Ahhhh … the fabulous fig tree! There’s a handful of reasons these beauties were one of the first fruit trees cultivated in ancient times and why they still remain so popular with homeowners for both their fruits and as an ornamental tree. Besides being a biblical wardrobe choice, fig trees will thrive even if slightly neglected, they don’t mind poor soil conditions, they take up little space in your yard, and they can produce two crops of delicious fruit every year!
So I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend that if you have extra space your garden needs a fig tree in it! Actually, you don’t even need a garden, as long as you’ve got room to grow one in a pot.
Now that I’ve piqued your curiosity let’s talk all things you need to know to plant and take care of a fig tree.
Fig Tree Basics
The history of the fig tree is long and deeply-rooted. Stemming back to biblical times, figs were one of the first foods consumed by people and one of the first foods cultivated. Native to Asia and the Mediterranean fig trees were brought to North America by the Spanish settlers in the early 16th century.
In today’s culture, they are known for their showy, abundant fruit and large-leafed trees that create incredible shade canopies.
Common Names: Laurel, fig laurel, banyan, ficus.
Popular Varieties: The most popular fig varieties of the common fig, Ficus carica, include brown turkey, desert king, kadota, and celeste (aka honey fig or sugar fig).
Height: Mature tree height varies greatly depending on the cultivar and its environment. Wild varieties grown in tropical settings attain lofty heights; the common varieties planted in North American span between fifteen and thirty feet high.
Fruit Production: Many fig types produce two crops of fruit each year. The early season crop, also known as the breba crop, fruits on old wood from the previous season and is harvested in May or June. The main fig crop fruits on newly formed spring growth. Harvest follows in August.
Fig Tree Needs
Fig trees are popular as fruiting crops because of their easy-going nature and their ability to thrive with minimal care from you the homeowner. Even if they don’t mind being semi-neglected, the following basic tree care encourages better growth and higher fruit yields.
Fig trees need a sunny spot in your yard that classifies as receiving full sun to partial shade. Fruit trees need as much sun as they can possibly soak in to produce the greatest amount of fruit; a minimum of 7 to 8 hours of sun exposure is recommended.
With fig trees, less sun still means the tree does well but your fruit yields will be reduced.
They thrive in areas with long, hot summers and mild winters which is why they are popular trees in the South and Western states. In colder climates, they can grow indoors or in a greenhouse as container plants.
Fig trees are recommended to be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-11. In colder climate areas with more severe winters, hardy cultivars can be grown outdoors if provided with proper protection. In climates below Zone 8, it’s not advised to keep plants outside year-round, but to grow them in containers that can be brought indoors during the winter.
Ficus carica love well-draining soil regardless of its nutritional or organic matter content. Sandy soil is preferred over loams or clays, leading to their popularity in areas of the South and West where sand is prevalent.
If you have heavier soil or if it is compacted it needs to be loosened up prior to planting. The best way to do this is to amend your with plenty of organic matter such as finished compost or well-rotted manure, working it in to a depth of 18 to 24 nches.
On the other hand, soil pH isn’t as important as drainage as long as the pH isn’t extremely low or overly high.
Newly planted trees need to be watered frequently until their root systems are well established. Adding a layer of mulch around the base of the tree will help to retain soil moisture.
Once established, trees need less water. Aim to provide the tree with 1 inch of water weekly during the active growing season, whether through rain or scheduled irrigation.
Fig trees are pretty low maintenance and will grow happily with little to no fertilizing, pulling the nutrients they need from the soil and its organic matter.
If your tree needs a boost though you can feed it with a phosphorus- and potassium-rich fertilizer early in the growing season following the directions on the product label. Avoid fertilizers high in nitrogen as this promotes lush, green foliage growth instead of fruit development.
A biweekly application of seaweed extract can be beneficial too throughout the active growing season if your tree looks a little paltry.
One of the reasons fig trees are popular with homeowners is they need little pruning compared to other fruit trees. They typically maintain a neat and tidy appearance on their own with little intervention from you. Some carefully thought out, annual pruning will keep your tree at a manageable size though, making it easier to harvest fruit.
When the tree goes dormant in the fall prune out dead or diseased branches to increase the overall health of the tree. If your tree is overloaded with fruit during the growing season you can thin it to encourage fewer, albeit larger, tastier fruit the next season.
If you live in an area where temperatures drop to 10 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, be sure to plant one of the cold-hardy varieties of figs. Even then, you will need to take steps to protect your tree from the cold winter temperatures.
Bring container-grown trees inside during winter months. Allow the tree to lose all of its leaves while still outside and then bring it inside to a cool, dry place. Many people opt for an attached garage or basement where temperatures are cooler as you want the tree to go dormant. Once temperatures consistently stay above 35 degrees at night in the spring it can be moved back outside.
Simple insulation provides effective winter protection to figs in the ground. Build a cage around the trunk of the tree using chicken wire wrapped in burlap, then fill it with dried leaves or straw. Avoid wrapping the tree trunk in plastic as it may cause the tree to overheat on sunny days.
When temperatures begin to climb in the spring, remove the cage and insulation, cleaning up thoroughly around the tree to minimize the risk of disease or insect problems.
Planting a Fig Tree
I know we’ve talked about the basics of planting fruit trees, but it’s good to hit on some key points.
Decide first whether to plant it in the ground or put it in a container. There are pros and cons to both options, but much of the decision depends on the USDA hardiness zone you live in.
As I mentioned above, if you live in zones 8 to 11 it’s safe to plant your fig tree in the ground as long as you protect it in the winter. For zones that have colder winters, you should put it in a container and bring it indoors when it gets too cold.
Plant figs in late winter or early spring when trees are still dormant, once the frost has left the ground (if your ground freezes during the winter).
Avoid planting trees in the fall if possible as this doesn’t give the root system adequate time to start growing before the plant goes dormant for the winter or the ground freezes.
Obviously, the steps will differ for in-ground versus container planting. But if you just think of the container as the hole you’d dig in the ground you can follow the basic planting instructions.
The two most important things when using a container are to choose a pot that is several inches wider and deeper than the root ball and use a high-quality potting mix that has good drainage.
Step-by-Step Fig Tree Planting Instructions
- Using a sturdy digging shovel (I prefer one with a pointed center) dig a hole that is slightly bigger than the root system on your tree. Aim for a hole that is about two to three times as wide as the roots and only 2 to 3 inches deeper, regardless if you are planting bare-root or a container tree.
- Massage and spread the roots out taking care not to break or damage them.
- Set the tree on the mound of loose dirt in the bottom of the hole (or container). You may set it so the soil level is a couple of inches deeper than it was planted in the original pot or keep it at the same level.
- Gently tamp the soil down with your foot as you fill the hole in, trying to remove all air pockets, without compacting the soil around the roots. Create a slight bowl or depression as you reach the top of the hole to allow water to naturally settle around the tree. Make sure you do not mound soil up around the trunk.
- If you plant bare-root trees, cut back the branches on the top of the tree to about one-half of their original length.
- Spread a couple of inches of mulch around the base of the tree, keeping it away from the bark on the trunk.
- Water your newly planted tree well. Go slowly; let the water absorb before adding more. The water helps settle the soil around the roots, getting rid of any air pockets that may have formed when you were filling the hole in.
FAQs: Common Fig Tree Questions and Concerns
Q. How long does it take for a fig tree to bear fruit?
A. Fig trees planted in the ground may take eight to 10 years after planting before they begin fruit production. This is because young trees utilize their resources to establish a strong, healthy root system before fruiting. Fig trees planted in containers are quicker to establish and you can see fruit within five years of planting.
Q. Why are the leaves on my fig tree turning yellow and falling off?
A. Leaf drop and/or yellowing are signals to inspect the plant closely. It could be normal: Figs drop their leaves in reaction to winter. Abrupt environmental changes also upset them, so if you move the plant, get it used to its new environment slowly. Place it in its new home for just a few hours per day. Leaf drop can also be a sign of pests or improper watering. Lack of water, or too much of it, may also cause yellowing.
Q. What do I do with my potted fig tree in the winter?
A. Move the tree indoors as a houseplant and keep the soil moist.
Q. Can I grow a single fig tree or do I need multiple trees?
A. Fig trees are self-fruiting or parthenocarpic, meaning you can successfully grow a single tree. They will produce fruit without pollination or fertilization.
Q. Will figs ripen after picking?
A. Unfortunately, no. Figs will stop ripening once you pick the fruit. This makes it critical you time harvest to when your fresh figs have ripened. It also means though you need to watch carefully and prevent scavenging squirrels or deer from stealing the fruit.
Q. What problems are common with fig trees?
A. Container grown plants experience the same insect infestations as other indoor or greenhouse-grown plants: aphids, whiteflies, and spider mites. Fig trees grown outside are susceptible to root-knot nematode, especially those grown in the South. Nematode larvae infect tree roots and inhibit the tree’s ability to absorb nutrients.
Q. Can you espalier a fig tree?
A. An espaliered tree is a great option for figs, especially if you are working with limited space. Growing a fig tree in an espaliered manner against a wall is also beneficial in areas with colder climates. The sunlight radiates from the brick/stone behind the tree to create a warmer microclimate.
Five Fig Facts
1. The fig appears in the Bible early and often — first as a garment for Adam and Eve when they discover shame. Later, in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus is hungry and comes across a fig tree with no fruit, he gives it a curse that is literally withering.
2. There are more than 750 varieties of figs, and each has its own species of wasp that helps pollinate it. You probably eat bits of fig wasp when you bite into a ripe fig.
3. One variety, the strangler fig, does as its name implies. They sprout in the branches of another tree, fall to the ground, and then slowly grow around their host tree, eventually killing it.
4. In parts of India, people worship them as holy homes to gods and spirits. Cutting one down is taboo.
5. Figs can contain a specific type of mite, and the mite can cause an allergic reaction. So those who handle figs frequently can suffer from a condition called “grocer’s itch.”