How to grow and care for a fig tree
Easy-care and adaptable, the fig tree is a great-looking landscape plant that will also thrive in large pots and bear delicious fruit.
What you need to know about a fig tree
Name: fig, fruiting fig (Ficus carica cvrs)
Plant type: deciduous, multi-branched small tree.
Height: technically 15m, but usually pruned to desired size (less than 4m).
Foliage: large, up to 30cm, with 3–7 rounded lobes. Bright, deep green.
Climate: warm temperate, sub-tropical, and microclimates in cool temperate.
Soil: adaptable to most soils, but resents waterlogged situations.
Position: full sun required for fruit to ripen, but protect the plant from harsh sun in hotter zones.
Flowering and fruiting: can be two fruit crops annually: spring–early summer and late summer–autumn.
Feeding: little required.
Watering: requires reliable moisture across all seasons.
Appearance and characteristics of a fig tree
If there is one fruit tree that suits both the beginner fruit grower and the gardening gourmet it would have to be the fig tree. Often overlooked by gardeners today, a fig trees is a worthwhile inclusion in many home gardens, or even on a balcony in a tub. Many experienced gardeners will tell you that if you only grow one fruit tree, you should make it a fig. It is so useful, both as a landscape plant and a productive plant, as well as being low-maintenance and all but foolproof.
The fig tree requires little introduction. The large, slightly hairy leaves, with their multi-lobed shape, are instantly recognisable. If left to their own growth, the trees tend to take a spreading, multi-trunked form, but they are usually pruned—and they can be pruned very hard—to maintain shape and vigour and to make fruit easier to harvest.
Figs can also be grown in pots. In fact, they are said to fruit better when grown in containers due to the root restriction.
Uses of fig trees
A fig tree can be grown for a variety of uses, such as:
It can be added to your fruit or veggie garden.
Its large foliage means it makes a great feature plant its large foliage.
It’s an ideal “beginner’s” fruit tree.
It’s excellent in large pots and tubs.
How to plant and grow a fig
A fig tree requires full sun for figs to ripen properly. In very hot positions or warmer climates, the tree will need protection from the hottest sun, as the branches and stems can be sunburnt. This is not generally an issue with plants that have a good foliage canopy, but it is a consideration, especially with younger trees.
A light, fertile sandy loam is ideal, however a fig will adapt to virtually any soil conditions, with the exception of waterlogged situations. It will do well in clay, as the heavy soil restricts root growth and can encourage more fruit production.
All types of fig trees like reliable moisture. The best way to ensure moisture stability is to keep your tree well mulched. Avoid too much water while fruit are developing, as this can lead to fruit splitting. Figs are one of the most moisture-tolerant fruit trees, but they won’t tolerate being waterlogged, especially during winter.
The best indicator of inadequate moisture is leaves yellowing and dropping, and a reduced number of fruits.
Most fig trees in the ground will perform well without additional feeding. However, if last season’s branches grew less than 30cm, apply a controlled-release fertiliser that’s balanced for fruit trees in spring. In pots, an annual application of this fertiliser is also recommended.
Planting fig trees
Avoid planting your fig tree near any drains or pipes, as fig roots can be very vigorous and invasive. Before planting, prepare the hole by blending through quality, well-composted manure or planting compost. Don’t excessively open up the surrounding soil, as figs will fruit better if their roots are restricted.
In pots, use a premium potting mix, preferably a fruit tree blend, if available.
Caring for a fig tree
Provide newly planted trees with some shade until well established. As they are surface rooting, keep plants well mulched.
When to harvest figs
Many fig varieties produce two crops a year, especially when summers are long. The first crop, which appears in spring to early summer, is known as the “breda” crop. This is the fruit that started forming the previous autumn. The fruit from this harvest will be larger in size but smaller in number.
The main crop is the second one, which appears in late summer to autumn. The fruit will be smaller, more prolific and tastier, and will be produced on the new season’s growth.
How to harvest figs
Because fresh figs are delicate and bruise easily, it is best to pick them from the stem, rather than handling the fruit. Store them in a shallow bowl, and avoid stacking the fruits on top of each other.
Once harvested, eat your figs as soon as possible. The fruit really needs to be used within 2–3 days. Mature figs can produce hundreds of figs every year across just a few weeks, so make sure you have some good recipes on hand! You can freeze the fresh fruit and it will last for a few months at least. Figs also dry very well, and will keep this way for up to 6–8 months.
How to prune a fig tree
If you don’t mind your fig growing to its maximum potential, no pruning is required. Otherwise, there are a number of considerations. Note: The milky sap from the stems, leaves and unripe fruits can cause skin and eye irritation, so avoid contact when pruning.
If pruning to control size and shape, prune from planting time to favour side branching. As the plant matures, maintain this pattern. Once the plant is established, regular pruning is usually conducted after the main crop has been harvested. This can vary by region and variety, though, so check the label.
Fig trees will produce excellent crops without pruning, so there is no need to prune to increase fruiting. However, you can improve the quality and speed of harvests by pruning. When a breda crop is developing, trim off just the end growth tip of stems bearing fruit. This will speed up ripening. For plants grown in regions with a second crop, shorten the new shoots in early summer so only 4–6 leaves are left on each. You won't need to do this on potted plants.
If space is limited you can train figs like an espalier—flat against a wall or climbing frame. Simply tie new shoots back (you can remove the ties as the wood hardens), and trim off any shoots that point outwards.
Diseases and pests affecting figs
Scale insects can infest leaves and fruit surfaces. A suitable oil will eradicate them easily. Rust can also attack leaves. Treat this with a suitable product and remove and destroy any fallen leaves. Seal them in a plastic bag and put it in the rubbish, not in the compost or green waste.
Ask the plant health professional in your local nursery for advice on the best remedies for pests and diseases, as treatments need to be suitable for edible plants.
Growing figs from cuttings
New fig trees will grow easily from cuttings. In early spring, before the leaves start opening, take cuttings of around 20–30cm long that have some two-year-old wood at the base and are less than around 2.5cm in diameter. Dip in a suitable cutting product and then position in a pot of propagating mix in a warm, sunny spot, ensuring it is kept moist.
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