NOTE: Amy Hill knows figs are the fruit I’ve been waiting to grow. After previewing her fig story I was tempted, but then Amy sent me some of her super yummy fig recipes and I was off to the garden center for my first fig plant.
Sustainable gardening relies on selecting the right plant for the right place and now is the time to plant figs. Amy Hill introduces us to the fig tree, Ficus carica, which is well suited for our region. Amy tells us simple strategies for being successful with this southern favorite.
- Be sure to plant figs early in the fall so they will have enough time to get established before our cold weather sets in
- Figs need full sun —that’s at least 8 hours of sun
- Once established, figs are drought tolerant but will drop fruit in dry weather
- A good crop requires constant moisture so add a layer of mulch and water during drought
- Over fertilizing can reduce crop production
- Tips for growing figs
- Amy’s favorite way to enjoy figs
- Other great ways to use figs
HILL: You may not know it yet, but figs are the fruit you’ve been waiting to grow. Figs, or Ficus carica, make a great choice for home gardeners eager grow their own fruit sustainably. They require neither meticulous pruning nor regular spraying, and they perform well in our hot and humid summers. In short, if you’ve never grown fruit, figs are the ideal training plant.
Figs are native to the lean soils of the Mediterranean. They need abundant sunshine and good drainage to perform at their best. In the clay soils of the Triangle area, figs can generally obtain the nutrients they need without additional fertilizers; that’s another trait in their favor if you aspire to garden sustainably. Feeding them yearly with compost will support good drainage and improve the plant’s ability to extract nutrition from the soil. And that’s enough. In fact, growing figs in highly fertile soil may result in lots of leafy vegetative growth but little fruit.
As with all fruits and vegetables, figs need regular water as they set fruit. Long periods of hot, dry weather, like we had this past June, can stunt the fruits’ growth or produce smaller yields. But don’t get heavy-handed: Excessive moisture may cause fruit to drop prematurely.
Unlike many fruits, figs aren’t bothered by pests or diseases except root-knot nematode. Root-knot nematodes are microscopic roundworms that cause progressive damage to the roots of plants. If you’ve had problems with these pests before, on plants such as boxwoods or some hollies, avoid planting figs in that location, or grow them in large containers, where they’ll perform very well.
Figs can produce two crops of fruit per year: a small one in early- to mid-summer on the previous year’s wood, and a larger crop in autumn on the current year’s growth. You’ll know the fruit is ready to harvest when the fruit changes color (typically, from green to brown or violet) and hangs down instead of points up. You may see a small bead of nectar on the fruit when it ripens.
Figs can grow to be quite large—up to 15 feet or more—but are easily controlled by pruning. If you don’t care how large they grow, you need only prune to remove dead, injured, or diseased wood or to improve air circulation.
Fall is the best time to plant trees and shrubs in our area. Purchase 3-year-old plants, because very young plants tend not to fruit well, and make sure the selection is one recommended for the Southeast.
Some fig varieties, particularly those grown in the West, require wasp pollination. Varieties that perform well in the Southeast don’t require cross-pollination, so if you purchase your plants from a reputable local nursery or grow them from cuttings from a neighbor’s plant, you can be assured you’ll find suitable varieties. ‘Celeste’ and ‘Brown Turkey,’ are two widely available varieties that grow well in central North Carolina and their fruits are good eaten fresh or made into preserves. ‘Alma’ may be slightly harder to find, but it produces small, greenish-yellow fruits prized for both fresh eating and preserves. ‘Magnolia’ produces medium-sized fruits highly recommended for preserves. If you find a variety in catalogues called ‘California Brown Turkey,’ skip it: It’s not the same as the ‘Brown Turkey’ that grows well in the Southeast.
Once you’ve brought your plants home, dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball and to the same depth, or up to 2 inches deeper, as the container in which the plant is grown. Remove as much of the potting mixture as you can, and trim away any dead roots. Place the plant in the hole and spread the roots out carefully. Mix the excavated soil with compost and backfill around the plant, then top-dress with additional compost for good measure. Water well. A 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch, such as compost, shredded bark, or chopped leaves, will keep figs’ shallow root systems cool and moist and cut down on weed competition. Don’t pile on the mulch any deeper, as it can smother the plant, but you’ll need to top off the mulch throughout the year because organic matter breaks down quickly in our climate.
Figs will not store fresh for more than a few days, so unless you plan to can them (they make excellent jams and preserves), enjoy them promptly. We’ll link to some recipes on our website, gettingdirtyradioshow.com, so you can discover ways to enjoy your new favorite fruit.
This is Amy Hill, Durham County Master Gardener Extension Volunteer, helping you with your sustainable garden.