Editor’s note: The Penn State Extension Master Gardeners of Columbia County, of Northumberland County, and of Montour County are sharing their expertise this growing season. If you have any questions or column topic suggestions, please email them to ColumbiaMG@psu.edu.
Ancient tablets record the use and consumption of figs (Ficus carica) as early as 2500 BC. Originating in Asia, Spanish missionaries brought them to America around 1520. Often referred to as a fruit, the fig is actually a group of tiny, fleshy flowers growing inside an edible pear-shaped shell and a good source of calcium, iron, potassium and fiber.
Figs can be a shrub or tree, grown in containers or in-ground, are nearly pest-free (watch for spider mites during overwintering), do not require pollination and can produce abundant crops when the proper cultivars are selected. Fruits form in the leaf axils of the current year’s wood. Figs ripen from mid-September through frost. Figs should not be picked until fully colored and slightly soft; they do not ripen off the plant.
Cultivars for our area:
• Brown Turkey is small to medium sized, bell-shaped fruit with bronze colored skin and amber to pink flesh.
• Celeste is small fruit with strawberry-brown colored skin, strawberry flesh, and the sweetest of all the figs.
• Chicago Hardy is not only one of the cold-hardiest varieties and it rates high in taste comparisons.
Choosing the Location
Whether potted or in-ground, figs need at least eight hours of sun per day. Choose a warm protected location with a southern exposure to speed up the fruit ripening process. Figs grow best in well-drained soil with a pH in the 6.0 to 7.0 range and respond well to nitrogen fertilization. A soil test labeled for growing figs will give the recommendation for fertilization. Apply synthetic or organic forms of nitrogen as indicated by the soil test.
Preparing for Winter
During winter, figs must be protected from the cold weather. Figs grown in the ground can be covered or wrapped with burlap, old blankets or tarps. Eight to ten inches of mulch over the roots is also recommended. In the spring, remove the winter protection after all danger of frost. For potted figs, an attached garage, cold cellar, or unheated basement are options for overwintering. The temperature should be between 27- 45o Fahrenheit. During winter dormancy, water your potted fig sparingly every 6 to 8 weeks. While they are dormant, figs don’t need light.
For the in-ground plants, cold winters may kill all or part of the stems. In the spring, remove covering and all but 2-3 inches of the mulch that was added. Remove any dead or weak wood and ground suckers from both potted or in-ground figs once you see which wood is pushing new growth. Select three or four main branches that are evenly distributed around the trunk. Completely remove all other branches that arise from the trunk. Cut off the tips of the scaffold limbs about 3 feet from the trunk to encourage secondary branching, especially on varieties that tend to grow more vertically. The main objective of pruning is to maintain tree growth in an upward and outward pattern by thinning out interfering branches and removing flat, low-growing limbs.
Failure to prune a fig tree results in a bushy-type tree that lacks vigor, tends to be susceptible to limb sunburn, and produces small figs of inferior quality. Prune enough to stimulate at least 1 foot of new growth on most limbs each year.
Fruits turn from green to purplish-brown when ripe and are 1 to 2 inches in diameter. For best quality, the fruit should begin to soften while on the tree. They will not ripen if removed prematurely. Figs must be handled carefully to avoid skin irritation and fruit damage.