By Kelly Miller
Fresh figs are marvelous fruits, full of texture, nutrients, and sweetness. Although edible fig trees are usually associated with the Mediterranean region from which they originate, they’re also widely grown in the United States.
Let’s step through everything a gardener needs to know about choosing a fig tree variety and helping it thrive. The focus here is on edible fig tree varieties of the Ficus carica species. Note that other fig species, like Ficus benjamina and Ficus elastica, are popular as houseplants but aren’t grown outdoors for edible fruit production.
Growing Fig Trees: Range, Conditions, and Methods
Fig Tree Hardiness Range
Fig trees grow best in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 7, 8, and 9. They’re native to the Mediterranean and grow best in warm, moderate climates. Most fig production in the U.S. occurs in California, but fig trees are also commonly grown in Oregon, Washington, and Texas for commercial production.
Soil Requirements and Planting Process
Fig trees are typically planted from container-grown saplings or from cuttings in early spring or early fall. The soil should be fertile and well-draining with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. If you’re planting multiple trees, situate them at least 10 feet (3 meters) apart.
Dig a hole that can accommodate the root system and plant the tree around 2 inches (5 cm) deeper in the soil than it was in its nursery pot. Add a layer of mulch to prevent weed growth, and water thoroughly after you finish planting.
Fig trees should be planted in areas that receive full sun. Six to eight hours of sun per day is ideal. Trees that receive inadequate light will struggle to produce healthy fruits.
Watering Your Fig Tree
Water needs for fig trees vary based on climate and soil conditions. In general, young fig trees and potted fig trees should be watered once per 7-10 days. Once a tree is established, supplemental watering isn’t usually required. During drought, water may be needed once every week or more often in very hot climates.
A thirsty fig tree may let its fruits drop to the ground prematurely. Yellowing, browning, or drooping leaves are also indications that the tree needs water. If these same signs are occurring mostly in leaves on the lower branches, that’s a sign of overwatering. You should be able to tell which problem is occurring based on your recent watering pattern and by testing the soil moisture.
Fertilizing Fig Trees
In most cases, fig trees don’t require fertilizer. Furthermore, unnecessary fertilizing can provide the tree with too much nitrogen, encouraging lots of leafy growth at the expense of fruiting.
For potted trees and trees in very sandy soils, use a general 8-8-8 or 10-10-10 fertilizer or one made specifically for fruit trees. Avoid adding too much nitrogen to the soil by spacing out feedings and never providing too much fertilizer at once.
Growth and Harvesting of Figs
Fig trees grow around one foot per year in both length and width. They can reach heights over 15 feet (4.5 meters) tall, but most gardeners prefer to maintain heights under 10 feet (3 meters) for ease of harvesting.
It takes three to five years for a fig tree to begin producing ripe fruit. A thriving tree may yield several hundred figs per growing season. Most figs are harvested in August and September, but warmer regions may produce two harvests — one in early summer and one in early fall.
Let figs ripen fully on the tree, but harvest as soon as they’re ready. As figs ripen, some varieties turn from green to brown or purple while others remain green. Look for additional clues to determine the ripeness of your figs. As figs ripen they will begin to droop from the branch. Unripe figs are attached perpendicularly to the stem, while ripe figs hang down.
Ripe figs may also start to develop fissures in the skin, and they are soft when pressure is gently applied, both are signs that a fig is ready to pick. Note that figs don’t continue ripening after they’re picked, so you do not want to harvest them early. Always allow your figs to ripen on the tree.
Pruning and Winterizing a Fig Tree
Unpruned fig trees produce an abundance of branches, resulting in lower-quality fruit. An unpruned tree will also grow very tall. When this happens, the top branches receive the most sunlight and produce the best fruit, while the lower, easier-to-reach branches produce inferior figs.
Prune your tree in late winter or early spring by removing tall branches, overlapping branches, and suckers that are emerging near the trunk.
In zones 7 and below, winter protection is advisable. Winterize your tree by mulching the base and wrapping and bundling the branches in paper or burlap. Pennsylvania State Extension offers detailed information on Winterizing Your Fig Tree.
Pest and Disease Protection for Edible Fig Trees
Like most fruit trees, fig trees can be victimized by insects. Common pests include scale insects, mealybugs, and root-knot nematodes. Diseases like fig rust and fig mosaic are also common. Most of these issues can be addressed by removing affected branches or treating them with insect-killing soap.
For more info on combating fig tree pests and diseases, see the information on Pest & Disease Control for Fig Trees from the fruit tree experts at Stark Bros. Nursery.
Do Fig Trees Require Pollination to Produce Fruit?
Pollinated figs grow in a unique manner. The fig develops as a hollow structure lined with flowers and seeds. Specialized fig wasps force their way inside the structure through a small opening. The wasp pollinates the flowers, lays eggs, and dies. Of the grubs that hatch, the males mate with their female siblings and eventually die inside the fruit. The females emerge and eventually find a new fig to enter to repeat the cycle.
When eating a wasp-pollinated fig, you might consume tiny bits of wasp, however, the common fig varieties grown in North America don’t require wasp pollination. The “fruits” are actually inverted flowers that reach edible maturity without the help of pollinators.
Popular Varieties of Edible Fig Trees
There are hundreds of fig tree varieties. Of those, a handful are useful for growing edible fruit in North American gardens.
When selecting a variety, your top priority should be choosing a tree that’s well-suited for your local climate. Some varieties, like the ‘Chicago Hardy’, ‘Black Mission’, and ‘Celeste’ varieties, are well-adapted to a wide range of climates. Others are more sensitive and better suited for certain conditions.
Here are nine of the most popular varieties of Ficus carica that you can grow for edible figs:
Fig Tree ‘Celeste’ (Ficus carica)
Fig Tree ‘Black Mission’ (Ficus carica)
Fig Tree ‘Ischia’ (Ficus carica)
Fig Tree ‘Magnolia’ (Ficus carica)
Fig Tree ‘LSU Purple’ (Ficus carica)
Fig Tree ‘Brown Turkey’ (Ficus carica)
Fig Tree ‘Texas Everbearing’ (Ficus carica)
Fig Tree ‘Chicago Hardy’ (Ficus carica)
Fig Tree ‘Kadota’ (Ficus carica)
Growing an Edible Fig Tree in a Pot
You can grow a fig tree in a pot and even produce edible fruits. Most of the same varieties that grow well in the ground are also suitable for containers. There are also dwarf varieties that were developed specifically for container growing.
If you’re transplanting from a nursery pot, move your tree into a container that’s 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) wider. Eventually, your tree will require a 15 to 20-gallon pot. Care for your potted fig tree as you would for one in the ground, providing plenty of light and avoiding overwatering. In colder climates, you can move your pot indoors or to a protected spot to help it survive the winter.
Grow Thriving Fruit Trees
Fig trees and other fruit trees require patience and careful attention, but once you begin harvesting fresh fruit, they’re incredibly rewarding. For more tips on caring for fruit trees, check out our 5 Tips for Fertilizing Fruit Trees.