By Chris Dalziel, contributing writer
Tight on garden space? Maybe you live in an apartment with only a balcony for growing food. Maybe you have a rental place and you can’t dig up the back yard. Or just maybe you have a postage stamp yard with no room for a garden. Fig trees grown in containers may be ideal for your limited space or limited opportunity situation.
How to grow figs in containers
Figs are the perfect fruit to grow in containers. While European figs require pollination by a tiny wasp, the female figs we have in North America don’t require pollination to produce fruit. This makes them easy to grow anywhere with sufficient light and protection.
Figs planted in the ground focus their energy on developing roots. It can take 8 to 10 years for them to get around to fruit production. Container grown figs occupy the root zone of their pots quickly and then spend their energy producing fruit. Container grown figs fruit precociously, usually within five years of planting.
Even though figs are grown in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, they can withstand frost. Fig trees lose their leaves and go dormant in winter. Most fig trees can survive cold down to -4F ( -20C). Many varieties are hardy to zone 6 with winter protection. A few varieties can survive in even colder winters with protection.
Many figs produce two crops each year. The breba crop fruits on last year’s wood and is harvested in May or June. These are the fruit buds that emerge in the fall just before the leaves drop. The main fig crop fruits on new spring growth, and is harvested in August. New fruiting buds in this main fig crop emerge at the same time as the spring leaves, and look like hard knobs rather than fragrant flowers.
At the end of the season, when the tree drops its leaves, any unripe fruit that is bigger than the size of a pea should be removed from the plant. The pea size fruit will grow the following spring and form the breba crop.
There are over 1000 varieties of figs in North America, both for long season and short season areas. However, plant nurseries limit their selection to just a few varieties. If you want to grow some of the lesser known varieties you’ll need to find a hobby fig grower who might trade you some fig scion wood for propagation. See the end of this article for more sources if you’d like to try rooting some fig trees yourself.
If your neighbors have a productive fig tree, see if they will give you a few cuttings. A tree that is already thriving in your climate is a better choice than a tree growing in a nursery far away. But if you want adventure, try one of these hardy figs.
Fig varieties to try
Hardy Chicago has a brown-purple skin and strawberry colored flesh. It has good, sweet flavor. It’s hardy to zone 4, with winter protection. It is a heritage variety that was brought to Chicago by Sicilians from Mount Etna It’s been grown ever since in the Chicago area by dedicated fig fans. This is the fig tree I’m growing in zone 3.
Black Spanish has dark purple skin and strawberry red flesh and is widely available from plant nurseries. It is a good choice for warmer areas.
Desert King was developed in California in the 1920s. The large figs have green skin flecked with white spots and deep strawberry colored flesh. Desert King is a vigorous grower. The main crop ripens in the summer and it will produce a second smaller crop later in the fall.
Italian Honey or Lattarulla Fig is a large green fig with sweet, light amber flesh. It will produce a crop in midsummer and then a smaller crop in the fall.
Negronne Figs are named for the town in the Bordeaux region of France where this variety originated. The purple-black fruits have a red flesh with intense honey flavor. This variety is one of the very best. It’s hardy from zone 7 to 11.
Peter’s Honey fig is a lemon yellow fig with a deep amber flesh. It needs a little extra warmth, so grow it in a protected area and protect it from cold winds. This one is a double cropper that’s hardy in zones 7 to 11.
Stella Fig is a large, green yellow fig with deep red sweet flesh brought to North America by a sailor who named it after his wife. Stella is also a double cropper.
Vern’s Brown Turkey is an improved selection of the older (and mostly unreliable) brown turkey fig. It has brown skin and pale amber flesh and will reliably produce fruit in both summer and fall.
It’s no surprise that different varieties of figs also have different flavor profiles. Fig connoisseurs can be particular about the figs they grow, just like wine and coffee connoisseurs. Don’t judge the figs on an immature fig tree based on flavor in the first few years. As the tree matures, the fruit also matures, becoming richer and more flavorful.
How to propagate new fig trees
Figs are self-rooted. In summer, the easiest way to make a new fig tree is to layer a stem of a thriving fig by bending a branch down to the ground, stripping the bark from a small section and burying the branch in the soil, while it is still attached to the mother plant. Anchor the branch in place using a u-pin or bent wire, then bury the branch with soil. The branch will sprout roots within 4 to 6 weeks. Once the roots are two inches long, separate the new plant from the mother plant with a sharp knife, and re-pot in its own container. Young figs are more susceptible to cold than established plants so give it a little TLC through its first two seasons.
Figs can also be propagated with cuttings. In late winter or early spring, take a cutting of a branch from the previous season’s wood. Choose a branch that is three to ten inches long. Press it into sterile potting medium. Water with willow water to encourage rooting. Cover the pot with a plastic bag or cloche, to prevent the scion from drying out before it roots. Keep the temperature around 70°F using a heat mat under the pot. Allow the surface of the potting medium to dry out between watering. Figs root quickly. Cuttings that are started in early spring will be ready to pot up in the fall.
How long before the new fig tree produces fruit
Container-grown figs started by cutting produce fruit four to six years from the time the cutting is made. The first year after propagation, the cutting establishes a strong root system. Once the tree begins to fruit, you can expect two crops each year – the breba crop and the main season crop.
In zones 6 and colder, don’t try to over-winter figs out of doors. Instead, place the dormant plants in an unheated garage, or basement, where you can protect them from cold temperatures. You should continue watering them even in winter, allowing the soil surface to dry between watering.
Pests and diseases
Fig trees are fairly problem free in North America. Place netting over the trees to prevent birds from stealing your fruit. Spread wood ashes around the base of the stems to stop ants from climbing the trees.
Container grown figs can be troubled with spider mites, white flies, or aphids when grown in a greenhouse or other protected environments. You can spray the tree with a strong stream of water to knock off pests. Neem oil or another oil-soap spray are safe to use on figs. Don’t apply an oil spray if the temperatures will be above 85°F though. The leaves can be damaged by excessive heat after spraying. Here’s my recipe for DIY insecticidal soap spray that is safe to use on figs.
Move figs to a sunny location in the garden once all danger of hard frost has passed. They should have eight hours of sunlight a day during the growing season. Shading the pots from direct sunlight keeps the trees from drying out in severe heat. Apply mulch to the soil surface in the pot to retain moisture and prevent the plants from drying out, which can cause premature leaf drop.
Fig trees are not heavy feeders. Too much nitrogen can cause an excess of lush growth that is damaged by winter cold. They do need a single application of potassium and phosphorous-rich fertilizer at the beginning of the season. If you find your trees are slowing their growth rate, foliar feeding container figs with seaweed extract every two weeks during the growing season can help.
Water potted fig trees well during the growing season, but allow the soil surface to dry out between watering. This prevents the roots from standing in water.
Repot container grown figs at the beginning of the season, just before the new leaves emerge. Choose lighter colored pots rather than black plastic pots if you live in an area with high summer heat. Conversely, if you live in a short season area, black pots can offer your container figs a little extra heat. Add broken pottery or rocks to the bottom of the pot before adding your planting medium. Figs don’t like to sit in water. Plant your container figs in a mixture of 60% sterile potting mix and 40% finished compost, with the addition of one cup of kelp meal for trace minerals.
In the first 1 to 4 years, increase the pot size with each repotting to give the tree room to grow. By the time the tree is 4 years old you should have it in a 36″ pot. After this, replace the soil in the pot annually and prune the roots to keep the tree a manageable size.
When to harvest the figs
Know the color of the ripe fruit of your particular varieties of figs. Since the color of the skin can vary from green to yellow through to purple and brown, this will help you harvest them when they are perfect. Ripe figs are soft to the touch. As they over-ripen the skin can split. Ants and wasps are attracted to the sweet scent of ripe figs, so you’ll want to harvest them quickly once they become ripe.
Fresh figs are highly perishable. Keep them refrigerated and eat within a week of picking. For longer preservation, figs can be dried, frozen, canned, or fermented.
Where to find unusual figs for home propagation
With over 1000 varieties of figs grown in North America you may want to explore a few more figgy flavors than your local nursery provides. Try these sources:
Richter’s Herbs (In Canada)
About Chris Dalziel
Chris is the author of the forthcoming book, The Beeswax Workshop: How to Make Your Own Natural Candles, Cosmetics, Cleaners, Soaps, Healing Balms, and More. She is a teacher, author, gardener, and community herbalist with 30+ years of growing herbs and formulating herbal remedies, skin care products, soaps, and candles. She teaches workshops and writes extensively about gardening, crafts, and medicinal herbs on her blog at JoybileeFarm.com. Chris’s other titles include The Beginner’s Book of Essential Oils: Learning to Use Your First 10 Essential Oils with Confidence and Homegrown Healing, From Seed to Apothecary.
Chris lives with her husband Robin in the mountains of British Columbia on a 140 acre ranch, with sheep, dairy goats, llamas, and a few retired chickens. They have 3 adult children and 3 granddaughters. All photos courtesy of Chris.