In the Garden:
Lower South
August, 2007
Regional Report

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Fig fruits are tasty right off the tree or in preserves.

Fabulous Figs

This has been a bountiful year for figs in our area. Trees have produced heavy crops, and many are now setting a second crop. Figs and I go way back. I have childhood memories of climbing a fig tree to harvest the fruit. Our home place was in the coastal south and our fig trees seldom froze. As a result the trees were climbing size and my task was to bring in the fruit each summer.

Fig harvest brought two memories. One was the delicious taste of a ripe fig and memories of making "strawberry" jelly, a concoction my mom made in which figs and strawberry jello was used to make a jelly that had a predominantly strawberry flavor.

The second memory was the wasps that I encountered in the fig tree. Wasps and I go way back also. They had a perfect record of seeing to it that I was stung at least once per summer. I, of course, aided in their quest by finding myself within close proximity to them and their nests on a regular basis. The fig tree was a prime spot for our close encounters.

Our tree produced large purple/brown figs with the open eye; the kind that would often end up with fruit beetles inside and souring soon after ripening. Wasps weren't all that interested in good figs but were drawn to the fermenting figs, which made plump taverns for the little flying sots.

It was hard enough to climb the tree, balance on a limb, and hold on with one hand while reaching carefully outward for the perfect fig, just out of reach. Adding a wasp sipping unseen on the other side was definitely an unwelcome surprise. Enough about the wasps. Let's get to the fruit worth risking a wasp encounter.

Easy-Care Fruit
Figs are among the easiest of fruits to grow. They have few insect or disease problems. The fruit beetles and souring problem is best dealt with by selecting varieties with a closed eye or a drop of resin sealing the eye opening. Fig rust can be a problem at times, but I can't recall ever having to spray a tree. There are several natural fungicides that may be used if you feed a spray is needed.

The biggest problem figs encounter is nematodes, which affect the roots. Nematodes are primarily a problem in sandy soils. There isn't a good cure for nematode problems around a fig tree, but adding lots of compost and mulch to the surface each year helps provide the tree with a large surface area for roots that is less prone to the pests and yet rich and moist.

Birds may find your figs as desirable as you do. I have a particular mockingbird that takes great pleasure in beating me to the fruit. But I just grow more than they can eat. I also have promised a couple of neighbor cats a can of tuna if they can produce feather evidence of the bird's demise, no questions asked. Seriously, bird netting applied just prior to ripening of the first fruits is the best way to prevent injury.

Provide figs a soil with some compost mixed in. If drainage is in question, build up a raised planting area. Maintain moderate soil moisture. A surface mulch extending out as far as the branch spread will deter weed competition and help hold in soil moisture. A little fertilizer in spring or early summer is fine, but I usually just maintain a thick surface mulch that decomposes to release about all the nutrients my trees need.

Choosing a Variety
There are numerous varieties of figs that do well in the South. I have found that what may do best in one area may not be the best for another part of the region. If you live in zone 8 or lower, winter cold will be a major factor in variety selection. Your local Extension Service office can provide a list of varieties for the area and instructions on how to care for a fig tree.

I have become a fig explorer always on the lookout for new varieties. I recently came across a tree of unknown origin that was 75 years old and have taken cuttings to spread the variety around our area. A friend has gathered cuttings from more than 65 varieties, which have been rooted. We are planting them around our counties to start a long-term observation. Someone please make us stop!

Cold Protection
Figs are marginally hardy in our lower south region. To insure maximum hardiness, plant your tree near a south side of the home or outbuilding to provide a break from the north winter wind. Avoid fertilizing after midsummer as a late-season flush of growth will be less cold hardy. Some gardeners pile up bags of leaves around the base of the tree and then pile extra loose leaves over the bags to create an insulating mound that will protect the lower trunk and branches even if cold kills the periphery. In my area the cold is rather erratic so we don't try to grow figs into a single-trunked tree but rather leave several sprouts from the base to form a multi-trunked bush form.

Figs are an integral part of the summer backyard fruit harvest. If you have avoided other fruit because it's too fussy or difficult to grow, give figs a try. You'll be glad you did!


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