Common fig (Ficus carica) is a fairly low-maintenance fruit tree when grown under ideal conditions. Don't expect it to have a good crop for three to five years following planting, however, because the tree takes several years to mature. Most common fig cultivars produce their main crop in late summer to fall. A common fig should be planted in early spring after the threat of frost has passed, but, if it is a mature tree, prior to fruit set.
Common fig is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 6 through 11, depending on the cultivar. Outside of its ideal climate, the tree easily can be planted in a pot that can be moved indoors before cold weather or stay in a greenhouse. A common fig tree does not need to cross-pollinate with another fig tree; only one common fig is necessary to produce fruit.
Chose a location with full-sun exposure and well-drained soil high in organic matter. A nearly neutral soil is best, with a pH level of 6.0 to 6.5.
In USDA zones 8 and lower, a location near a south-facing wall is best because the wall will reflect light and heat, and provide protection from wind. Ensure the common fig will be 20 feet from buildings and other trees, and plant it about 2 to 4 inches deeper than it was planted in its nursery container. Make the planting hole wider than the tree's roots to provide loose soil in the growing area.
Organic material is always helpful for fig tree growth but is particularly important in areas with heavy clay soil and in U.S. western regions low in naturally occurring organic material. In general, a 5-by-5-foot area takes about 8 cubic feet of compost tilled into the top 12 inches of soil. Place a 6- to-8-inch-thick layer of mulch on the soil surface around the tree's trunk but pulled a few inches from the trunk to encourage air circulation; mulch helps retain soil moisture. Deeply water the tree's soil every week with 5 gallons of water, especially if you are in a dry western climate.
Growth and Harvest
Fertilizer is not always necessary for a common fig tree growing in the ground, but it can help if the tree's branches grow fewer than 12 inches per year. A container plant should receive fertilizer on a regular basis. Using a balanced fertilizer ensures your in-ground or container plant receives all of the necessary nutrients that can enhance growth.
For first- and second-year trees, sprinkle 1 ounce of a balanced fertilizer, such as 10-10-10, in pellet form on the soil surface of the tree's root area at the first sign of the tree's spring growth. Water the soil deeply, but not enough to leave puddles on its surface. Repeat this procedure once each month until mid-July. After midsummer, your tree should concentrate its energy on producing and ripening fruits rather than on its overall growth. Feed an older common fig tree 1/3 pound of the same balanced fertilizer per every 1 foot of the tree's height three times each year: at the first sign of spring growth, in June and in mid-July. Don't give a tree more than 10 pounds of fertilizer in one year, though. Premature fruit drop or lack of fruits may be a sign of overfertilization.
You may see a small crop of fruits in spring. This breba crop appears on last year's growth. The main crop grows on new growth and is ready to harvest from late summer and early fall until frost. Use caution when picking the fruits because sap from a fig tree can irritate skin; wear clothing that covers your skin. The fruits last two to three days in a refrigerator and do not continue to ripen after they have been picked.
Depending on the cultivar, mature figs planted in the ground and in a fully dormant state can survive temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Younger figs and those with a flush of growth can be killed by temperatures as low as 30 degrees F and require protection. Many times figs killed to the ground during a cold snap will regrow from their roots during warm weather
After harvest, stake out a circle around the tree, leaving a 1-foot space between the stakes and the tree's trunk. Wrap a chicken wire fence around the stakes, and nail it into them. Fill the area between the tree and fence with straw, leaves or a similar insulating material. Wrap the entire fence and tree in burlap and then a layer of plastic or tarp. Remove the full insulation package in early spring, just before new growth occurs on the tree.
- National Gardening Association: Plant Care Guides -- Figs
- The Old Farmer's Almanac: Figs
- California Rare Fruit Growers Inc.: Fig, Ficus Carica L.
- Cornell University, Department of Horticulture: Using Organic Matter in the Garden
- Just Fruits and Exotics: Figs
- Clemson Cooperative Extension: Fig
- National Gardening Association: Edible of the Month -- Figs
- Photo Credit Adam Drobiec/iStock/Getty Images
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