Good Eats: How to Grow Fig Trees

Is there a tree more outrageously sensual than the fig? Those iconic leaves, the sculptural branching habit, and those sweet-as-honey fruit that are the stuff of legends and lore. Cleopatra dished them up to Mark Antony. Adam and Eve found the foliage to be a handy coverall. Nations went to war over them.

Figs are also a bit of a botanical oddity as they’re not actually “fruits” but a mass of inverted flowers. Wait, what? Yes, the flowers are inside the “fruits” and what you are eating are the blooms. (Impress your friends–this structure is known botanically as a synconium.) Best eaten lusciously ripe and sun-warmed straight off the tree, figs can vary in size, shape, flavor, texture, and time of harvest and can be black, green, brown, violet, yellow, or purple. Self-fruitful, so you need only one plant to produce fruit easy to grow, and there’s one for just about every size garden (and several that are quite cold tolerant).

Choosing the Best Fig For Your Space

Mature fig trees can be 15 to 30 feet tall–space a bit apart so that you can really see the unique shape of the mature tree. There are several varieties that stay naturally small and fit nicely into large containers (see below). If you have the room, plant several and choose early-, mid-, and late- fruiting varieties to extend the harvest from early summer into early fall. Some figs will produce fruit very early in the season, called a “breba” crop, as well as the main crop.

Where to Plant Fig Trees

Fig trees thrive in full sun and love the reflected heat of walls and buildings. In colder zones, choose cold-hardy varieties such as ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Desert King’, or consider other selections that are somewhat less cold-hardy that you can grow in big pots and protect during the winter by storing in a cool garage or basement.

During the first year, as plants become established, water regularly and mulch. Once established, figs can be very drought tolerant. And they need little pruning apart from removing weak, diseased, or dead branches.

Harvesting Those Delicious Fruits

This is the moment! When fruit is developing, it’s important to water regularly. Check daily, and pick just as they ripen. You’ll be picking the main crop of fruits depending on your climate and conditions, anywhere from June to September in warmer inland areas to October and November for cooler coastal places. In some tropical locations, fig trees may bear some fruit throughout the year, with increased production in early summer and midwinter.

Now, about the birds. Yes, they love figs. The trick is to stay ahead of them by harvesting daily! Here are 9 of our favorite varieties for you to try in your own backyard garden.

Kadota Fig

Treat this fig as a small shade tree or accent if you don’t have it in a fruit garden. Its green fruit is not as decorative as other figs, but some say even more delicious. Up to 25′ tall and wide. Full sun. Zone: 7 – 9

Fruit: Pert green skin gives way to a heart of pale-amethyst. The taste is especially sweet and appealingly complex. Spoon over ice cream or yogurt.

Peter’s Honey Fig

Originally from Sicily is an attractive garden tree. Needs plenty of heat to ripen fruit in cooler areas. Up to 25′ tall and wide. Full sun. Zone: 7 – 9

Fruits: Soft-skinned, yellow-green with honey-like amber-hued flesh. Great for preserves.

Mission Fig

Cultivated in the western US since 1768 and loved for its tall and wide habit that offers dense summer shade and  abundant fruits. Up to 35′ tall and wide. Full sun. Zone 7 – 9

Fruits: Deep blue-purple with deep-pink syrupy sweet flesh. Lovely dessert fruit.

Black Jack Fig

Wonderful container plant and cold-hardy, too. Up to 15′ tall and wide; easily kept to 6′ with annual pruning. Full sun. Zone: 7 – 9

Fruits: Elongated purple fruit with strawberry-red juicy flesh; sweetest with plenty of heat. Chop and add to salads.

Brown Turkey Fig

Site where you can easily harvest its two yearly crops. Medium size, good for screening or as background. Up to 25′ tall and wide. Full sun. Zone: 7 – 9

Fruits: Deep-purple with rose-hued sweet flesh. Mild flavor pairs well with goat cheese.

Desert King Fig

Exceptionally productive even in cool climates like coastal regions or high elevations. Up to 25′ tall and wide. Full sun. Zone: 6 – 10

Fruits: Large yellowish-green, strawberry-colored flesh, sweet, melting texture. Drizzle with honey and broil.

Corky’s Honey Delight® Fig

Semi-dwarf thrives in mild coastal and warm humid areas. Can be grown in a large container. Up to 12′  tall and wide. Full sun. Zone: 7 – 10

Fruits: Greenish with amber-colored flesh, flavorful honey note. Great for smoothies.

Chicago Hardy Fig

One of the hardiest of its kind, endures colder zone 6 winters (great conversation piece!). Look for a large late summer crop. Up to 15′ tall, 12″ wide. Full sun. Zone: 6 – 10

Fruits: Deep purple when ripe with reddish flesh. Luscious and sweet, perfect to fill a tart.

Celestial Fig

Smaller-sized tree prized for vigorous growth, improved cold resistance bountiful early harvest. Up to 10′ tall and wide. Full sun. Zone: 7 – 11

Fruits: Violet-brown with pinkish-purple sweet flesh. Perfect for preserves.

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