Figs are one of the oldest cultivated crops, predating even the growing of wheat, and were enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. They are a semi-tropical tree that is easy to grow in areas with long, hot summers. While they are winter hardy in Zones 8 and warmer, gardeners in coastal areas with cool summers may have a harder time getting a reliable crop. Outside of these zones, figs may be grown as container plants in a greenhouse or overwintered indoors.
The common fig is a deciduous, small tree usually growing 10 to 30 feet tall, with large, lobed, deep green leaves that lend a tropical air to the plant. (There are other types of figs less commonly grown that have different pollination requirements. This information pertains to common figs.) The flowers of the common fig are all female and don't need pollinating to set fruit. The first crop of fruit in spring is called the "breba" crop, maturing from buds set the previous season. The main crop that follows in the fall matures on the new growth made that summer. In cooler parts of its range, the breba crop is often lost to spring frosts.
There are a number of fig varieties adapted to different regions of the country. Good varieties for the South include 'Celeste', 'Eastern Brown Turkey', 'Green Ischia' and 'Magnolia', 'Brown Turkey', 'Kadota', 'Ischia' and 'Mission' are among those recommended for California, while 'Desert King' and 'Lattarulla' are adapted to the cooler conditions of the Northwest.
Select a site with full sun and well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. The preferred soil pH is 6.0-6.5, but trees will tolerate a pH of 5.5-8.0. In areas with a shorter growing season or cooler summer temperatures, try growing trees as espaliers against a sunny, south-facing white wall where they'll receive reflected light and heat.
Set out new trees in spring. Set bare-root trees atop a small mound of soil in the center of the planting hole, and spread the roots down and away without unduly bending them. Identify original planting depth by finding color change from dark to light as you move down the trunk towards the roots. Set the trees 2-4 inches deeper than they grew in the nursery. Plant trees at least 20 feet from buildings and other trees.
For container-grown trees, remove the plant from its pot and eliminate circling roots by laying the root ball on its side and cutting through the roots with shears. Set the tree 2-4 inches deeper than it was growing in the container.
Young trees need regular watering while they are getting established, and established trees in dry climates will need deep watering at least every week or two. A layer of mulch over the root zone will help to conserve moisture. Yellowing or dropping leaves and dropping fruits may be signs of drought stress.
Fig trees don't usually need regular fertilization unless they are grown in containers. Use your tree's growth rate to assess its need for feeding; if it makes less than a foot of new growth annually, apply 1/2 to 1 pound of actual nitrogen, dividing this amount into 3 or 4 feedings, beginning in late winter and ending in midsummer.
Figs generally don't need much pruning to be productive. Shape trees lightly during the dormant season and remove dead, diseased, broken or crossing branches.
To minimize bird damage to fruit, harvest ripe fruits promptly and cover trees with netting. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service for information on fig pest and diseases in your area.
In the northern parts of its range, figs may benefit from frost protection. In late fall, tie the tree's branches up to make it more compact, fashion a cage of chicken wire around the tree and fill it with dry straw for insulation. Wrap the outside of the cage with layers of burlap and plastic. Remove the wrappings and straw in spring just before new growth begins and after the danger of hard frost. Some gardeners even manage to bring fig trees through the winter as far north as zone 6 this way.
Fruits should be completely ripe before they are picked. Ripe figs will be fully colored, starting to bend over at the neck and will be slightly soft. Pick them with the stem still attached. Some people find the milky sap of the tree irritating, so you may want to wear gloves when harvesting.
Fresh figs will keep in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days.