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Harvest Perfect Figs Every Time | How & When to Pick Figs



When I ate my first fresh fig, which was grown from my own homegrown tree, I didn't like it. I wasn't impressed. At that point, however, I had eaten many dried figs, which I couldn't get enough of so I thought, something isn't right here.

Well, unlike you, I had to discover the secrets of a perfect fig harvest and now I'm going to share them all with you.

This guide covers everything you need to know to pick figs at their peak ripeness for maximum flavor and nutrition. From understanding the ripening process to the signs of a ripe fig that’s ready for harvest, and even tips for faster ripening like oiling and pinching, you'll be picking figs like a pro in no time.

As always if you want more fig-related content like this, feel free to subscribe to the Fig Boss newsletter at the top of the page.

Why Proper Timing of Your Harvest is Critical


When figs are harvested properly, they're truly one of the best fruits on Earth. When they're picked underripe, they're bland and tough, and they may even have an unappealing resinous flavor from the tree's latex sap. When they're picked overripe, figs can spoil, mold, or ferment.

  • Like most fruits, figs have a short window of peak ripeness and if you can accurately time your fig picking, you can enjoy figs the way they're meant to.

  • Remember, you can choose the optimal moment for the best color, size, flavor, and nutritional content. That’s the best part about growing fruit at home.

  • Frequently, people who don't like figs, have no idea how to pick them, or have only eaten figs from the grocery store that are almost always picked underripe.


What Does a Ripe Fig Look Like?


The visual indicators of a ripe fig are skin color, fruit size, the fruit hanging in a drooping manner on the branches, and cracked skin. Some varieties can develop a drop of ‘honey’ or fig nectar at the location of the eye that also acts as an indicator of ripeness.

Visual indicators of a ripe fig post-harvest:


After harvesting a ripe fig, the tree will not leak a milky sap present at the location of the fruit scar (where the fruit was removed from the branch) and the stem or neck of the fruit will also not have any white latex sap present.

Additionally, if you cut the fig open, the outer portion of the pulp (just inside the skin) called the pith should be not a bright white color. The pith should start to turn yellowish or even bleed together in color with the pulp as shown in the photo above. Lastly, the pith tends to narrow as the fig ripens longer.
The fig to the right is a fig that I bought at the grocery store. It has a bright white and thick pith indicating that it was picked underripe like most commercially grown figs that are shipped across the country.

However, the visual indicators of what a ripe fig looks like are often misleading indicators of ripeness. Additionally, checking the pith or seeing if the sap is present, are both post-harvest ways to determine fig ripeness. Here’s how to be certain that your fig is ripe before picking each one:

When are Figs Ready to Pick?


Figs are ready to be picked when the neck of the fig is soft. Skin color, size, cracking, and other visual indicators are only helpful secondary characteristics to determine ripeness.


When harvesting, follow these steps:


  • Step 1: Look for figs on the tree with the visual indicators mentioned above.

  • Step 2: Slightly squeeze the neck of those figs to determine how soft the neck is.

  • Step 3: Pick the figs with the softest necks.


The reason that the neck should be soft is that figs ripen from the bottom up. The bottom of the fig will always be riper and contain less latex white sap, so if the top of the fig is ripe, you can bet that the bottom of the fig is ripe.

This is why touching the bottom of the fig and relying solely on visual indicators is pointless. Every grower has to learn the feel of your fig varieties neck when it's ripe.

Click here to see the Fig Boss fig variety directory for more information on other fig varieties:

What Month Do Figs Ripen?


The production season for figs in the northern hemisphere is typically July-September. In July, that's usually when brebas figs ripen. August is when the main crop figs of early and midseason fig varieties ripen, and September is usually when the late-to-ripen main crop fig varieties ripen.

Figs can start ripening in early summer and can continue ripening through the summer, fall, and even well past your first frost.

Some fig varieties produce two crops of figs per year. The first is called the breba crop, which is produced on last year’s wood. The figs swell in size at the start of the season along with the tree’s leaves. Roughly 90 days later, the breba crop usually starts to ripen (in the early part of the summer).


The main crop is produced on the new growth of the growing season and usually starts ripening in the middle of the summer roughly 30 days after the breba crop. However, every fig variety is different. Some fig varieties are categorized as early, midseason, and late. This categorization largely impacts when your fig will ripen. After all, genetics is a critical part of our plants and even who we are as people.

Typically, early fig varieties will ripen 70-80 days after being visibly present as small pea-sized figs on the branches. Midseason varieties will ripen 90 days after that point and late fig varieties will ripen 90 or more days later.

The exact month and the number of days each fig takes to ripen can vary depending on several factors, including the fig variety that you’re growing, climate, and location.

Understanding the specific timing for your area:


To determine the specific timing for your area, consult with other fig growers in your community. Speak to the person or nursery that your tree comes from. They should have firsthand knowledge.

Importance of timing the harvest:


Knowing when to expect your figs to ripen is important, as it will make you more prepared.

  • Figs can have a short window of when they’re ready to be picked. Often going from under-ripe to perfect to overripe in a short period. One day of time can be the difference.

  • Once a fig is swelling and becoming softer, birds, squirrels and insects like wasps, ants, slugs, and fruit flies may find your figs before you do. Beating them to the punch and not revealing your fig tree’s location to the neighborhood of animals and insects will extend your harvest without needed crop protection.

  • Figs are very sensitive to climatic events. Picking before a big rain event as one example can ensure a harvest that’s not ruined by the rain.


Climate influence:


In warm climates with long growing seasons, figs will ripen faster and produce a larger crop. Conversely, in cooler climates with shorter growing seasons, figs may take longer to ripen and produce a smaller crop.


Management practices:


Good cultural practices such as proper pruning, watering, and fertilization can help to ensure optimal growing conditions and not delay the speed of ripening. Neglecting these practices can slow down the ripening process and reduce the quality and quantity of the figs.

How to Harvest Figs


To harvest figs, grab the stem of the fruit and lift the fig in the opposite direction in which it’s hanging. Avoid pulling down on your figs, as this can damage the branch and create an improper tear of the fruit at the location of the neck.


Figs should always be harvested from their stem. Not the neck. Tearing a fig at the location of the neck shortens shelf life. If you keep your figs intact from eye to neck to stem, the fig has the highest chance of lasting the longest in your fridge, in the mail, at the farmer’s market, or on your counter.


Photo credit to cabidigitallibrary.org


Tools needed:


To harvest figs, I would recommend wearing thin latex gloves and long sleeves to protect your skin. While a ripe fig should not leak milky latex sap that can be irritating to your skin, it’s always good practice to wear protective clothing when handling fig trees.

Storing harvested figs:


Once harvested, figs should be stored in a cool, dry place, such as the refrigerator, where they will keep for several days. I would recommend placing them in egg cartons or in something similar so that they’re separated from each other and not touching. Separation aids in better airflow to help prevent mold and spoilage.

If you have a large harvest, you can freeze the figs, dehydrate them or turn them into jam for later use.

One of my favorite methods of longer-term storage of figs post-harvest is to cut them in half and place their skin side down on a plate and place that in the fridge. They’ll slowly dehydrate in the fridge over 1-3 weeks, which will intensify the flavor of the figs and change their texture. You can read more about that process in detail, here:


Why Won't My Figs Ripen?


Your figs are ripening, you just can’t see it. Figs that are stagnant in size are a normal part of the ripening process.

I get this question often and it usually goes something like this, “Ross, my figs have been at the same size for a long time. What’s the problem? Why won’t they ripen?”

So How do Figs Ripen?


As the branches grow and form new leaves, they also form fruiting buds and vegetative buds. This is when the ripening process of figs starts at a microscopic level on the branches of our trees. Quickly the fruiting buds begin to swell and become larger until they’re visible along the branches as something I’ve referred to in the past called “the two dots.”

  • Stage 1: Each ‘dot’ or bud represents something entirely different. One is a new fig and the other is a new branch. The new fruiting bud will eventually grow larger and swell to the size of a pea to then form its stem. The stem and the body of the fig quickly swell in size over the course of 30 days to finally reach a period of stagnation. During this time it may seem like the fig is making no progress at all.

  • Stage 2: After that stagnation period ends, it swells again but this time almost overnight to a larger size where it yet again stays at that size for roughly 30 days.

  • Stage 3: This process occurs once again in preparation for its final ripening stage.

  • Stage 4: In the final stage, this is when the fig swells to become edible. The fig changes color and becomes larger, softer, and becomes sweet. This process takes anywhere from 1-15 days depending on the variety and growing conditions.



Why Are my Figs Dropping?


Sometimes figs drop off the tree prematurely and before they can become edible. This can be heartbreaking if it continues. Fruit drop occurs for a few reasons:

  • You’re growing a fig variety with a pollination requirement: San Pedro figs will only produce a breba crop without pollination, Smyrna figs also require pollination of the main crop and Caprifigs are male figs that are almost always not edible. It’s important to know your fig variety. Common-type figs are the type that does not require any pollination. Here’s a guide to common fig varieties that you may be growing to determine which type you may have.

  • Your soil is lacking water: One of the first signs of under-watering is fruit drop. An underwatered fig will usually drop its fruits before its leaves.

  • Your tree is young: Young fig trees can have all sorts of issues. When unestablished, water and nutrients can be harder to find. Additionally, the health of your tree may be in question as young trees can have a significant amount of Fig Mosaic Virus.

  • Your tree is lacking sunlight: when figs are located on a very shady part of the tree, there is a high chance the fruit will drop before full maturation. You can learn more about that in the video below:



Will Figs Ripen If You Pick Them Green?


Picking figs that are green and hard will not ripen off the tree. If you’re removing green figs, be careful, that can cause the tree to leak its milky white latex sap that can harm your skin.

If the figs are in their final ripening stage where they are swelling in size, changing color, and becoming softer, some growers believe that they can continue to ripen off the tree. That might be the case, and I’m still not sure where I stand on the subject, but what’s certain is that the amount of ripening that can occur post-harvest is minimal.

This is partly why it’s critical to pick your figs at the right time!

Oiling Figs to Speed up the Ripening Process


  • What is oiling: Oiling is a method of applying a drop of olive oil to the eye of the fruit to speed up the ripening of that fruit by about 10 days.

  • Timing: Oiling should be done when the figs are still green, hard, and have not entered their final ripening stage. Oiling should occur during stage 3 of the ripening process mentioned above.

  • How does it work: According to Lee Reich, written in his article on oiling figs, here - he mentions that olive oil releases ethylene gas, which is a common gas used to speed up the ripening of many fruits.

  • Downsides: According to Ira Condit written in his book titled, “The Fig” the general impression of oiling figs is that the gain of a few days in maturity is not worth the time and expense involved and that treated figs are not equal in quality to those allowed to ripen naturally.



Using Pinching to Speed up the Ripening Process


Pinching, topping, nipping, or summer pruning fig trees is another way that is said to speed up the ripening of figs. Because the apical bud is removed, hormones in the fig tree change to encourage fruiting. Additionally, energy is temporarily redirected from the apical bud to the fruiting buds below it. Therefore, a harvest that’s 1-3 weeks earlier can be achieved.

I’m not sure where I stand on this topic anymore as it’s difficult to prove that this claim is true or false. There are so many factors that affect the ripening dates of figs and to say that one technique doesn't work, would be reckless if someone else saw positive results in different growing conditions.

More testing is certainly required, but for now, pinching certainly can’t hurt your efforts to ripen figs earlier. In fact, looking at the data from my yard, I’ve ripened my earliest ripening fruits from trees that were pinched.

Regardless of this particular use case for pinching, it’s a technique that has huge benefits in other areas of fig growing and it’s a shame that it’s such a controversial fig topic because being open-minded to the technique when used in other applications, can give you some incredible results.

For a full rundown on pinching and its other use cases and history, read this detailed article:


Conclusion


Understanding the secrets of a perfect fig harvest can greatly improve the quality of your fruit and fig-eating experience. Knowing what a ripe fig looks like, when to pick it, and what month figs ripen in can help you achieve maximum flavor and nutritional content.

Keep in mind that the neck of the fig should be soft and that the ripening process can vary based on fig variety, climate, and location. With this guide, you'll be picking figs like a pro in no time and enjoy the sweet and delicious fruits of your labor.

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olivia maria
2 days ago

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jponcedarheights
jponcedarheights
Feb 07, 2023

Ross, once again you have given us all a comprehensive guide to harvesting our figs. There is so much expert information in this article that I will be sure to save it for many future readings. Thanks for the easy to follow guides to growing our own figs, that you have shared with your followers.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I'm Ross, the "Fig Boss." A YouTuber educating the world on the wonderful passion of growing fig trees. Apply my experiences to your own fig journey to grow the best tasting food possible.
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