Few things in life are more delicious than a sweet, ripe, juicy fig straight from the tree. It’s a shame that few people get to experience this delicacy! Fresh figs bruise easily and have a short shelf life, making them rare in grocery stores. Dry figs are cool and all, but are definitely not the same. Thankfully, fig trees are quite easy to grow at home! They are low maintenance, attract few pests, and can grow as compact trees – perfect for gardens of all shapes and sizes. In addition to scrumptious fruit, provide beautiful foliage for your landscape.
In this fig grow guide, you’ll find all the information you need to successfully grow fig trees, including: tips to choose the best fig variety for your garden, planting instructions, how to prune, fertilize, and harvest figs and more! I’ve even included a long list of ways to prepare and eat figs at the end. Truth be told, fig trees are among my top favorites to grow. So much so, we had 5 fig trees in our old garden, and were the first trees we are adding to the new homestead!
Fig Tree Growing Requirements, at a glance:
- Growing Zones: Fig trees grow best in USDA hardiness zones 7 or 8-12, though some extra-hardy varieties like ‘Chicago Hardy’ can survive in zone 6. Lower zone gardeners can grow cold-hardy figs in containers and move them to a protected location over winter, such as a garage, shed, basement, or even indoors. Most established fig trees can survive temperatures down to 15 to 20 degrees F.
- Size & Structure: Fig trees grow 10 to 30 feet tall and up to 20 feet wide, depending on variety and pruning. Fig trees are deciduous, meaning they naturally lose their leaves in the winter and grow fresh ones each spring.
- Sun: Full sun to partial shade. Like most fruit trees, fig trees can tolerate some shade but will fruit more prolifically when provided at least 7 hours of direct sun.
- Soil: Grow fig trees in well-draining soil amended with ample organic matter (i.e. compost). They will also tolerate moderately clay soils, but not a lot of standing water. Figs are said to prefer slightly acidic soil conditions (pH of 5.5 to 6.5) though we never adjust our fig soil pH; they aren’t very picky.
- Water: Moderate water. Most varieties are drought-tolerant once established, though they will produce better quality fruit with continued moderate water.
- Fruiting Season: Depends on variety; often late summer. If planting several fig trees, choose a combination of early, mid, and late-season bearing trees. That way you’ll be flush with fruit over a longer season – and not overwhelmed with too many at once!
Getting Started: Seeds, Nursery Trees, or Cuttings
The best and most reliable way to grow fig trees is from cuttings that are taken from a female, fruit-bearing tree. While it’s technically “possible” to grow fig trees from seed, the resulting tree may not be female, breed true to the parent tree, or reliably bear decent fruit. Young fig trees you’ll find at the garden center were propagated from cuttings and/or grafted rootstock.
We prefer to get a jump start and purchase decent-size trees from the local nursery in 5 gallon pots since fig trees can already take several years to bear fruit. However, you can also propagate your own cuttings from a friend’s tree and grow your own fig tree that way too.
What kind of fig tree should I get?
Black Mission and Brown Turkey are two very well-known types of figs, but there are dozens of interesting and delicious varieties to choose from! It’s important to select a fig tree variety that is well-suited for your climate, space, and taste buds. Read descriptions before making a purchase. I always suggest checking locally-owned nurseries first; they should carry varieties that grow well in your area. I’m working on writing up a detailed list of 18 different fig varieties (available now here!) In the meantime, let’s take a deeper look at how to best choose…
Most fig tree varieties grow best outdoors in hardiness zones 8 through 11 where summers are long and hot and winters are mild. However, some fig tree varieties can survive in much colder climates too! For instance, the ‘Chicago Hardy’ fig grows in zone 6. Many others are adapted down to zone 7, especially when planted in a protected location. Celeste and Brown Turkey are two other popular fig varieties well-suited for cold climates.
Here on the Central Coast of California, we seek out figs that thrive in more temperate conditions (such as Desert King or Corky’s Honey Delight) since we have moderately cool, foggy summers. Fig varieties that prefer high heat won’t be as sweet and fruitful here, such as Violette de Bordeaux or Kadota – both of which I’ve heard great things about!
Fig Tree Size
In addition to climate, consider the size of the tree. Some fig trees are available as dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties that will reach a maximum height of 10 to 15 feet, perfect for smaller gardens, tidy orchards, or containers. We’ve grown many semi-dwarf varieties that are still less than 6 feet tall, many years after planting. Other fig trees grow quite large, reaching up to 30 feet tall. Fig trees are bushy in nature and can grow a canopy as wide as the tree is tall. However, figs are easy to train and tame – so you can always keep a larger variety pruned to stay on the smaller side. Maintaining shorter fig trees also makes harvesting fruit much easier.
Now, let’s talk about the fruit itself! I’ve never crossed a fresh fig that I didn’t like, but some fig tree varieties bear sweeter, larger, or more unique fruit than others. Eye-catching striped ‘Penache Tiger’ figs, massive tennis ball-like ‘Yellow Longneck’ figs, extra-sweet ‘Honey’ varieties… the list goes on!
We personally love to grow green-skinned figs, also referred to as “white figs”. Green or white fig varieties stay green even once they’re fully ripe, turning only lighter green or yellow-green. Because of this, wild birds don’t tend to eat them! Unlike other figs that send a visual cue (hey look at me, I’m sweet!) by turning dark purple, red, or black as they ripen.
Do figs need a cross-pollinator (do you need 2 fig trees to produce fruit)?
No! Fig trees are self-fertile, meaning they do not require another fig tree nearby for cross-pollination in order to bear fruit. This is just one more reason why figs are such a great choice for home gardens! Though if you have the space, I bet you’ll want more than just one.
What are Breba Figs?
Breba figs are those that grow on last year’s wood growth, as opposed to the ‘main crop’ that grows from the current year’s new branch growth. Some fig varieties produce an exceptionally large and delicious breba crop, such as Desert King. Others are known for their main crop. Most figs produce some of both, so you could get a couple crops of figs per season! Overwintering as buds on the tree, breba figs develop and ripen earlier than the main crop, typically in late spring to early summer rather than late summer to fall. If you find your tree tends to produce a weak (or not tasty) breba crop, you can remove those fruits early so the tree can focus it’s energy on the main crop instead.
Planting a Fig Tree
To plant a fig tree, follow general tree-planting best practices:
- Choose a planting location that receives full sun and good drainage. In zones 8 and lower, consider a spot that offers some added protection in the winter such as near a fence or house.
- Space fig trees anywhere from 6 to 15 feet from other trees, depending on the variety, landscape, and planned intensity of pruning.
- Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the existing root ball or pot, up to 2 to 3 times wider but not much deeper.
- Plant the tree so the top of the root ball and base of the trunk are level with the surrounding ground surface. Do not bury the trunk.
- It’s okay to amend the planting hole with quality potting soil, worm castings, and/or well-aged compost, but otherwise do not fertilize at the time of planting.
- Optional: sprinkle granular mycorrhizae on the root ball, or water with a soluble mycorrhizae after planting. Mycorrhizae helps reduce transplant shock, encourage strong root development, deter root knot nematodes and other pests, and boost overall tree health.
- Water the tree thoroughly after planting.
- Add a layer of mulch on top, but leaving a clear mulch-free ring several inches around the trunk.
Do you have gophers in your yard? If yes, I highly suggest planting your fig tree in a gopher cage to protect it from damage. Trust me. We learned the hard way that gophers find fig trees absolutely irresistible. They will chew and eat the roots as well as around the base of the trunk. You can either buy large pre-made gopher baskets, or make your own like we do! Learn more about making and installing gopher baskets for trees here.
Can I grow a fig tree in a container?
Absolutely! We kept several of our fig trees in half wine barrel planters for many years, though we did eventually plant them in-ground. Growing figs in containers is an especially desirable option for cold-climate gardeners (zone 6 and lower) that will need to move their fig trees to a protected location for winter. Potted fig trees should be brought outside to soak up the sun during the warm months, or at least placed near a large sunny window if not.
Bear in mind that the size of the pot will directly limit the growth and production of trees (e.g. smaller pot = smaller tree). A dwarf or semi-dwarf fig tree variety will do best in a pot. Containerized figs will need to be fertilized more often; see fertilizing notes below. Most trees are admittedly happier in the ground than in pots. If you have the option, plant your fig tree in the ground.
Fertilizing Fig Trees
Fig trees are not typically heavy feeders, especially if they’re planted in decent soil from the start. Plan to fertilize in-ground fig trees only once or twice per year (spring and possibly fall) with an organic slow-release fruit tree fertilizer like this one. We simply feed our fig trees with homemade compost tea a couple times per year! Applying a water-soluble mycorrhizae in the spring can also help increase fruit production.
Fig trees growing in containers will need more frequent fertilizer than those planted in the ground, requiring up to quarterly feeding. Feed potted figs with a slow-release granular organic fertilizer by dusting it over the soil surface, lightly scratch it in, and then water thoroughly. Follow the amounts listed in the product instructions.
Pruning Fig Trees
Fig trees grow well with little pruning, though some clean-up here and there can help maintain a more tidy and compact tree. Pruning can also encourage new growth, branching, and more fruit.
At the time of transplanting, we typically prune the top of young fig trees if they’re growing as a single vertical trunk. Topping straight “whips” young will encourage branching and a more bushy structure – perfect to easily harvest fruit. See the photos below for further instruction. Unpruned whips will eventually branch too, but not as soon or vigorously as when topped.
Thereafter, prune fig trees during the dormant season, once they’ve lost their leaves in late fall or winter. Use clean and sanitized pruning shears or loppers to remove weak, diseased, dead, or otherwise undesirable branches from the tree. Removing (or topping) vertical branches near the center of the tree will create a more open and wide canopy, and increased growth of lateral fruiting branches. Pruning back the main branches by one quarter to a third each year will promote continued branching.
Last but not least, remove any branches that spring up from the very base of the tree by the soil. These undesirable growths are called “suckers” because they draw energy and nutrients away from the main tree. (I don’t find suckers to be very common on fig trees compared to other fruit trees like apples or stone fruit.)
Caring for Fig Trees in Winter
If you grow fig trees in a climate where temperatures dip below 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time, plan to protect your tree during winter. Potted fig trees should be brought inside or into a garage, shed, or other place that is sheltered from freezing conditions. In-ground trees can be protected with frost cloth or burlap if needed. A good deep layer of mulch around the base of the tree will help to insulate the soil and roots to reduce hard frost damage.
Fig Tree Pests or Disease
Thankfully, fig trees are afflicted by few pests or disease. The most common fig tree pests we contend with are gophers (who eat the roots) and birds (who eat the fruit). Planting your fig tree in a gopher basket will protect them from gnawing gopher damage. As previously discussed, green or white-skin fig varieties are far less attractive to birds in our experience!
Another solution to stop birds (or squirrels) from eating your figs is to place reusable mesh bags like these over each fig as it becomes ripe. While tedious, it’s effective! I don’t love draping traditional bird netting over fruit trees since birds and other wildlife often become entangled in it. A finer mesh insect netting could be used instead with less risk.
Other potential fig tree pests or disease include thrips, root knot nematodes, rust, and leaf spot.
Do figs really have wasps inside?
Yes and no. Have you heard that there is a dead wasp inside every fig? That “fact” can creep some folks out, but don’t let it deter you from enjoying or growing fig trees – because it’s not nearly as gnarly (or true) as it sounds!
Many fig tree varieties (but not all) are pollinated by small beneficial wasps, which crawl inside and eventually die within the fruit. Yet the relationship is mutualistic; it benefits both parties! The wasps are providing an essential service for the fig trees: pollination. In return, the fig fruit offers a safe haven for the wasps to reproduce. Even then, the figs release specialized enzymes that dissolves the wasp inside, so you would not notice anything unusual when eating the fruit. The crunchy bits are fig seeds – not wasp parts or eggs!
How long does it take for a fig tree to bear fruit?
Fig trees typically take about 3 to 5 years to start producing quality fruit. During the first few years, don’t be dismayed if your crop is dismal. Young fig trees may develop small, dry fruit on their branches for a couple years before their production really picks up. Every year will be better than the last! Eventually, if your tree is producing a huge amount of figs, you can thin (remove) some of the smaller fruit to encourage larger, juicier figs if needed. Insufficient water and/or nutrients can lead to less than ideal fruit production.
How do I harvest figs from the tree?
Ah, the fun part has arrived! To harvest figs, gently pull up on the fruit so that it detaches from the branch at the very tip of the stem. Don’t pull down, and avoid tearing or squishing the fruit. If harvested early, under-ripe figs will not continue to ripen on the counter as other fruit might. Therefore, it’s best to harvest figs when they’re fully ripe (or darn close to it) if possible.
After harvesting figs, keep in mind that they have a very short shelf life. You can keep them out at room temperature for a day or two, but otherwise should be refrigerated. Store very soft or overripe fruit in the refrigerator right away.
How do you know when figs are ready to harvest?
There are a few telltale signs that figs are ripe and ready for harvest:
- They will become increasingly large in size.
- A ripe fig will change color from dark green to whatever color is expected for that particular variety, such as dark purple, yellow-green, or reddish brown.
- Ripe figs become increasingly thin-skinned, soft and droop on the branch. One way to tell if a fig is ready to harvest is to gently squeeze the fruit to check for softness. Harvest them when they’re supple to the touch but before they get mushy.
- Finally, a very ripe fig may split or drip honey-like juices from the bottom end – or get a “juicy booty” as I like to call it.
Figs will also pull off easier from the stem when ripe. Of course, the ultimate test to know if a fig is ripe is to get in there and take a bite – revealing the unique, sweet, slightly gooey (but in a good way!) jam-like inner flesh.
What do fresh figs taste like?
Fresh figs have a unique sweet flavor – like a spectacular blend of honey, fruit syrup, and ripe berries. I just read this question out loud and Aaron replied “like a party in your mouth”! Lol. Figs are one of our favorite fruits to grow for a reason. If you’ve never had a fig right from the tree, you’re in for a real treat once you grow you own!
Ways to Eat or Preserve Fresh Figs
90% of the time, we simply enjoy our figs fresh – eating them whole like a pear or plum. We also like to cut them up to serve in breakfast with plain yogurt, nuts, seeds, and granola. Figs are amazing on top of sourdough pancakes, or over vanilla coconut ice cream.
Tree-ripened figs are plenty sweet on their own. They don’t require additional sugar or a drizzle of honey as I see many folks do. However, if you’re looking for an extra-special treat, or if you have more fresh figs than you can eat plain, please enjoy these tantalizing ways to eat figs:
- Oven-roasted figs with cheese, honey, nuts, and/or aged balsamic vinegar. Cut the figs in half, stuff or top them with a tangy rich cheese (such as goat cheese or blue cheese), drizzle with honey or thick sweet balsamic vinegar, sprinkle walnut or pecan pieces on top. Roast in the oven on 375°F until slightly softened, warm and juicy. Balsamic-honey marinated figs are also excellent grilled!
- Serve as a fresh fig bruschetta. Top crackers or crusty bread with a soft spreadable cheese like ricotta, mascarpone, or goat cheese. Then add chopped figs, chopped pecans, a drizzle of honey or reduced balsamic vinegar, and a sprinkle of fresh herbs like thyme or rosemary.
- Use fresh figs as a topping on salads, pizza, or even sourdough focaccia. In addition to tangy cheese, herbs, and balsamic, figs pair exceptionally well with caramelized onions.
- Turn your harvest into fig jam or fig compote.
- Dehydrate into homegrown dried figs. I can’t recommend our favorite Excalibur food dehydrators highly enough!
- Make chocolate-covered figs. Dip fresh figs in melted chocolate and then pop them into the refrigerator to harden.
- Freeze figs to enjoy later on desserts, in smoothies, transform into spreads, and more
- Use fresh figs as the filling for a sweet baked cobbler, crumble, tart, galette, or pie.
- Make homemade fig newtons or fig bars. Try these vegan gluten-free oatmeal fig bars!
And that sums up how to grow fig trees!
If all that doesn’t get you excited to grow figs, I don’t know what will! Even more, I hope this article helps you feel prepared and confident to plant, grow, care for, harvest, and enjoy homegrown figs. Please let me know if you have any lingering questions in the comments below. Do you grow fig trees too? I’d love to hear what your favorite varieties are and why! Last but not least, please feel free to pin or share this article if you found the information you learned to be useful. Thank you so much for tuning in. Enjoy those figs!
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