Low-Maintenance Fruits - Figs

This is our first in a series of articles on growing low-maintenance fruits in your garden. Intimidated by fruit trees? Don't be! There are low-maintenance fruits available for almost any-sized yard and garden.

What is low-maintenance?

Very few fruiting plants will thrive on no care at all. Most all will grow a little better if you give them some attention. We strive to grow plants here that require little care. What is “low-maintenance” for us? We’ve listed out some of the most desirable qualities below. For a plant to be low-maintenance it needs to satisfy the majority of these qualities in addition to being tasty to eat.

Little to no spraying

We’d prefer not to have to spray our fruit at all. It’s extra work and we’d like to avoid handling the chemicals that are often involved. If a fruit requires spray in order to produce edible (not perfect) fruit, then we’ll look for spray options from natural sources or those approved for organic production.

Well-suited to the growing climate

If a tree can’t survive our harsh winters and sometimes hot summers or needs more than our annual rainfall total it’s probably not a good pick. We have our orchard on drip irrigation to get it established and supplement during dry spells.

Minimal upkeep

Besides some light pruning or training and a topdress of mulch and/or compost, low-maintenance fruits should do little to add to the yearly garden chore list. Most all fruits will benefit from or require some pruning and training for the best production.

Negronne figs at various stages of ripening. The light red fig on the far right is just starting to swell and ripen, the red fig is a few days away from ripe, and the darkest figs are ripe or nearly ripe. Will sweeten up even more if allowed to hang another day or two.

Negronne figs at various stages of ripening. The light red fig on the far right is just starting to swell and ripen, the red fig is a few days away from ripe, and the darkest figs are ripe or nearly ripe. Will sweeten up even more if allowed to hang another day or two.

Why figs?

'Cuz they're delicious! Okay, so you may only be familiar with figs in the Newton form or dried. Don't get me wrong, those are quite good, but there's nothing quite like a fresh fig right off your tree.

Figs are one of the easiest care fruits that we grow here at Threefold Farm. They have very few fruit pests and diseases, are self-fruitful, very drought-resistant once established, fruit early in their life (sometimes the very first year!), are long-lived, deer (and other pests) rarely bother them, and they're very easy to propagate from cuttings or layering.

There are hundreds if not thousands of varieties of figs to choose from (we grow over 50 types here) with flavors ranging from berry to melon to honey and everything in between.

Uses

While we eat the majority of our figs fresh, there are a number of uses for them:

Fresh - Right off the tree is the best. Unlike some other fruits, figs don't ripen off the tree and must be used within a few days of being picked. This is why you'll see a little clamshell of 6 figs in the grocery store for crazy prices. We eat ours the day we pick them. If they're picked a little early you can often get away with leaving them on the counter to mature just a little overnight.

Dried - Figs can be sundried or dried using a food dehydrator. We're looking forward to a decent harvest this year and are hoping to dry a few.

Preserves - Fig preserves are a southern favorite. Since a mature tree can easily produce hundreds of figs, preserves provide a way to enjoy them all year.

Fig/Nut Cakes - Another way to preserve figs is to form them into a fig/nut cake. Check out this to see how one is made.

Types and Classifications

Types

Common

Most fig trees you'll for sale see fall into this category. These are varieties that do not require pollination in order to set fruit. Since the pollinating insect, the fig wasp, will only survive in certain parts of the country, most varieties that are grown will produce figs without any pollination (parthenocarpy).

San Pedro

A few varieties of figs fall into the San Pedro family. Those in this family will set a breba crop without pollination but the main crop requires pollination. We grow a San Pedro fig called Desert King that sets a very tasty breba crop but would require pollination for the main crop.

Smyrna

Smyrna figs require pollination by caprifigs in order to set fruit. Since we do not have fig wasps here or caprifigs, we don't grow these varieties.

Colors

Figs are typically classified by color: light and dark. Dark figs are those that mature to a darker brown, violet, or almost black color on the outside. Light figs mature and turn a variety of colors including green, yellow, and tan-ish. Really, there's a pretty wide spectrum of external colors and some may not fit neatly into light and dark classifications.

The internal color of figs can vary widely as well and does not necessarily depend on or match outside color. All shades of red, honey, amber, and yellow can be found. Dark figs tend to have darker interiors but there are a number of figs that mature to green on the outside and have a dark red interior.

Sizes

Mature figs range in size from about quarter-sized to over a quarter pound. They can be round or elongated with a short neck or no neck at all, depending on the variety and crop. Smaller figs tend to pack a lot of flavor into a small package but some larger varieties have good flavor as well.

Fruiting - Breba and Main Crops

Figs are unique in that they'll set fruit on both new and old wood.

Figs formed from fruiting buds formed on the previous season's growth are called breba figs. Some varieties are known for setting a good tasting breba crop while we're told that in other cases it's best just to discard them. The breba crop tends to be lighter in number than the main crop, but the figs themselves tend to be larger in size. Some varieties don’t set a breba crop at all.

Figs formed on new growth are considered the main crop. A fig has the potential to form at every leaf axil (the point where the leaf meets the stem) alongside a vegetative bud. Occasionally two figs will form at a leaf axil.

Fruiting Season

In south-central Pennsylvania, figs begin to ripen in early to mid August and continue to fruit all of the way up until frost. Like many other fruits, different varieties of figs take differing amounts of time to mature. Early-maturing varieties are best for the shorter and cooler growing seasons of the northeast, but it's good to have a few varieties that mature later if you're looking to extend your harvest season.

A to-be-named variety collected from a local restaurant.

A to-be-named variety collected from a local restaurant.

Growing Tips

Sun Requirements

Figs require full sun in order to produce a good crop. The plants love the heat and tend to grow the fastest when the temps are in the 80s and low 90s with warm nights. Pick the sunniest, warmest spot in your yard when planting a new fig tree.

Water Needs

Once established, figs require very little water. However in their first year, all plants appreciate regular watering to aid in establishment and growth. Since we've setup drip irrigation, we water our figs regularly and they seem to enjoy the extra water during our warmer months.

In-Ground Care

Subtropical figs in ground in the northeast, are you kidding? It can be done! Nearly all of our fig trees survived the harsh 2014 winter with -5F temps and several weeks where the temps never hit the freezing mark. Some of these trees have even come back and will produce a crop later this summer! Zone 6 is probably just about the northernmost limit for growing figs in-ground.

For the first year following spring planting, we fertilized our in-ground figs and top-dressed them with granular limestone. Figs enjoy soil that is nearly neutral in pH. If you have a limestone-based soil, that's perfect. Otherwise, top-dressing with limestone can help bring the pH back to near-neutral levels. If you live in a region where the soil is fairly acidic then you may be better off with potted culture.

We also heavily mulch our figs. This aids in tempering the soil temperature swings, conserves soil moisture, and helps protect the trunks of the tree from harsh winter temperatures. We don't mind if the mulch is against the trunks of the tree since figs will readily root into it, just don't get the mulch too high!

Speaking of trunks, figs in the northeast, and even in the warmer south, are typically trained more into a bush-form than the natural tree-form. This is done so that if one trunk would happen to die, there are others to potentially replace it.

Winter protection

If you're growing in ground in the northeast, you'll likely want to consider protecting any in-ground figs. Figs are a subtropical plant that is fairly hardy but borderline for our zone 6b/7a climate. Winter protection is certainly recommended in the northeast and can be the difference between a dead tree and a live one if we experience a harsh winter. In our climate, protection is put in around Thanksgiving and removed at the end of March. In general you want to apply any protection before the nighttime temps dip into the low 20s and teens, and remove the protection when the nighttime temps are staying above the mid 20s.

There are (at least) three ways of winter-protecting your in-ground fig tree: heavy mulch, wrapping, and burying

Heavy Mulch - Around Thanksgiving we drive our garden cart or take a wheelbarrow and deliver mulch to each of our 80 in-ground trees. We pile mulch around the main trunks anywhere from 6" to 1' deep. That's it. We started doing this since we have so many trees to protect and want a method that's fast and effective. The only issue we've seen with this method, and only this past harsh winter, was girdling of a few trees by mice. This damage could occur with other methods as well. In the spring, all we do is pull the mulch away from the trunks where we can use it to mulch the remainder of the plant or other plants in the orchard.

Wrapping - Old-timers would take whatever material happened to be available (and that wouldn't lead to rot), tie up the trunks and stems into a bundle, and wrap the entire tree like a Christmas present for the winter. This method tends to work really well and preserves even the uppermost limbs and stems. The reason we don't pursue this here is simply due to time. It takes a long time to go through the process and you have the additional hassle of storing the wrapping materials until they're used again. There are a number of good articles and videos online detailing the wrapping process so we won’t go into it here.

Burying - Areas in zone 6a and lower would likely benefit from burying their trees for the winter. Why bury the tree? In areas with extremely cold winters, the top (branches) of the tree will never survive the cold, no matter how much you wrap or mulch it. Figs that die back to the ground (with just a few exceptions) have a very hard time fruiting the same year that they die back. Burying becomes the only option whereby the top of the tree can survive to go on to fruit the following summer. I won’t go into the practice here but a simple search will reveal some best practices for doing so.

A ripe Latarolla fig. Birds don't seem to bother light figs as much as dark figs. Maybe they're fooled by them?

A ripe Latarolla fig. Birds don't seem to bother light figs as much as dark figs. Maybe they're fooled by them?

Potted Culture

Many growers in our part of the country elect to grow their figs exclusively in pots. This is a really good option and is certainly worth considering if your winters are too harsh or you don’t want the hassles of winter protection of in-ground trees. If you can get a few things right, growing a potted fig tree can be almost as carefree as in-ground growing. We’ve found the keys to success boil down to three things: good growing media, regular and consistent watering, and adequate maintenance.

Good Growing Media

For all of our figs, we use our own potting mix as it’s much more economical than the big-box store potting mixes. If you’d prefer to use a pre-made mix, get something that drains well, has good nutrient content (figs can be heavy feeders) and will hold up over a couple seasons. The problem with most big-box potting mixes is that they are meant to hold up for a year, max. Any longer and they break down and tend to not drain as well.

In terms of a container for the growing media, we’ve used a variety of containers. We’ve recently switched to using Root Pouches almost exclusively because they pack down really well and are much more economical when purchasing 15 or 25 gallon pots. Your mature fig tree will easily grow to take up a 15 or 25 gallon pot but can be kept at that size by a combination of tree and root pruning. Ceramic pots are an option too and can help provide better aeration, but be warned that they’ll dry out more quickly (meaning more waterings) than a plastic pot. If you do grow your tree in a decorative ceramic pot, be sure that it it’s shaped to allow you to extract the tree from the pot every 2-3 years for freshening up the soil and some root pruning.

Regular and Consistent Watering

Potted trees need more regular watering because they’re a closed environment (meaning the roots can’t seek out water) and they tend to be a warmer growing environment than in-ground growing. This extra heat can be good for the figs if they’re given sufficient water. All of our trees are on a drip irrigation system and are watered 3-4x a day for several minutes (7-10 mins) per watering. Our figs respond to this with excellent, vigorous growth. If you’re watering by hand, be advised that during the hottest parts of the summer you may need to water as much as twice a day. In general, a single good soaking, where water begins to seep out the drainage holes of your pots, is better than several sprinklings of water, where the water never really penetrates more than the top 1-2” of the soil.

Adequate Maintenance

If you’re growing figs in a pot, you’ll want to make sure you properly store, prune and repot your tree.

Storage is necessary during the winter when temperatures outside will threaten your tree. We like to take our figs into storage when nighttime temps drop into the low 20s. That’s typically sometime in November here, but it could be earlier. An unheated garage works well for storage, provided the temps in the garage don’t drop much below freezing (slightly above would be best). Figs don’t need light during dormancy so don’t be concerned if the garage doesn’t have any windows. Check the soil in the pot every month or so during the winter and give it a some water if the soil begins to feel dry. Trees don’t use much water during dormancy but still use some, plus the lower humidity of the winter may work to dry out the pot (moreso in a ceramic or otherwise porous pot).

We are fortunate enough here to have access to a cold cellar during the winter in which to place our potted trees. The cold cellar stays above freezing and maintains a high level of humidity so the trees really don’t need to be watered during their winter siesta.

Regardless of where they’re overwintered, we take our trees out of storage when the nighttime low temps in the spring stay in the mid to upper 20s. The trees will begin the process of waking up and should be placed in the sun. If a really cold night is forecast, simply pull your tree back into the garage or protected area for the evening, especially if it’s started to push out little leaves.

Finally, figs will need to be pruned and repotted every so often. Pruning isn’t difficult and with figs is done to shape the tree and promote light and heat getting in to the fruit to help to ripen it. Since figs grow vigorously under good conditions it becomes necessary to pot it up or repot it every so often. If you have a small tree, you may find that it becomes root-bound in its pot just halfway through the growing season. Potting up simply involves pulling the tree out of its current pot, teasing out some of the roots, and sticking it in a new, larger pot with more soil. Around here, we pot up from 4x4x9 treepots to 3 gallons then 15 gallon pots on up to a final pot size of 25 gallons. The transition from treepot to 3 gallon pot is usually over the course of the first growing season. By the beginning of the second growing season the tree has outgrown its pot and is ready for a 15 gallon pot. A tree can likely remain in a 15 gallon pot for a 2-3 years before moving up to 25 gallons unless the growth is just tremendous. If your growth is not as vigorous on the top of the tree then you may pot up slower.

Once the tree has reached its final pot size, repotting it every 2-3 years becomes necessary to freshen up the soil and cut away any matted or circling roots. Repotting and up-potting are typically best done when the tree is dormant in early Spring so it has some time to recover prior to pushing out leaves. When cutting away roots I always try to cut back the top (branches) of the tree in proportion to the top to keep the root and shoot growth in balance, so it’s a good idea to do your pruning along with repotting (and heck, use those cuttings to start more trees!). Fill the remaining space in the container with fresh new media and compost any old stuff that was cut away.

A ripe pair of Ronde de Bordeaux figs on a plate.

A ripe pair of Ronde de Bordeaux figs on a plate.

Fig Ripening

Figs are ready to eat when they’re droopy, soft, squishy (that’s a technical term), and pull off the tree with little resistance.

An immature fig will hang upright until it begins to ripen. Over the course of a few days to a week it’ll begin to change color (except in the case of “white” figs), get larger, droop, and soften. In general, if you’ve picked a fig and the place where its stem attached to the tree bleeds latex sap, then you’ve picked it a little too early. Leaving it on the tree a little longer will increase its flavor and sweetness dramatically.

Increasing production - pinching

In the northeast our summers are fairly short and not necessarily all that warm. Due to this, figs can be late to start to form on the new growth and therefore ripen too late to get a harvest. One strategy to coerce figs into forming earlier is a technique called pinching.

Pinching is accomplished by pinching off (with your fingers or pruning shears) the growing tip of a fig branch. This will cause the tree to form buds to branch out from lower leaves as well as (often) to form fruit earlier than it otherwise would have. Since figs typically take a certain number of days to ripen, the earlier the figs start to form, the earlier they’ll ripen. Pinching of the terminal bud is typically done later in the first flush of growth, after the 5th leaf is formed on a branch. From our limited experience it seems to work especially well on potted figs that suffer little to no winter dieback (due to storage). We’ve had success on our in-ground figs as well, but those that have died back to the ground seem more interested in putting on vegetative growth than setting figs.

Speeding up ripening - oiling

So it’s mid to late September and you still don’t have ripe figs. There are plenty sitting there on the branches, seemingly doing nothing. And to top it off, you’re about to have an Indian summer week. These are the perfect conditions for an old technique called oiling.

Oiling involves putting a little coating of oil (we’ve used olive oil) around the eye of the fig (that’s the little hole opposite the stem). Using a cotton ball soaked in olive oil, we’ve tried this technique before when the temperatures are forecast to be in the high 70s and 80s and dry during mid to late September. Within a few days you should see a color change in the fig and see it begin to start to ripen.

This can only be done on figs that are fairly close to maturity (not really little ones that’ve just started forming). I’ve heard it said that figs ripened this way aren’t as tasty as those ripened without oiling, but I’ve certainly still enjoyed them.

Pests and Diseases

Fig trees in general are relatively pest and disease-free. I’ve seen a little summer tip damage due to Japanese Beetles, but nothing to be concerned about. Deer and other critters don’t seem to bother the trees due to their latex sap. The worst damage I’ve seen from deer is from their horns, and that was a pretty isolated incident.

In the deep south of the United States fig rust is a problem, but I typically haven’t seen it here unless it’s hitched a ride on a tree purchased from a southern source. Our winters here are enough to kill any overwintering rust spores.

Planting

Like most trees, figs prefer to be planted in a nice loamy soil with a near neutral pH. However we have less than ideal topsoil here with shale underneath. We plant our figs a little deeper (2-4”) than they were grown in their pots as they’ll readily shoot out roots from their branches. When planting we topdress with granular limestone (to neutralize the pH) and fertilizer. Figs (and most other trees) benefit from a little topdressed fertilizer/compost the first couple of years but then seem to do just fine on their own. We keep our trees very well mulched to help conserve soil moisture and will continue to topdress with granular limestone and new mulch every few years to keep soil conditions ideal.

Adequate water is very important for at least the first year to get the plant established. Our trees are on automated drip irrigation so they get regular doses of water, but you can provide the same by watering the trees on a regular basis and never allowing the soil to dry out. A good mulch can really help conserve soil moisture and reduce water stress on a young tree.

A nice ripe fig. Some varieties will develop some cracks in the skin as part of the normal ripening process.

A nice ripe fig. Some varieties will develop some cracks in the skin as part of the normal ripening process.

Recommended Varieties for the Northeast

In-Ground Recommendations

  • Malta Black
  • Dark Portuguese
  • LSU Improved Celeste
  • Florea
  • Tacoma Violet
  • Black Greek
  • Ronde de Bordeaux - may have a tendency to split
  • Marseilles Black VS
  • Papa John
  • Hardy Chicago

Potted Recommendations

(All of the above in-ground recommendations plus…)

  • Desert King (early breba crop only)
  • Adriatic JH
  • Nero 600M
  • Atreano
  • Kathleen Black
  • LSU O’Rourke
  • Lyndhurst White
  • Celeste (may have a tendency to drop figs)

Stay tuned! This list will be ever evolving and changing as we find varieties that work well in our climate.