Do you know what a fresh fig tastes like? You may have had figs in processed baked goods, such as fig bars, or eaten dried figs. If you frequent gourmet restaurants, you may have had fresh figs prepared with chicken or even in pizza. But if you aren't growing figs, you are probably missing out on a sweet, juicy treat. Gardeners in Zone 8 and below can grow figs in their gardens. Gardeners in other zones can also grow figs, but the figs must be planted in containers and brought inside for the winter.
The Bible mentions that figs were in the Garden of Eden. In Rome they were sacred and offered to the gods. Figs were an important part of the trade between Arabian countries and the rest of the old world. Figs were introduced to this continent by Spanish explorers in the Southwest.
The fig tree is a handsome ornamental, with silvery bark and very large leaves. The branches often age with a twisted, sculptured look. Unfortunately, most figs are not hardy above Zone 6. In Zones 6 and 7 figs are root hardy, but since the trunk dies each year they form a bush instead of a tree. The variety Brown Turkey may overwinter outside as far as Zone 5, if it is in a protected place or on the south side of a building. One fig tree is enough for most families, as they are very productive.
The fig "fruit" starts out as a thick, elongated receptacle on the fig plant with a hole on the bottom. Inside are the tiny fig flowers, completely hidden inside the structure. Each flower then develops a sweet, fleshy area around its seed, which collectively form the edible part of the fig. Edible figs are usually oblong globes with a thick skin, a rind under the skin and a center of sweet flesh. The sweet treat is high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Outer colors vary from purplish red to green and yellow-striped. The inner flesh may vary from creamy white to deep wine-red. Most fig varieties that homeowners now grow are self-pollinating.
Figs planted outside should be in full sun and in well-drained soil. They grow best in a slightly acidic soil. In the deep South fig trees can get to be 20 to 30 feet high, but they are easily pruned to stay shorter if desired. Prune figs after they have gone dormant and remove only about 1/3 of the plant at a time. In the spring prune off any winter-damaged limbs.
Figs in Zones 6 and 7 should be protected for the winter. After a frost has caused most of the leaves to drop, remove any that are left as well as any fruit left on the tree. Encircle the tree with small-mesh wire or burlap and fill the circle with straw or hay. If the trunk of the fig is killed by winter, the roots will generally send up new growth.
Figs can be fertilized with a general-purpose, slow-release fertilizer in the spring. Don't fertilize after August. Figs need to be watered if they begin to droop but can withstand moderately dry conditions. Figs outside have few insect pests or diseases. You will have protect the fruit from birds and other wildlife as the figs begin to ripen.
Figs grown in containers need one that is large and sturdy that drains well. It may be easier to move if it is on wheels. Fill the container with a high-quality potting soil that has slow-release fertilizer added. The fertilizer will need to be renewed each year, and the fig should be repotted in fresh soil every two to three years. Keep the container well-watered so the plant doesn't wilt, but never let it become too soggy. Containers that sit on pavement or are hit directly by the sun may need to be shaded so the roots of the fig don't become too hot. Figs in containers should be dwarf varieties.
After a light frost has caused the fig leaves to drop, move the fig to a cool, dark location and stop watering. The fig should ideally be in a location that never goes below 20 degrees or above 50 degrees. It should be watered very lightly, just enough to keep it from being dust dry. In early spring, water and fertilize the fig to start it growing again. If growth is started inside, move it to a shaded location outside and then gradually into full sun.
Good varieties of figs for containers are Brown Turkey, Negronne and Celeste. There are many figs for in ground planting. Alma, Green Ischia, Blanche, Black Jack, and Osborne's Prolific are some varieties to try.
Harvest figs when they are fully ripe. The fruit will change color and soften and slip easily from the plant. The little hole on the fruit bottom will open slightly. The birds and raccoons will be breaking their necks trying to get to them.
Figs are eaten fresh, but they don't store well. They can be dried, made into preserves or used in baked goods.
The sap of fig plants is irritating to skin. Wear gloves when handling plants and pruning. Fig fruit has a laxative effect, so don't overindulge.
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