How to Grow Beautiful and Productive Fig Trees

Ficus carica

The occasional pejorative use of the term “fig leaf” is wholly undeserved.

The leaves of the fig tree (Ficus carica) are quite lovely – large, beautifully shaped, and generous in their provision of shade.

It is entirely unjust that the leaves of this lovely tree have been so maligned throughout history, likely due to their part in the biblical story of Adam and Eve.

Any plant that gives us food, beauty, and shelter surely deserves our respect and admiration, rather than our scorn.

A close up of a purple blue fresh fig hanging on a branch.

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Let’s see why!

Origins

Native to the Middle East and northwestern Asia, the tree was brought to North America by Spanish missionaries in the early sixteenth century.

Easy-to-grow figs are among the oldest fruits known to humankind and are members of the Moraceae family, which includes the mulberry.

A close up horizontal image of a fig tree planted in a home garden next to a wooden fence pictured on a soft focus background.
Photo by Ralph Barrera

These trees can be left unprotected in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10. Gardeners in northern zones can grow these plants in containers and bring them indoors when temps drop below 10°F.

These trees are relatively fast growing and can grow to 20 or even 30 feet tall, and almost as wide. The deeply-lobed leaves can be four to eight inches wide and as long as 10 inches.

The shade provided by their girth and large leaves is well-appreciated. In fact, the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, is said to have found enlightenment while sitting under a fig tree.

A close up horizontal image of the foliage of a fig tree. growing in the garden pictured in light filtered sunshine.
Photo by Gretchen Heber

In the right conditions, some species will produce two crops in a year. The first crop, called a “breba” crop, ripens in late May or early June, and a second will be ready in late September to early November.

The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves

“Breba” or “breva” is a Spanish word that comes from the Latin “bifera,” which means twice-producing, according to Linda Ziedrich, author of “Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.” Want to check it out for yourself? This book is available on Amazon. 

What to Buy?

Of the four main types of figs, three – Caprifigs, Smyrna, and San Pedro – are not usually grown by home gardeners, because they have complex pollination requirements.

The fourth type, the common fig, is parthenocarpic, meaning the fruit forms without fertilization. Let’s look at a few varieties of this type.

A close up vertical image of unripe figs growing on the tree pictured in light sunshine with foliage in soft focus in the background.
Photo by Ralph Barrera

One of the most commonly planted fig trees in North America is ‘Celeste,’ available from Nature Hills Nursery.

This large beauty is fast growing and produces medium-sized, sweet, juicy fruits that are brownish-purple and ready to harvest in July.

A close up square image of a pile of 'Celeste' figs freshly harvested from the garden.

‘Celeste’

Celeste does not produce a breba crop. The fruit is good both for eating fresh and for preserving. Also known as the sugar fig, it’s hardy to zone 6.

‘Brown Turkey’ is another favorite, especially for more northern gardeners as it’s more cold-hardy than some other varieties.

You can find ‘Brown Turkey’ available at at Nature Hills Nursery.

A close up square image of 'Brown Turkey' fruits growing on the tree pictured in light sunshine on a soft focus background.

‘Brown Turkey’

This tree produces a smaller fruit that is not quite as richly flavored as ‘Celeste,’ but it does often produce a breba crop. And that means figs for everyone! Thrives in Zones 7-9.

Super-Southern growers might want to try ‘Black Mission’ – it’s a vigorous grower, but not particularly cold hardy. Nature Hills also sells this tree.

A close up of the ripe fruits of 'Black Mission' cut in half. To the top of the frame is white text.

‘Black Mission’

This variety produces two crops of large, rich-tasting, purple-black fruits that are good fresh or dried.

‘Ischia’ is said to do particularly well in coastal California, whereas the related ‘Green Ischia’ is more suited for the South.

‘Ischia’ (Ficus carica), 4-inch Pot

Ischia are smaller, lighter-colored fruits with excellent flavor. You can purchase ‘Ischia’ from Hirts, via Amazon.

A Sun Loving Tree

Like college kids on spring break, figs like sun. They are happiest with seven to eight hours of full sun during the growing season.

When choosing a site for your tree, don’t underestimate its ability and desire to spread out. It might feel a bit crowded if it’s too close to a wall or fence.

These trees aren’t too picky about their soil, although they prefer well-drained loam with lots of organic matter.

Propagation

This species is astonishingly easy to propagate. Simply sneak into your neighbor’s yard in the dead of night, pruners in hand

We jest. Ask permission and take an eight- to 10-inch cutting of wood in early spring.

A close up horizontal image of a number of small pots with fruit trees ready for planting in the garden.
Photo by Gretchen Heber

Stick it in a pot of good dirt, with several inches below the surface and one or two buds above the dirt line.

Let the cutting grow in the container for a season before transplanting.

A close up vertical image of a small fig tree in a black plastic pot set in front of a wooden fence.
Photo by Gretchen Heber

My own huge tree is the result of my dear neighbor Louie sharing a potted plant he’d propagated from a cutting he snipped from a tree at the side of a road somewhere.

When he lost his own tree during the construction of his backyard pool, he came back to our big beauty to take a cutting to propagate.

Planting Tips

Plant figs when they are dormant, in spring. Set container plants three inches deeper than their container depth.

If you’re planting bare root plants, cut back the tops to about one-half of their original length.

A close up horizontal image of ripe figs growing on the tree in the garden pictured in light sunshine with foliage in soft focus surrounding the fruit.

These plants are fairly drought tolerant, but if things get too dry, you’ll want to give them a drink.

These trees generally do just fine without any fertilizing. If it seems your tree is being stingy with its spring leaf development, give it some balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 (NPK), according to package instructions, to jumpstart it.

These plants require little or no pruning. An ill-placed branch can certainly be removed to unblock a path if needed, of course, in winter. And you’ll want to remove any deadwood.

Pests and Diseases

Squirrels. Grrrrrrrr. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

A close up horizontal image of a squirrel pictured on a soft focus background.

Other plagues to look for include root-knot nematodes, which are a serious threat to fig trees in parts of the South.

The larvae of these destructive pests infect plant roots, inhibiting their ability to absorb nutrients.

According to G.W. Krewer, extension horticulturist, and Floyd Hendrix, plant pathologist, both of University of Georgia Extension Service, trees infected by root-knot nematodes cannot be cured with chemical treatment.

Krewer and Hendrix suggest pruning the tops to balance the weakened root system, which may prolong the tree’s life. Usually, however, infected plants eventually die.

Rust is another blight to be aware of. It’s a fungus that shows up on the underside of leaves as raised, reddish-brown spots.

Rust is not usually fatal, and unless it’s an annual problem, spraying with a fungicide is not necessary.

Figs are also susceptible to a couple of fungal blights, including leaf and pink blight. Avoid these by using sanitary gardening practices such as applying mulch, cleaning away dead plant material, and disinfecting tools.

Avoiding Fig-Fattened Wildlife

Figs are ready to harvest when the neck weakens and the fruit droops.

The ripe fruits will be soft to the touch and the skin may begin to split. And most varieties darken to a brownish-purple color just before harvest time.

A close up horizontal image of ripe figs growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background.

You’ll want to grab them at just the right time. Picked too soon, they aren’t yummy – and they won’t ripen once removed from the plant.

Here’s the tricky part: You have to time the harvest of the fruit perfectly, so you get them when they’re just ripe, but before the $#&%@#! squirrels get them! Or the birds.

Some gardeners cover smaller trees with netting to dissuade wildlife, but this is impractical with large trees. You simply have to be diligent about watching for ripeness and then beating the crafty creatures to the goods.

Fruit Storage

Harvested figs have a fairly short shelf life; store them in the refrigerator for two or three days, tops.

A close up vertical image of a branch of a tree with a small green developing fig pictured on a soft focus background.
Photo by Ralph Barrera

To dry these fruits, wash them thoroughly and then dry them with a towel. Place them whole or halved on a wire rack. Place the wire rack on a baking sheet.

Put the baking sheet in a 140°F oven for eight to 24 hours.

You can also use dehydrator, following the same instructions. Learn more about dehydrators from this article on our sister site, Foodal.

You’ll know they’re dry when the outsides become leathery and you don’t see any juice on the inside. They should still be slightly pliable.

Store the dried fruit in the refrigerator or freezer in airtight containers for 18 to 24 months.

Recipe Ideas

If eating them like candy somehow gets tiresome, you can preserve the fruits or add them to any number of recipes.

This recipe for tahini, honey-roasted fig, and banana popsicles, from our sister site, Foodal, is delicious. These frozen treats are filling and not too sweet.

Grow figs in your garden and use them to make delicious recipes | GardenersPath.com
Photo by Kendall Vanderslice.

Packed with figs, banana, and tahini, they do double duty as breakfast and dessert.

And a sweet fig livens up a fresh salad, too! Check out this recipe for arugula dijon salad with figs, pistachios, and pea shoots, also from Foodal.

A close up horizontal image of a blue and white plate with a fresh green salad set on a wooden surface.
Photo by Meghan Yager.

Or if you have an abundant harvest, check out this recipe for easy fig jam, also from Foodal.

You can use your fresh, homemade jam in a hearty roasted chicken panini.

A close up horizontal image of a freshly made roast chicken panini on a white plate pictured on a soft focus background.
Photo by Kelli McGrane.

Doesn’t that look delicious? You can find the recipe over at Foodal.

Aspersions Aside

Clearly, we are wholly in favor of dismissing any negative connotations of the use of the fig leaf as a cover for things disagreeable.

Indeed, the fig is a most agreeable and generous specimen of a plant whose fruit is more than 50 percent sugar. We dare you to cast aspersions on this benevolent beauty.

A close up vertical image of two hands from the right of the frame holding a handful of freshly harvested figs, with foliage in soft focus in the background.
In fact, we ask: Why wouldn’t you plant this species? Northern friends, buy a big pot or consider the ‘Hardy Chicago’ variety. Southern gardeners, select a wide spot. Soon you’ll all be members of the fig fanatics club!

Do you have fantastic figs in your yard? Planning your late-night neighborhood escapade to “borrow” from the neighbors? Tell us more in the comments section below.

And if you’re looking to expand your homegrown fruit repertoire even more, check out these guides next:

Photos by Gretchen Heber, Kelli McGrane, Kendall Vanderslice, Meghan Yager, and Ralph Barrera  © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on February 19, 2019. Product photos via Harvard Common Press, Hirts, and Nature Hills Nursery. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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Robin
Robin (@guest_379)
4 years ago

We live in Camino, CA, 1 hr east of Sacramento and 1 hr west of Tahoe. We have only been here a year and there is a fig tree in the yard that produces nothing. I would appreciate some advice about what we should do to get production from this beautiful little tree.

Charles Polance
Charles Polance (@guest_3964)
Reply to  Robin
2 years ago

Yes. May still need a couple years to mature. Try pinching the tips of the branches when 4-6 leaves form to direct energy into the fruits. Continue this monthly.

John
John (@guest_6711)
Reply to  Charles Polance
1 year ago

Go fig-your type to grow.

Linda Dietzel
Linda Dietzel (@guest_449)
4 years ago

My fig tree is about 15 years old , started from a very old tree. It has been producing fruit for several years. However it always falls off before it can rippen? I’m in zone 9with watering restrictions. The mother tree was almost neglected and produced 3 harvests a year.
Any ideas ?
Thank you, Linda

heberg
heberg (@heberg)
Member
Reply to  Linda Dietzel
4 years ago

Hi Linda…. thanks so much for reading my article! I’m sorry about your uncooperative tree — frustrating, isn’t it? I wonder if your watering restrictions are the cause. While figs can tolerate a dry spell, you might have better luck ensuring your tree gets about two inches of water per week while it’s fruiting. Also, put down a thick layer of mulch to retain the precious moisture you’ve given your tree. If your fruits are dropping when they’re very small, they may not have been pollinated. The tree won’t use resources to fully develop fruit that wasn’t pollinated. Hopefully you… Read more »

Sandy A
Sandy A (@guest_464)
4 years ago

My 3 fig trees are in pots on my screened in porch. They are covered with ants. How can I treat this? They are beginning to fruit.

Lea
Lea (@guest_5569)
Reply to  Sandy A
1 year ago

The fig tree needs the ants to pollinate the figs
Maybe be wise to pull the tree away from house

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
Admin
Noble Member
Reply to  Lea
1 year ago

Actually, it’s usually wasps that pollinate figs! But certain types of predatory ants can actually help to protect these pollinators. You may find this study to be of interest.

Loida Cervantes
Loida Cervantes (@guest_500)
4 years ago

My fig tree is already 4 years old, healthy and bears fruits every year in the summer. The problem is that the fruits don’t get ripe for harvest at all. I live in Vancouver, Canada. I know they can survive the weather here since I’ve seen them in other houses’ yards. Please help!

Charles Polance
Charles Polance (@guest_3963)
Reply to  Loida Cervantes
2 years ago

Grow Desert King! 95% of fig cultivars don’t like Pacific NW weather. There is a nice one growing at the entrance to Stanley Park.

Lea
Lea (@guest_5570)
Reply to  Loida Cervantes
1 year ago

Check your plant to see if it has ants around it
Ants will help the fig tree ripen the fruit.
I had this problem when I had a bug man come out to exterminate the ants in my house. As soon as I fixed the ant problem my trees went dry. I replaced the ants for the trees and whalah! Sweet figs again. I have sugar ants in my trees. Just know they will invade the house if it’s to close.

Mary
Mary (@guest_636)
4 years ago

I was given a potted fig tree that spread leaves and developed fruit. However, the fruit is dropping and many leaves have dropped. I figure it is probably stressed as we have had some pretty severe summer weather and inconsistent watering. What concerns me is there is a yellow mushroom that keeps popping up on the surface ground and out of a crack in the pot. I am afraid this fungus is going to kill the tree. I know this is not the time to transplant anything, but I wonder if it wouldn’t benefit my fig tree to put it… Read more »

Jan Appleby
Jan Appleby (@guest_894)
4 years ago

My fig tree dies back every winter and comes back in spring. Is there anything I can do to protect it? It is on the south side out by the barn but is out in the open.

patricia
patricia (@guest_1431)
Reply to  Jan Appleby
3 years ago

I am in Zone 6B (Chicago) and planted a fig tree several years ago. I bought a fairly mature plant that was about 5 feet tall. I have gotten fruit every year. In the winter I wrap it up: burlap, then lots of leaves and hay or straw, then bubble wrap. Then I top it off with a plastic trash can lid which keeps most of the rain and snow out but allows ventilation. So far so good. Friends of mine who live on Cape Cod use a different method: they dig a trench beside their tree, partially uproot it… Read more »

Frank DiNatale
Frank DiNatale (@guest_4902)
Reply to  patricia
2 years ago

That’s amazing. I also live in the Chicago area and I can’t imagine it surviving outside when the temps drop to -20. I wheel mine into the garage and cover them every winter. I bet you get more figs, having it in the ground versus a larger pot.

Sharenzaa Baldeh
Sharenzaa Baldeh (@guest_1543)
3 years ago

As far as the Adam and Eve part (may Allah be pleased with them both of them). Allah commanded them to use those leaves. So therefore they are not treated unjustly. Moreover, humans have a higher status than any other creatures on this earth. Allah created Everything.

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu (@allison-sidhu)
Admin
Noble Member
Reply to  Sharenzaa Baldeh
3 years ago

Thanks for your comment, Sharenzaa. The writer is referring here to the derivation of the term “fig leaf” in its secondary definition, explained by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “something that conceals or camouflages usually inadequately or dishonestly.” When used in a more secular and modern context, there’s a negative connotation here, one that the plant perhaps does not deserve.

Thanks for reading!

Jan
Jan (@guest_14868)
Reply to  Sharenzaa Baldeh
9 days ago

It’s quite unlikely that Adam and Eve used fig leaves for privacy as the sap is very irritating to the skin and I doubt God would have commanded such a thing. They felt shame having their eyes opened to the knowledge of good and evil and probably grabbed whatever was closest at hand when they heard Jesus walking among them.

Michael Liberto
Michael Liberto (@guest_1702)
3 years ago

I have had a fig tree for 10 years or more. Lots of green edible figs. This year, loaded as usual. Green, hard as rocks, never ripened yet. I live in Punta Gorda, Florida.