Tips for growing fig trees
by Nan Sterman
Figs arrived in the Western Hemisphere in the 1560s when the Spaniards planted them in Mexico. Two hundred years later, missionaries planted California's first fig tree at San Diego de Alcala, the main mission in San Diego.
Fig fruits grow on fantastic trees with huge lobed leaves. In fall, the leaves drop, revealing gnarled and twisted branches covered in pale white bark that shines against the blue winter sky.
Fig trees are very easy to grow. They need full sun but take almost any type of soil. Once established, they thrive with very little water, though they grow faster and fruit better with a bit more water. A single application of all-purpose organic fertilizer in early spring is plenty.
Because fig trees grow fast, start with a small tree. Bareroot fig trees are easy to work with, affordable and widely available in nurseries this time of year. They're dormant so, at this point, they look like bare sticks. But don't be put off, once the weather warms, they'll sprout leaves.
Dig a hole just big enough for the roots to fit in without bending. Notice the soil line on the trunk? That's as deep as you want to plant.
If you live in gopher country, line the planting hole with a layer of hardware cloth or purchase a gopher basket to place in the hole before you plant. Tree roots can get through the wire mesh but gophers can't.
Toss a few handfuls of worm castings into the planting hole, then refill with unamended soil. Cut the trunk back to about 2 feet tall. Why? This practice encourages the tree to form low branches, which translates to easy-to-reach fruit.
To keep the trunk from sunburning, paint it with a mixture of half white acrylic house paint and half water. Make an irrigation basin around the base of the tree and water deeply after planting. Mulch around the outside of the basin.
A fig tree can grow 20 feet tall and wide. However, there's no reason to allow it to reach full size. I prune all my fruit trees small so fruits are easy to reach. Fig wood is so soft that it's by far the easiest to prune. If pruning is needed, do so immediately after harvest. If you wait, you'll cut off the buds for next year's crop.
Fig trees are hardy to about 15 degrees. Branches may die back but even trees that freeze or are cut to the ground typically resprout from the roots.
Pick figs when they're so soft that they almost fall apart as you pull them from the tree. Don't harvest under-ripe fruits. They will not ripen off the tree.
In the nursery, you'll typically find "Mission" or "Brown Turkey," both dark colored figs with deep pink flesh. You might see yellow "Genoa" or green-and-yellow striped "Panachee" whose flesh is the color of raspberries. All are wonderful.
Nan Sterman is author of "California Gardener's Guide Volume II." She is a gardening expert, communicator and designer who has long grown an organic garden of plants that both feed her family and beautify her garden.