Caring For Fig Trees
Watering and Mulching Figs
Like any fruit tree, the fig does not do well if the soil gets too dry, especially when it is carrying fruit. The first step is to apply a layer of organic mulch around the tree three to four inches thick. That mulch will help reduce water loss out of the soil. When the mulch has decomposed down to less than two inches, it should be renewed. For watering the general rule is that the tree needs about one inch of water each week either from the rain or from you. If the tree is in a container or growing in the ground in the south, in July and August two inches is a better rule. If you rig a soaker hose type of drip irrigation around the tree under the mulch, your watering task gets real easy. The tree is going to be much more sensitive to lack of water in its first five or six years. As it matures, it can handle a bit more dry weather. Still, even a full sized tree will need watering if you’ve had no rain for a couple of weeks in the summer.
Your fig tree should not be fertilized in the year it is planted. In the following spring it will enjoy an application of a granular slow release type of nitrogen fertilizer after the leaves have appeared. For in ground trees, spread a cup or two of fertilizer for every year of growth until you get to ten cups. Spread the fertilizer somewhat evenly around the tree under the drip line, but no closer to the tree than five inches. In containers give your tree several cups of fertilizer in the spring and again in June, remembering that there is no real soil in that container so the tree is completely dependent on you for its nutrition. Like all fruit trees, too much fertilizer in any year will create lots of green growth and very little fruit. With figs, over-fertilizing also makes them much more vulnerable to winter damage because their growth rate is so rapid.
In the deep south, a fig tree can become quite large so there is little need to prune after shaping the tree in the first four or five years. In the rest of the country, figs can be pruned to be small single stemmed trees, or if left to their natural habit become multi-stemmed shrubs. In many instances, fig growers will shape the multi-stemmed shrub into a flat sided, fan-shaped bush that is growing up against a south-facing wall. As a reminder, if your skin is sensitive to the fig's milky latex, wear gloves during pruning.
What I’m saying is that figs are quite amenable to fairly constant pruning over the years, or will be perfectly happy being left alone. Here is the key piece of information for folks growing the “common fig”, which is the most popular. The fruit in the first or breba harvest is produced on “old” wood that was produced in the previous year. The fruit on the common fig in the main harvest in late summer grows on “new” wood. That is a branch that is produced in the current year. The branches forming this year will have fruit on them in the current year and then again in the early part of next year. I mention this to point out that if you prune the whole tree back during the winter, the normal time to prune, you are likely losing your early crop. In most areas, except in the deep south, that early crop is usually inconsequential, so don’t worry about it. The tree can be cut down to the ground and the new growth will produce fruit in the late summer.
At the same time, most folks feel a bit nervous cutting the whole tree back at one time. The safe approach until you gain some experience and confidence is to follow the one third rule. Take no more than one third of last year’s growth off of no more than one third of the branches. As with all trees, you should remove all dead wood at any time.
For those of you living in areas where a heavy freeze can show up unexpectedly, mother nature may do some radical pruning for you. Fig trees hit by an unexpected cold snap in the fall might die back all the way to ground, scaring the wits out of newbie fig growers. For you experienced fig enthusiasts, you know that in most cases, especially if you had a good layer of organic mulch, that fig tree will come back next year. It might not produce as much fruit in that first year back from the dead, but it will be fine in the second year and thereafter; at least until you get hit with another unexpected freeze.
In the south, winter protection usually requires only the spreading of fleece or floating row cover material over the tree if there is an abnormal frost in the forecast. It is in the north where the techniques and tricks for winter protection of fig trees can become a closely guarded secret that is not shared with anyone in hopes of having the bragging rights about the biggest figs in the neighborhood. There are hundreds of techniques, all designed to keep the fig tree from freezing or exposed to freezing winds.
Folks with their fig trees in a container have it pretty easy as long as they have a place to store the tree in its container over the winter. If you take it inside to the basement you are sure of protection but you want the tree to be entirely in the dark to avoid its coming to leaf too early in the spring. If you store it in an unheated garage you may need to add some insulation to be sure of protection. You are looking to keep the temperature around the tree no lower than 20 degrees, and 30 is better. You want your fig trees to go fully dormant. This may mean leaving them out for a couple of frosts, so that the leaves all (drop)and the sap is already moving downward in the stems. If there are still some leaves or fruits when you are ready to move the tree indoors, strip them off yourself. Waiting until the tree is dormant increases the plant's cold hardiness and reduces the need for extra care.
Figs in indoor or garage storage during winter should not be watered except perhaps one cup of water per month to prevent the soil mix from becoming powdery. Any more water and you can cause root rot. Ideally the tree is covered up so there is no light getting to the tree. Then in the early spring the tree should be checked to see if it has started growing. If the tree has come into growth, it must be brought into good light immediately. If the tree is kept in the dark, this is not likely to be a problem.
If you live in the North and your fig tree is growing in the soil then each winter you have an engineering challenge limited only by your imagination and source of insulating materials. A thick layer of mulch, 4 to 6 inches deep is a good place to start. The shape and size of the tree will determine how elaborate you can get in protecting your treasure. You can wrap the tree in insulating materials such as bubble wrap, old rugs, canvas or even pink insulation used to insulate homes. Some folks will build a structure around the tree, cover the structure with insulating materials, and then fill the structure around the tree with chopped leaves or with those plastic peanuts used for protecting things in boxes when they are shipped. You don’t take the protection off the tree until all danger of frost is past. If you feel you need some advice, you will find lots of folks on the Internet growing fig trees and willing to share winter protection techniques.
Ripeness or maturity of a fig cannot be judged by its size. They will not ripen if picked when immature, so you need to learn the trick for picking figs at the best time. Fresh figs should be picked just as the fruit begins to soften. A ripe fig will be slightly soft and starting to bend at the neck. Pick one to check its readiness; if it not soft inside, wait another day or two. Harvest the fruit gently to avoid bruising. Generally you need to use the fruit as it ripens. Ripe figs can be stored for two or maybe three days at cool temperatures (about 40 degrees F) to retard spoilage. On the other hand, for preserving figs, they may be picked a few days before they are fully ripe. The fruit will hold together better once cooked, a step that reduces the chance of spoilage or souring. In most areas of the country the fruit cannot be sun-dried because of high humidity. They can however be easily dried in any home scale dehydrator. Dried figs can be stored for six to eight months.. Fresh figs may be frozen for up to 6 months though they will be somewhat mushy when thawed. They can also be candied or canned in syrup. As with pruning, if your skin is sensitive to the fig's milky latex, wear gloves during harvest.