Growing and Caring For Your Fig Tree

by Daniel Gentile

 

Part 1 - What is a fig tree?, Where can I get a fig tree?

Fig trees have a history spanning thousands of years and have been enjoyed by the Romans, ancient Egyptians, and Greeks among others.  Today, they have become tightly woven into the fabric of our own society, steeped in a family legend of grandparents who immigrated to the United States on ships from regions that surround the Mediterranean.  Most families, poor, with nothing except clothes on their back, hope, and a small fig tree or cutting tucked away in a fold of clothing.  Those fig trees were nurtured and protected through methods taught by their own parents and they provided healthy, delicious fruit with a strong connection to home.  The care and maintenance that was afforded to any fig tree became symbolic of the struggle, growth, and development of their own families in the United States.  Those that are lucky enough to have grown up in the midst of a productive fig tree will share that special bond with their ancestors.            

Many people continue the tradition of growing fig trees just as their parents and grandparents did.  Some own special heirloom varieties that have been with families for many, many generations.  Others own exotic varieties that were discovered in some far, wild corner of the Earth.  While others own extensive collections of hundreds of varieties, sometimes spanning many acres of land.  Whatever the logic or reason, there has been an increased interest for this delicious fruit.  Enthusiasm is still picking up steam and doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down any time soon.

I am a fig grower in the northeast corner of the United States, New York City, USDA Zone 7b.  My family also has a small fruit orchard in the country, USDA Zone 5b.  We fall into every category of fig collector/grower in the previous paragraph.  I created this guide for gardeners that are new to growing fig trees.  It is a basic set of non-technical instructions introducing you to growing and caring for a fig tree in its simplest terms.  They are based on my own experiences here in the northeast and gathered from a variety of sources including nurseries, commercial farmers, the internet, other growers and my Great-Grandfather, Pietro.  It is not definitive and forever being updated and tweaked.  The guide covers a lot of ground in small doses.  Read through to the end and follow the instructions as closely as possible.  I understand that some information will be biased toward northeast growers so please vary accordingly and use common sense.  Fig trees are tough and will thrive for generations and longer.  Anything living that long provides a strong connection among family, friends, places and a unique way of caring.  With a minimal amount of care and knowledge you’ll find that fig trees are easy to grow, no green thumb is necessary.

This article is free to copy and use for any positive purpose but please leave my name intact at the top and cite where you copied the article from.  If any reader has something to add or thinks something should be changed, edited, removed or otherwise updated, please contact me at admin@figBid.com.  At the end of the article, I suggest a few groups and organizations that would be of interest.  Some are giants in the fruit growing world and others are organized groups but all are loaded with knowledgeable people dedicated to growing.  I’ve also suggested some light reading and strongly urge you to pick up at least one book to help with your fig journey.  Otherwise, the internet is your best friend and a simple Google of almost any question will net you an answer.

WHAT IS A FIG TREE?

The fig tree is a semi-tropical tree that is cultivated primarily for its delicious fruit.  It is naturally occurring in the warm Mediterranean region, Middle East and parts of Asia.  Fig trees belong to the genus ficus and the species is ficus carica.  Fig trees thrive in the warm and steady climate of the Mediterranean and surrounding regions.  But fig trees have been naturalized to our North American climate and only require a hot summer to produce a bounty of fruit.  Fortunately, summers here in the northeast are hot and long enough and fit the bill quite nicely.  Fig trees are deciduous (leaves fall off in winter and grow back in spring) and can grow 5 - 30 feet depending upon the variety.  They produce beautiful deeply lobed and single, spade-shaped leaves.  Leaves are thick and lush; Shapes and textures are variety dependent and sometimes many different types of leaves will grow on one tree.

Fig tree biology is interesting but can get a little complicated, so it’s not suited for this article.  We’ll dive into a very short primer and list the types of fig trees, the crops they produce and call it a day.  If you are interested in reading more about fig tree Biology just do a Google search or pick up one of the suggested books below.  

Before getting into types of fig trees we have to dispel a myth.  I’m asked this question by almost every new fig grower; Do figs really have wasps inside of them?  The answer is, NO.  Somewhere, an article about real fig wasps (blastophaga psenes) was published with pictures of wasps that we are all used to seeing.  You know, the wasps with black and yellow striped bodies, and stingers that we consider dangerous summer pests.  Social media blew this out of proportion and every unfortunate person this poorly constructed article reached was sadly misinformed.  I guess you can call this a case of fake news.  Real fig wasps are tiny pollinating machines whose existence has been perfected over millions of years of evolution.  The entire life cycle of the fig wasp revolves around fig tree pollination.  Unfortunately, fig wasps are not indigenous to the northeastern United States and our climate does not allow their existence here.  The fig wasp appears only in small, very specific regions of the world with a very specific Mediterranean climate.  So, every person that won’t grow a fig tree because they’re afraid of eating a wasp you have nothing to worry about.  Here in the northeast portion of the United States, it’s naturally impossible for us to have wasps inside of our figs… PERIOD!  

There are three types of edible figs:

  1. Common figs.  Also called Persistent.  Common refers to the type of fig tree and not the varietal name.  Common figs do NOT require pollination to bear fruit and bear 2 crops during the season.  The first crop is called the breba crop and the second crop is called the main crop.  The varieties we are most familiar with in the northeast are Common figs.
  2. Smyrna figs.  Require pollination to bear fruit.  Figs will develop and fall from the tree before maturing into edible fruit.
  3. San Pedro figs.  Do not require pollination to set the first crop of fruit (breba), but will require pollination for the second (main) crop.  Without pollination, the main crop will always fall from the tree before maturing into edible fruit.  We can grow a San Pedro fig in the northeast for the first crop only.

WHERE CAN I GET A FIG TREE?

Fortunately, fig trees are pretty easy to acquire.  In the spring, most big box stores and local nurseries will carry at least one variety of fig tree.  Just pay a visit and pick out a healthy one.  Don’t expect the variety to match the hang tag.  Sometimes it does, most times it does not.  In any case, you’ll probably take home a tree that will bear fruit the following season.  In my experience, salespeople in big box stores will not be able to help you with instructions or tips specific to fig trees.  You’ll garner better information from a local nurseryman but not by much.  

My recommendation is to purchase from a dedicated fig grower.  A dedicated fig grower can be a neighbor or relative, hobbyist that grows primarily fig trees, a retail online fig nursery or auction website.  Dedicated fig growers are an endless fountain of valuable fig growing knowledge. Both you and your fig tree will be much happier with your purchase in the end.  Please take a look at the article I’ve written about Buying Fig Trees and Cuttings Online.  It’s very informative and available for free at www.figBid.com.  There's also a link to the article in the suggested reading at the end of Part 4.

 

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Go to Part 2 - Caring for your new potted or in-ground fig tree.