Planting Fig Trees
The selection of the planting site is more important for figs than for the other fruit trees discussed in this book. If you live in the South you can have full sun, but having some afternoon shade might be helpful to your productivity. In the South you can plant in the ground unless in your area you suffer from having root knot nematodes in your soil. In that case, it is better to grow your figs in a container with soilless mix (see the discussion of nematodes below).
In the North the issue is protecting your tree from the cold weather. Fig trees planted in the ground become vulnerable when winter temperatures (drop)below 15 F. Very young trees can even be damaged by fall frosts when the temperature falls below 25 F. You can try planting your fig in the ground, but for sure you need full sun, and even then it is best to have it fairly close (3 to 6 feet) to a south facing wall of some kind; anything to reduce the effects of frost. If you live north of the Mason Dixon line you are best advised to start off with growing figs in a large container, described later in this section. With a container, you can move the plant to a winter location more safe from the impact of the cold weather. I have good tips for winter protection of fig trees below.
Figs prefer a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5 but seem to tolerate higher or lower levels pretty well. Perhaps the most important variable is planting your fig in a soil that drains very well. They really don’t like wet feet. Fig trees will grow in a variety of soils ranging from sandy loams to clay loams.
Plant figs before they break dormancy in the spring. If planting in the ground remove the top half of bare-root plants (no shorter than 24 to 36 inches), but do not remove any growth from container-grown plants. Set the plants 3 to 4 inches deeper than the soil line on the stem of the plant. Do not fertilize at this time. Allow the plant to grow un-pruned the first season. Be aware that a fig tree has very shallow roots that will grow out twice the distance from the trunk to the drip line. So planting the fig next to the vegetable garden might not be the best choice.
If your fig tree is exposed to the elements a stake may be needed for the first year to protect the tree from strong rains and wind. Trim off lower branches and any sucker growth which arises from the ground. These stems deplete the fig tree and detract from the overall strength and growth. Before long, your tree should be growing at a foot per year with proper care.
Planting Figs In A Container
Fig trees grow well in containers. Choose a large container holding at least 10 gallons of potting mix. A whiskey barrel planter is an excellent option. You want your fig tree to have sufficient room to develop some decent roots. Make sure there are sufficient drainage holes at the bottom and do not put a layer of gravel or stones on the bottom as was the practice years ago. Put soilless mix right down to the bottom.
Use no real dirt in the container. A good quality commercial soilless potting mix is best and make sure it has been thoroughly moistened before you plant your fig. The potting mix will develop it's own micro-environment over time and your goal is to make that tree completely healthy. Plant your fig into the container at the same depth it was growing in its pot. Although it is okay to plant an inch or so deeper if the original container shows a lot of surface roots. If the roots have become cramped in the original pot and are beginning to grow in a circle, the roots are fine but gently pull them apart a bit and spread the roots into the new container when planting. Another reason for using a soilless mix in your container is its weight. It is light enough even when wet to move the container inside during the winter if that is necessary in your neighborhood.
In a container, your fig tree will require more water in the hot months and more protection from cold in the winter, for the roots are out of the ground that would normally insulate them. In the hot summer months try to keep the pot itself out of direct sun. The containers and the roots inside them will heat up more than you think. If your fig keeps wilting in the summer and you've watered and watered, check to see how hot that container is getting in the sun. While you don’t want to shade the tree, a strategically placed bench or deck chair in front of the container can reduce the heat problems.
Container fig trees may be moved to a larger container every year or two until you have reached the largest pot you can handle in terms of moving it into a protected area in the winter. When you get to the size you want to keep, then every three years you will pull the tree out of the container, root prune it so the root ball is about two to three inches in radius smaller than the former size, replace the potting mix, and replant the tree.