don't go overboard when munching on these fruits. The trees can be grown outdoors in warm climates or in containers in colder climates. Either way a few trees will produce more figs than you'll ever be able to eat.

Planning

Figs are a Mediterranean crop so they thrive in warm locations. While most trees are hardy to USDA zone 8, the roots of many varieties will survive USDA zones 6 and 7. With some protection you can even get some of the hardier varieties such as 'Hardy Chicago' and 'Brown Turkey' to survive outdoors in USDA zone 5. However, they also are easy trees to grow in containers. So even gardeners in cold climates can grow and enjoy figs if they have a protected spot for them to overwinter indoors.

There are many varieties of figs to choose from, and most don't require pollination to produce a crop. In fact, only the Smyrna figs (the famous Calimyrna figs of California) require a specialized wasp to pollinate the flowers to get fruit. Most varieties grown by home gardeners, including those listed here, are parthenocarpic and don't require wasp pollination to produce a crop of fruits. Figs produce a spring (Breba) crop and a late summer/fall main crop. For most varieties the Breba crop is small and lower quality than the fall crop. The fruits mature to a green/yellow or dark brown skin color, depending on the variety. The flesh color is usually amber, red or pink. Many varieties have multiple names, so check a few sources to be sure you're getting the correct variety.

'Black Mission' – The most popular fig variety, is has purple-skinned fruits and is very productive. It's best adapted to California.

'Brown Turkey' – This is one of the hardiest fig varieties available. It can survive USDA zone 5 conditions with protection and is a good container variety as well. The sweet fruits mature to dark brown skin color when ripe.

'Celeste' – Similar to 'Brown Turkey' and often called the Sugar Fig in the South, ‘Celeste’ is a hardy fig variety with a violet-skinned mature fruit. It grows better in the Southeast than the Southwest or California.

'Conadria' – A green-skinned variety that dries well, 'Conadria' is well adapted to California and Southeast growing conditions.

'Hardy Chicago' – Another cold hardy fig variety that does well grown in containers, 'Hardy Chicago' ripens its brown–skinned fruits in mid-summer.

'Lattarula' – This green-skinned variety has amber colored flesh and is known for its sweet flavor. It's also called the Italian Honey Fig for that reason. The fruits are good fresh, dried, and canned.

'LSU Purple' – A newer variety that reliably produces an early and late crop of figs in the Southeast. The skin is purple and fruits are large. The trees are nematode resistant. 'LSU Gold' is another new variety with yellow–skinned fruits.

'Negronne' – Also known as 'Violette du Bourdeaux', this is consider by many to be one of the finest tasting figs available. The purple–skinned fruits grow well in the Northwest and West. The tree is dwarf and similar to 'Black Mission'.

'Petit Negri' – This very dwarf variety grows only a few feet tall and produces black-skinned fruits. It's a great container variety.

Planting

Experiment with different fig varieties. Some fruits are striped, such as 'Panache Tiger', making the tree even more attractive.

'Black Mission' is one of the most commonly grown and widely adapted fig varieties.

Figs need sun, heat and regular moisture to grow their best. Plant trees on well-drained soil in an area that gets at least 8 hours of direct sun a day. In northern areas, consider planting figs in protected spots against a south-facing wall or building, or in containers.

Amend the soil before planting with compost or manure. Figs have shallow, spreading root systems and the trees can grow 15 to 30 feet tall, depending on the variety. Select varieties whose mature size will fit in your selected area. Select dwarf varieties if growing in containers.

Care

Although mature figs can withstand dry conditions, water regularly when the leaves start to droop. Fertilize figs three times a year, starting in spring with a complete fertilizer, such as 5-5-5. Don't fertilizer after August because that will stimulate new growth that may be winter injured. Add lime to the soil to bring the pH up to the desired 6.5 level, if necessary.

For container figs, select a large pot (15 gallons), fill it with potting soil, and apply water and fertilizer regularly to keep the tree growing well. A slow release, organic fertilizer works best. Replace the potting soil every few years. Keep the tree about 5 to 10 feet tall by pruning in the dormant season. To prune, remove any broken or diseased branches, suckers or side branches growing vertically from the main trunk or a branch, and cut back the ends of main branches by one quarter. Fig branches exude a white, sticky sap when cut that can irritate the skin, so wear gloves when pruning.

To overwinter container figs in cold climates, move them into an unheated garage or basement where the temperatures stay between 20 degrees F and 50 degrees F. You can also bury in-ground figs by digging a trench on one side of the tree, then bending it to the ground in fall and covering it with soil or mulch. Unearth the tree in spring when warm weather arrives and stand it back upright. In marginally hardy areas, lay a thick layer of bark mulch around the tree base after a few hard freezes and wrap the top of the fig tree in burlap.

Figs are relatively pest free. If nematodes are a problem in your area, select resistant varieties. Most fig problems stem from the weather (too hot, cold, wet or dry) or planting the wrong variety for your area. Take extra care to select a variety adapted to your growing situation and climate.

Be aware that birds and raccoons love ripe figs. You may need to protect trees with netting and fencing if these critters discover them in your yard.

Harvest

Harvest figs when the fruit turns the mature color, becomes soft, and droops. It should slip from the tree easily when handled. Figs don't continue ripening off the tree so it's best to let them fully ripen before harvesting for the sweetest flavor. Some gardeners have been able to encourage fruits to ripen in fall by dabbing the bottom (eye) of individual fruits with vegetable oil when the fruit's flesh has turned pink. If applied too early the figs may drop. If applied too late it has no effect. Figs ripen within 5 days after applying the oil.

Fresh figs don't last long in storage and are best eaten within days of harvest or preserved by canning or drying or made into pies and preserves.

Other fig growing stories:

Fabulous Figs
North American Fruit Explorers: Figs
Figs

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