The fig tree (ficus carica) has large, beautiful leaves that are able to provide a lot of tree shade, and the tree produces a very sweet fruit. Fortunately, fig tree care is easy to help them grow and maintain, but you may run into trouble if you forget to water them or don’t have the correct growing conditions. Using a few simple tactics, you can grow and keep your fig tree healthy and producing fruit for years to come.
Fig Tree Origins
Before you get into the specifics of fig trees, you have to understand where fig trees came from. This tree originates from northwestern Asia and the Middle East. Spanish missionaries first brought the tree to North America early on in the 16th century. Figs that are easy to grow are some of the oldest fruits in the world with a rich history that dates back thousands of years. Fig trees are members of the Moraceae family.
For people who live in hardiness zones 8, 9, or 10, you can leave fig trees unprotected and exposed to the elements and they’ll do just fine. This makes growing fig trees in these zones easy, and it’s one of the major draws of these fig trees. Gardeners who live in more northern zones can grow their figs in containers and phase them indoors when the temperatures start to dip below 10°F.
Fig trees are a fast-growing species that can get between 20 and 30 feet tall, and they spread out almost the same size. The leaves on this plant are very large, and they can get up to 10 inches long and 4 to 8 inches wide. They provide a lot of shade, and history says that Buddhism founder Siddhartha Gautama sat underneath the shade of a fig tree to find enlightenment.
If you have optimal growing conditions for your fig tree, your tree can easily produce two crops of figs each year. The first crop or breba crop is ready to harvest in late May or in the start of June. The second crop should be ready to go starting in late September or early in November.
A sculpture of Siddhartha Gautama sitting as he was under the fig tree when he tried to find enlightenment.
Types of Fig Trees
Did you know that there are over 700 different fig species but all of them fit into four categories? For home gardeners, many of these species don’t have much use because they are difficult to care for. The four categories of fig trees include:
- Caprifigs – These figs never bear fruit, and they only produce male flowers. Caprifigs pollinate the female trees.
- Smyrna – These figs are the ones the Caprifigs pollinate, and they only produce female flowers.
- San Pedro – You’ll get two crops with this fig species. One crop will form on new wood and require a male flower to pollinate it. The second crop will grow on mature, leafless wood and it doesn’t need pollination.
- Common Fig – Finally, we have the common fig. This is the one almost all growers gravitate to because you don’t need other fig trees to pollinate it. Any figs that need pollination to grow have an opening that pollinating wasps use to reach the flowers. Since this fig doesn’t need pollination, it’s hardier and less prone to rotting due to rainwater or insects getting inside.
Along with the fig tree species, there are several types of figs available that are easy to grow. All of the following perform very well in home garden settings in a range of zones. They include:
- Alma – These figs aren’t very pretty to look at. However, the bear fruit late in the season, and the fruit has a very rich flavor profile. You’ll get the best results growing it in zones seven to ten.
- Brown Turkey – There are few seeds in these figs, and they have an attractive look. They produce a large crop of tasty, big figs spread out over a long growing season. It does well in zones seven to nine.
- Celeste – Celeste figs are some of the most common, and they grow to a very large tree and produce small or medium purple or brown figs. The fruit ripens much earlier, and you’ll have a dessert-quality product. It grows best in zone six.
- Purple Genca – You may hear this fig called Black Spanish or Black Genoa. This is another large tree that produces red, sweet fruit with a deep purple hue. It thrives in the colder areas of zone six.
This is an example of figs in different ripeness stages on the fig trees. The darkest ones are ready for harvest while the green one isn’t ready.
How to Plant Your Fig Tree Step-by-Step
For the length of this article, we’re going to assume you bought a young fig tree that someone already started from seed. If you live in zone eight or warmer, you can plant your fig trees outside without worrying about the temperature impacting them. If you live in cooler zones, the best plan for your fig tree is to plant it in a container and bring it indoors in the cooler months.
Step One – Pick a Sunny Spot or Your Container
The first thing you want to do if you plan on growing your tree outside is to find a spot that gets a lot of direct sunlight. You should plant the fig trees in either early spring or late fall because this is when figs are dormant before kicking off the growth season.
Place your fig tree at least 20 feet away from any buildings or obstructions that would block out their sunlight. Also, the tree roots go very deep and spread out. They can damage foundations if you plant them too close. Make sure your chosen spot gets year-round sunlight. You should have well-draining soil packed with organic matter for outdoor fig trees.
If you choose to go the plastic container route for the sake of your fig tree because the temperature falls below 10°F, this method will help prevent the fig tree from dying from frost. You want to get a large patio container that is proportionate to your tree’s size. The container should have a soil-based potting mix with added wood chips to improve drainage. You want to keep it in the full sun throughout the warmer months. When it’s time to move it indoors, put it in a sunny area of your home.
Step Two – Dig the Hole
Once you pick out a spot for your new fig, start digging. You’ll want to create a hole that is at least as deep and round as your tree’s current container. When you get the correct depth and width, gently pull the tree from the container. Set it into the hole with the roots facing downward. Backfill the soil and gently pat it down around the tree with your hands.
The soil should contain sand and little or no clay because this will prevent it from growing, and it’s more susceptible to root rot. Skip this step if you plan to keep your fig in the container and continue growing your fig tree inside in cooler months.
One aspect of growing fig trees is picking out the correct soil. The soil you choose should be loose, easy to drain, and come packed with nutrients. In general, you’ll have to pay more attention to container soil than you would if you planted it in the ground.
Step Three – Apply Mulch
Apply a three-inch layer of mulch around your fig tree.This mulch will help the soil retain more water each time you water it, and it’ll help control weeds. The same goes for your potted tree. Apply the mulch out to the rim of the pot, and make sure it’s around three inches deep.
Step Four – Repot if You Have a Container Planted Fig
Container fig trees are slightly different. If your fig stays in the container instead of in the ground, you’ll have to repot it every three to five years to keep it healthy. You want to repot it during the winter months because it’s dormant and it’ll have time to reestablish itself before the growing season comes around.
To repot it, take a quarter of an inch of soil out. Pull your fig out of the pot and cut away any clumps of roots or larger roots. Put your fig back into the original pot and backfill it before packing the soil with your hands. To continue with your fig tree care routine, monitor it until it establishes itself.
Planting a Container-Grown Fig Tree in the Ground
If you want to transfer your container-grown fig into the ground, it’s a relatively straightforward process. To start, remove the fig from the pot and cut through any circling roots you see. Find a spot 20 feet away from buildings or obstructions and dig your hole. The hole should be a few inches wider and deeper than the tree’s root spread.
Place your tree on top of a small soil mound in the center of the hole. Without excessively bending them, carefully spread the roots away from the tree’s trunk. Plant your fig two to four inches deeper than it was in the pot. Carefully backfill the soil and pack it into place. Add your three inches of mulch, water it, and monitor it until it establishes itself.
Very finely shredded mulch is best for fig trees because it doesn’t get too heavy or trap too much moisture.
Fig Tree Care 101 – The Specifics
Now that you know how to plant your fig, what about more specific fig tree care tips? The goal is to keep it healthy and thriving all year-round, and this will take some dedication. Luckily, this tree is hardy, and it’ll forgive you if you have a lapse in your routine and forget to water or fertilize it once or twice.
Fertilizing Your Fig Tree
Once you notice fruit growing on your tree, you want to fertilize it to keep up the healthy growth. Apply the fertilizer to the soil that directly surrounds your fig, and be careful to not get any on the trunk or leaves. It should have a high potassium level. The optimal fertilizer for this type of tree is a 8-8-8 or a 10-10-10 blend.
To get the best results, you should feed one and two-year-old figs just under an ounce of fertilizer every month. Start in the spring and go until the end of July. Your older figs should get a third of a pound of fertilizer for every foot of height. Fertilize them in late mid-spring, mid-summer, and late winter.
If your fit is in a container, fertilize it once a week during the summer months. Figs grown and kept in containers need more fertilizer than ones grown in the ground. Rotate your fertilizer every other week between a general one and one that has higher potassium.
When you harvest your figs or the growing season ends, you can back off on fertilizing your tree. Instead of every week, switch to every two weeks or once a month. You’ll know if you fertilized it too much because you’ll get excessive leaf growth.
Watering Your Fig Tree
An essential part of the routine is watering your fig trees. When you notice that the top inch of soil near your fig trees dries out, it’s time to water your fig. This tree’s roots grow very close to the soil’s surface. This is why it’s important to give you fig water whenever it looks dry, and it’s also why mulching is so important for moisture retention. Every week, check the soil and see if your tree needs watering.
Each time you water your tree, give it around a gallon of water. You want to soak the soil all around your fig. If you don’t know how to tell whether or not you gave your fig a gallon of water, fill up a gallon bucket. Pour it all around your tree when you notice the soil dried out.
If your tree turns yellow or starts to wilt, give it more water. These are the classic signs that your fig needs more thorough or often watering. The best thing to do in this situation is boost the amount of watering sessions you give it a week to two or three instead of one.
Using rainwater to water your fig plant is a good idea because it doesn’t contain the chemicals and things typically tap water has, and this makes it healthier for your fig tree. Additionally, it’s easier to trap water in a rain barrel and use it as you need it in your routine.
Pruning Your Fig Tree
Fig trees are generally very low maintenance, and this makes this portion simple. You shouldn’t have to constantly prune your fig for it to look healthy and stay full. However, you do want to take a look during the dormant season. Remove any weak, diseased, or dead branches you find. Doing this will encourage new and healthy growth.
Should it get too cold in the winter and free part of the tree, you may have to go out and remove any dead or dying parts of the tree down to the ground level. Anything underground should be okay. Once you remove it, keep an eye on it come spring to see if it starts growing again.
If your figs aren’t as large as you’d like but you have tons of smaller ones, you may have to thin them out. This is an optional step, and it’s totally up to you whether or not you do it. However, thinning out the smaller figs will encourage the growth of larger ones.
Harvesting Your Figs
Now, for the rewarding aspect, harvesting. You don’t want to harvest any figs from your fig trees until you’re sure they’re fully ripe. Once you harvest them, they won’t continue to get more ripe. When you touch them, they should be slightly soft and fully colored. Figs are a favorite food of squirrels and birds, so investing in a bird net early on is ideal to protect your crop from the fig trees.
Wear a long-sleeved shirt and gloves when you harvest your figs. The tree’s sap can cause a mild rash or skin irritation. Grab the fig by the thin stem and and gently pull it away until the stem snaps. Figs only keep for two or three days in the refrigerator, but you can keep them whole and freeze them to use later. You can dry them too.
Bring a basket or container with you when you harvest your figs from the fig trees because you should have a lot of them ready to go at one time.
Advanced Tree Care – Identifying or Treating Common Fig Tree Diseases
Another important aspect is keeping your tree healthy. Unfortunately, fig trees are susceptible to diseases, and these diseases can decimate your tree if you don’t get a handle of them right away. Several common diseases to affect fig trees include:
- Fig Rust – If your fig tree’s leaves are starting to turn yellow or fall out, you could have a case of Fig Rust. This is a fungal infection that attacks your fig’s leaves. Get a bottle of neem oil and spray it on your tree’s roots once a week until the leaves restore to their healthy state.
- Leaf Blight – This is another fungal infection that creates holes in the leaves of fig trees, moist yellow spots, and fungus webs on the underside of the leaves. Remove any infected leaves to prevent it from spreading to healthy ones.
- Thrips – Thrips are exotic pests that can stunt your fig tree’s growth and lead to leaf loss. To get rid of them, prune away any dead or injured plant as soon as you see it. Spray the roots with neem oil once a week.
- Twig Dieback – Unfortunately, there is no cure for this fungal infection of fruit trees. You can remove the dying branches to help control the spread of infection.
Your fig tree can turn into the centerpiece of your landscape with a little care and attention. This fig tree care guide gives you everything you need to successfully plant, grow, and maintain your fig tree for years to come. You can use it to set up a fig tree care routine that fits into your schedule and ensures you have healthy growth of the fig trees all year round.