From the earliest historical accounts and archeological excavations, we find that the fig tree and its sweet fruits have long been present with, cultivated, and relished by mankind. In fact, it is the oldest cultivated tree-fruit known. With special varieties developed and discovered in recent times, you can now enjoy the luscious fruit and remarkable beauty of the fig tree at home, even in places with winters as cold as central Indiana and Kentucky (zones 5b-6).
On Growing Figs
Our 12+ year old, 12′ tall, English Brown Turkey Fig “mother tree” growing very happily on the warm, sunny south side of our family’s 2-story brick house in Louisville, KY. It is growing in relatively poor quality clay soil, and beyond some occasional applications of chicken manure and fish emulsion, receives very little care and attention (except at fig-picking time). Mom still picks and uses the delicious figs fresh and freezes some for us, from which we make delicious fig bars and other healthy desserts. This is about as large as outdoor figs will get in zone 5b-6. This is nice because it keeps them easy to harvest and maintain.
Living in zone 6. we have been successfully growing several varieties since 2004 ( Brown Turkey, Chicago Hardy and Celeste) and have harvested figs every year off of the variety Brown Turkey. Figs are one of the easiest to grow fruit trees (in zones where they will grow,) as they have virtually zero disease and pest issues. Birds, ants and bees do sometimes go for small amounts of the fruit but keeping up on harvesting (which is very easy and worthwhile considering how delicious the fruit is) keeps them at bay. Rainy weather can rot ripe fruits, but the bushes are constantly making new fruit until frosts make them go dormant, similar to berry bushes that keep producing new fruit.
In their northern reaches (zone 5b-6), we recommend planting our cold-hardy figs on a warm, sunny south facing wall or other sheltered place (next to a large sheltered and active compost pile is ideal) and they do best when given some winter protection. Large chicken-wire cages stuffed with straw and covered with a tarp and tied up works very well.
Figs also make excellent and productive container plants to bring indoors in a cool basement or garage during winter. They also make great high tunnel or greenhouse specimens and can be kept bushy and compact. We are planting several rare varieties in our high tunnels to serve as mother trees for propagation (and some good eating!)
Growing Figs in Containers:
Figs have been grown in containers successfully for thousands of years. They handle growing in containers very well, far better than most fruiting plants. Figs are known to fruit heavily in pots and stay quite content as long as the moisture level stays consistent and fertility is replenished each spring with compost and/or granulated organic fertilizer.
Below are two pictures of figs at our nursery growing very well and fruiting heavily in large pots. In Autumn, after a few moderate frosts persuade the trees to go dormant and lose all their leaves, these pots are moved into an unheated garage and their soil kept constantly moist (not overly wet). In spring they are moved back outside and soon leaf out and bear fruit in August, September and October. They need organic fertilizer in March/April (we use chicken manure pellets and compost). Mulch material to keep the soil cool and moist is always good, and daily watering is crucial. Setting up an automatic drip system would be a good idea. Fruit quality is the same as when planted in the ground. The bigger the pot, the bigger the figs tree will get, and the better it will produce and thrive. The one below on the left is a “O’Rourke” fig in a re-used salvaged 10 gallon pot and is about 4 ft wide and tall, angled to show you the delicious fruit hanging on it. The one on the right is a “Kadota” yellow-fruited fig of excellent quality.
Both of these figs pictured are one year from planting small fig starts and are fruiting well.
Container-growing figs is a fun project, a good way to begin growing fruit and also an easy way to grow a delicious and useful fruit plant with little space and only a pot! Would do well on a very sunny balcony or patio.
Protecting Figs in Cold Winter Locations
The photo above shows one of our cold-hardy fig trees being very effectively protected for the winter in 2016-2017. An easy and effective way of protecting figs is this: once frost has removed the leaves in November, before temperatures go below 25 degrees, trim your fig branches and trunk to about 4 FT tall. Then tie them together with strong twine or rope to make them compact. They are very flexible. Then make a large hoop of 4-FT tall chicken wire around the fig. Connect the end of the wire well with wire or twine. Then stuff, stuff, stuff it very tight and full with straw or leaves. For extra protection put a sturdy tarp or piece of scrap plastic on the top and tie with twine, as shown above. This keeps the straw dry and better insulated. The trunk can also be wrapped with pipe insulation for extra effect.
This process takes about 20 minutes and is not difficult. Leave the fig wrapped like this all winter and remove the wrapping by mid-March, before buds begin to grow. You’ll be surprised when 8-10 FT branches grow from this 4 FT stump, laden with figs. The key to fruiting is to protect at least 1 FT of year-old or older growth. From that growth the new fruit branches sprout. What if you don’t protect them? In a cold winter in zones 5b-6b the figs will sometimes die back to the ground but re-sprout from the roots. There will be little to no fruit that year. If the tree is allowed to regrow and then protected the following winter, fruiting branches will grow from the one-year old wood and figs will be gotten the following season after protection.
What if you live in zones 5 or 6, and don’t want to protect a fig tree but still want to grow figs? Then choose our Chicago Hardy variety and plant in a sunny, protected location.
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