Fig trees (Ficus carica) make nice additions to Maryland landscapes. They can be pruned to a shrub or tree form, grown in containers or in-ground, are virtually pest-free, and can produce abundant crops when the proper cultivars are selected and carefully managed. Gardeners in warmer areas (Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland, and Baltimore City) tend to have the least difficulty over-wintering plants and harvesting figs before the first frost.
Celeste, Brown Turkey, Hardy Chicago, Brunswick, Marseilles, and Osborne are some of the most winter hardy cultivars which perform well in Maryland. All are seedless, producing their fruits parthenocarpically (without pollination or fertilization).
Purchase plants from a reputable nursery or propagate from spring divisions or summer cuttings from mature plants. Root suckers from established trees can also be pulled and planted in the spring. Pliable branches can also be pegged to the ground and tip rooted or layered. Once rooted, sever the new plant from the mother plant and transplant it into a container or into the ground.
Site selection and planting figs
Select a sunny, protected location for planting in the ground. Next to a south-facing wall is ideal. Figs need full sun and do very well on a wide range of soils. Soil pH should be in the 6.0 to 6.5 range. Figs are usually planted in the spring after the danger of frost but can be planted in the early fall. Space plants 6-8 feet apart. Cut back the top of your new plant to force lateral growth.
Figs benefit from the incorporation of compost or well-rotted manure prior to planting. Confining or pruning the root system can invigorate the plant and hasten the harvest. Do not cultivate the soil under your plant because much of the extensive root system is directly beneath the soil surface.
Fruits form in the leaf axils of the current year’s wood. The fruits form from the shoot base towards the tip. Fig plants usually begin to bear in the second or third year after planting.
Overwintering ground-grown plants
Unprotected fig plants are often injured by very cold weather. Sustained temperatures below 10° to 15°F kill above-ground wood. New shoots will spring readily from the roots but are rarely capable of producing mature fruits. If injury to the main stems is minimal to moderate, the plant will produce a modest crop the following summer. If injury is severe, the plant may require 2 to 3 good growing seasons to return to normal production. Here are suggestions for winter protection:
- Multi-stem fig bushes are easier to protect than large, single-stem fig trees;
- Cut main stems to a 4-5 ft. height;
- Pliable branches can be pinned to the ground and covered with burlap, old blankets or tarps;
- Pile bags of leaves against the main stems in a circle pattern;
- Encircle your fig plant with chicken wire and fill in with insulating leaves or straw. The main stems can be covered with a plastic tarp to shed rain, sleet, and snow;
- In the spring, remove the winter protection after all danger of frost.
Insulating materials around fig bushes can create attractive winter homes for voles. They feed on the tender bark which could reduce plant vigor and fig production the following year.
Each spring, prune out ground suckers and remove all dead or weak wood. Mature plants usually have 3 to 8 main stems. Your skin may become irritated from contact with the milky, latex plant sap.
Growing figs in containers
You can achieve satisfactory production in small spaces by growing fig plants in half whiskey barrels or other large, suitable containers of about 30-gallon size. Casters on the containers greatly increase convenience, because your figs should be moved into a protected area, such as a garage, for the winter. The root restriction resulting from this type of culture may improve yields and reduce the days to harvest. Most cultivars will perform well in containers, and anecdotal reports suggest that the cultivar ‘Petite Negri’ may be particularly well-suited.
Potting into a container
- Your growing mix should be loamy and well-drained with lots of compost or well-rotted manure; You can lighten heavy soils by incorporating a soil-less growing mixture containing peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite;
- Keep fig containers in full sun and water regularly; and
- When fruits begin to form apply 2 to 3 gallons of water each day.
After fig leaves drop in the fall
- Shape your plant by removing suckers and heading back long branches; and
- Move to a protected area, such as a garage.
Figs are adored by many animals, not just people. Without netting to throw over your bush, you may find that squirrels and birds will dine first on your crop. Figs ripen from mid-September through frost. Unripe, green fruits will not ripen off the plant. Fruits that have begun to color and soften will continue to ripen if picked and brought inside. Since figs are fragile and enjoyed by birds and squirrels it's a good idea to pick fully ripened and partially ripened fruits with each visit to your fig bush or tree.