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.

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Photo courtesy of Nan Sterman This tapestry of colors is thanks to a Desert Museum palo verde tree, red leaved cone flower, yellow blooming Mexican tulip poppy and germander sage.
Photo courtesy of Nan Sterman This tapestry of colors is thanks to a Desert Museum palo verde tree, red leaved cone flower, yellow blooming Mexican tulip poppy and germander sage.

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We have had our tree for 7 years now it gives great figs But the leaves keep wilting ,what aren't we doing???

We planted a Mission Fig in 2010 in Riverside, California. Each year, the tree bears lots of figs, but they do not grow very big. They get dark purple and fall off. When you break them open, there is a dry, non matured seedy stuff. One year, I counted nearly 200 figs on the ground, wasted, and non matured. Ive tried dripping water with a hose ( it is on drip irrigation). It is planted in gravelly, decomposed granity soil that becomes clay like when you dig deep underneath. Is there anything specific I can do. It has only given me 1 fig all these years that was sweet and juicy, in 2011. I was hoping to figure out what can be done this year before it starts producing figs that dont work. Please...any help would be great. I was told to get some fertilizer sticks from Home Depot, but I am not sure.Thank you for your help!

I live in NW Indiana and just got a fig tree . Do I need to dig it up each fall and burry the tree in dirt? this is what I was told, it gets very cold here in winter . Or can I leave it alone, Thanks

I have a fig tree that was grown from a shoot and was planted in a pot. I live in a condo in Northern Ohio so I winter the plant in my garage. It is in the 3rd year now and it has grown to over 5ft. but still has not produced any fruit. What can I do to obtain fruit from my tree?

Dear Linda, I have a fig tree which bares a large amount of fruit. The fruit seems to come sooner than the leaves and the fruit is large, soft to the touch yet hollow feeling and dry on the inside. I don't know the type, but it it light green. And we don't prune it that often.

i have a fig tree in my garden, started producing fig last year, i had more then 20 fig but didn't ripen. This year the same happened. I still have more than 20 fig in my tree but they feel hollow inside when i touch them. My friend has fig tree she said water the tree and then you fig get ripen. I don't know what is the reason for that. Can you help?

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