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Fig Tree Growing Guide: The Fig Commandments

Updated: Mar 29

Learn all of the ins and outs of growing fig trees right in your backyard or garden.



Have you ever wondered what the basic rules of growing fig trees are or perhaps some expertly curated recommendations that cut through the noise? There is a lot of information out there. Let this be your sole guide to grow a great fig tree your neighbors can't help but envy. May I present to you, The Fig Commandments.

My name is Ross Raddi and I've grown 1000s of fig trees and spent 1000s of dollars and 1000s of hours just so that I can learn everything I can about these oh-so-special Ficus trees. In this article, I'm going to share ALL of the tips I've learned along the way so that you can grow amazing fig trees.

For instance, have you been wondering about common watering practices? Like how much to water your fig tree, what the best way is to prune your fig tree, or what fertilizer to give it.

But first, get the beautiful Fig Commandments or any of the other beautiful and informative fig posters I've created here:

And for more fig-related content like this, feel free to subscribe to the Fig Boss monthly newsletter at the top of the page.


Let's begin. Here are each of the Fig Commandments so that you can grow amazing fig trees.

Watering Fig Trees



Water is the on or off switch for growth. It's the single best way to control the growth of your fig tree. A lot of folks instinctively think about starting or stopping fertilizer, but in actuality, the way you can start or stop growth on fig trees is by controlling the soil moisture. By adding, subtracting, or completely limiting water, you can be the master of the growth of your fig tree.

  • Allow the soil moisture to dry out and growth will significantly slow down or even stop completely! In really dry conditions, the fig tree can even enter a preservation mode, drop all of its leaves, and go dormant surviving for months without water. Luckily, the fig tree can survive in very dry conditions. You can often find them growing wild in the cracks of concrete or rocks where very little water can be found because excess water the fig tree doesn't need is stored within the trunks and branches and even in the fruits themselves! The fig tree is like a cactus in that way. It stores water in preparation for drought.

  • The opposite is also true. With lots of soil moisture, fig trees will not stop growing. Even into the fall when they should be lignifying and preparing for frost and winter.


How Much Water Do Fig Trees Need?


When deciding to water, the best advice is to put your hand in the soil! The soil should be consistently moist. Not too dry or saturated. My fig trees receive almost a half gallon of water every day during the summer months.

  • Water more if you want to increase growth and less if you want to slow it down or stop it completely.

  • Keep in mind young fig trees are very prone to root rot.

  • Yellowing or browning leaves are often the sign of too much or in very few cases, too little water.

  • The soil temperature also plays a big part. Water less when the soil is cold and water more when the soil is warm.


Additional Tips:


  • My best advice for improving the health of your fig is to grow fig trees in well-draining soil with plenty of air! This will make overwatering difficult for those will heavy hands or brown thumbs.

  • An excess of soil moisture after fruit set can lower the concentration of sugars in the fruits (brix) due to water being stored within the fruits. Continue to overwater and your figs will taste watered down!



Other Key Factors:


  • Splitting can be reduced by consistent soil moisture.

  • A lack of water is a common cause of fruit drop.

  • Rehydrating the roots of your trees is a great way to help wake a stubborn fig tree up from dormancy.

  • Mulch is a cheat code. Apply 2-4 inches every year. When growing fig trees in pots or when they're planted in the ground.


My recommendation:


Give fig trees ample water early in the growing season before fruit set. Significantly decrease that amount after fruit set and only water enough to keep your fig tree happy and healthy. Then, to prepare for the winter, lower your watering even further 3 months before your average first frost date to help lignify the new branches. And whatever you do, make sure your watering practices are consistent!


Fertilizing Fig Trees



Q: Is Fertilizer Necessary for My Fig Tree?


A: Fertilizer is a must when growing fig trees in containers due to their limited growing room and nutrient leaching. Regarding fig trees that are planted in your backyard, I recommend getting a soil test by contacting your local extension office.

When to Fertilize Fig Trees


Fertilizing is often performed before fig trees set fruit. That could be at any time during your growing season. What's important is to time your feedings with future fruits in mind.

Q: What is the Best Fertilizer for Fig Trees?


A: Fig growers use a wide variety of fertilizers for their fig trees. Everyone has a preference, but here are some great tips for choosing which fertilizer is right for you:

  • I like applications of NPK that have a ratio of 10-4-12, 10-10-10, or 20-10-20. I feed my potted fig trees about 4-6 times starting at the beginning of the growing season and stop once I see fruit set. OR I give them a one-time application of slow-release fertilizer.

  • Nitrogen is an essential element of vegetative growth and therefore is a strong contributor towards production. However, too much nitrogen after fruit set can cause fruit cracking, mule (Dall'Oso) figs, and lower quality.

  • Figs love calcium and magnesium specifically but cover all of your trace minerals & micronutrients and correct any deficiency immediately.

  • Silica is one of my favorite micronutrients as it can greatly help with a common disease issue in humid locations called rust.

  • Pay attention to soil pH annually. Ideally, you should aim for a pH between 6 and 7.5, but don't fret as fig trees can handle a wide range of soil pH.


As always is best to follow the instructions on your fertilizer's packaging for application rates.

Sunlight Requirements for Fig Trees



The general recommendation for planting your fig tree in 8 hours of sunlight per day does not give growers the full picture. But how much? A better recommendation is: as much as possible and more specifically, the minimal amount of hours of direct sunlight required for fruit bud formation.

  • Each fig variety is different and requires a specific amount of direct sunlight hours at a certain intensity to set their fruit buds.

  • Without the right amount of sunlight, fig trees will not produce or form figs.

  • That's why when pruning with the maximization of sunlight in mind is critical. The better you maximize the light your fig tree can receive, the more productive your tree will be.

  • Selectively thinning new fruiting branches shortly after bud break and or staking new fruiting branches are other ways in addition to proper pruning to maximize sunlight.

  • Lastly, remove unwanted suckers, weeds, and any other competition potentially blocking sunlight.



Fig Tree Temperature Tolerance



The fig tree can withstand temperatures of 0F & also 130F for brief periods. However, very few select fig varieties can survive temperatures down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Some are said to be able to withstand -5F, but those varieties are mostly unproven at that temperature. That means zone 7 is the coldest growing zone safe for fig trees. However, growers in zones 5 & 6 see great success growing fig trees in containers or protecting them in the winter.


5-10F are much safer winter low temperatures for fig trees and the majority of fig varieties can easily survive a winter low of 15F assuming good lignification of the branches going into the winter. Properly lignified branches will be fully hardened, brown, or grey and may also have a "shriveled" appearance.

Why soil temperature matters:


  • 78F is the soil temperature for a fig tree's optimal metabolism. This is also the temperature at which you see propagation rates the highest. When grafting, air layering, rooting, or performing other propagation techniques, aim for 78F.

  • Additionally, increasing soil temperatures early in the spring when the ground is still cold is a fantastic way to exponentially increase your production that growing season.



Ways to increase soil temperatures include:


Planting fig trees in a very sunny location, planting above grade (even planting the rootball in 1-2 ft high mounds or berms is recommended for some), making use of thermodynamic heating, using greenhouses, and using black nursery plastic as a groundcover.

Pruning Fig Trees




The main goal of pruning should always be focused on maximizing sunlight, forming the desired shape of a fig tree quickly, and maintaining its health after the desired shape is achieved.


  • Pruning is usually performed during dormancy. When the leaves have fallen and the sap flow is minimal or it has returned completely to the roots.

  • Pinching of the apical bud during the growing season (aka summer pruning) can net you a harvest that's 2 weeks earlier, improve fruit quality of the main and breba crops, and increase the size of the breba crop (Argenteuil pruning) or increase your production by over 100% in conjunction with food and water for a timed second harvest (Rivers pruning). Pinching can also nudge stubborn trees into fruiting by bringing them back into hormonal balance.



Fig Mosaic Virus



Almost all fig trees are infected with a disease called Fig Mosaic Virus to some degree. It's the severity level that growers should be concerned with because in severe cases, this virus causes mottled, discolored leaves, deformed growth, and reduced fruit quality and yield by affecting a fig tree's leaves. However, Fig Mosaic Virus is a non-issue for a healthy fig tree, and If you're seeing severe symptoms, you can fight this common fig disease by improving the health of your tree. Here are two ways how:

  1. Focusing on soil health can go a long way toward keeping the virus in check. Many growers report a lessening of the severity of the virus after correcting nutritional deficiencies.

  2. Rejuvenation pruning is a great way to completely eliminate the observational effects of the virus. Simply cut your tree back to healthy wood on established trees and excavate some of the top layers of soil to encourage suckers or new buds to form. Choose the healthiest shoots and remove the heavily infected.



Planting Fig Trees



Fig Tree Planting Location:


Plant your fig tree in the warmest and suniest location you have available. Fig trees are one of the few fruiting plants that can handle and thrive in it.

Fig Tree Spacing:


Choose a spot with enough space for a mature tree. Fig trees can reach up to 40-75ft in perfect conditions and over many growing seasons. However, we can control the size of our fig tree with pruning. My recommendation: A spacing of 4-8 ft is reasonable for most backyard fig growers.

When to Plant a Fig Tree:


Fig trees should be planted in the spring, at the beginning of the fall, or when your temperatures start to become mild. These are the favorable conditions that make planting and hardening your tree off to its new location easy.

  • Planting as mentioned in the temperature section should mainly be concerned about maximizing soil temperatures in the spring and in the fall. Planting fig trees higher above grade can be one of the keys to achieving that.

  • Growers in cold growing zones also wisely focus on planting in warm microclimates often next to structures, barrels of water, large boulders, or other sources of thermodynamic heating.

  • In warm desert-like climates, it may be in your best interest to keep things cool instead. By planting very deeply (even planting the rootball 5 ft below grade) you can establish a strong root system very quickly while giving your tree better access to water in dry places.



Growing Fig Trees in Containers



Not every fig grower has the space for a full-fledged fig tree. Fortunately, fig trees make amazing container plants, allowing you to enjoy fresh figs even on a balcony, patio, and even in cold climates. After all, fig trees are only hardy to zone 7 without winter protection. Growing them in pots allows you to move them away from damaging cold.


The Best Size Pot for a Fig Tree:


  • Young trees (1-2 years): 3-5 gallon pot. Can produce 50-75 figs in 2nd or 3rd year.

  • Mature trees (2+ years): 10-15 gallon pot or larger. Can produce 150-200 figs per year.

  • Bigger pots offer more space but can be heavy. Drainage holes are essential.



Planting & Repotting Fig Trees:


  • Plant in early spring or fall.

  • Thoroughly water before and after repotting. Place in the shade for a few days afterward.

  • Use well-draining soil mix, like Pro-Mix HP or Coast of Maine's Bumper Crop or create your own soil mix and add amendments like vermiculite, perlite, or bark chips for drainage.



Winterizing Container Fig Trees:


In growing zones 4-8, it's important to store your fig tree during the winter months. Choose a stable storage location that keeps temperatures between 15°F and 50°F to protect from freezing temperatures and to avoid an early wake-up from dormancy.


Propagating Fig Trees



Rooting Fig Cuttings


Propagation of fig trees is most frequently performed by rooting cuttings. By placing a fig cutting 6-12 inches in length in water or moist soil, fig cuttings form roots easily and in as short as 2-4 weeks.

Growing Fig Trees From Seed


Planting seeds is how new fig growers instinctively want to propagate. However, seeds will not yield positive results if you can get them to germinate. I say this because fig seeds will not germinate until they are pollinated. If they are pollinated, the seeds will become viable and those seedlings will not be true to type, meaning they'll be unique and far different than your vision of a delectable fig tree.

  • Only 25% of fig seedlings will be common, meaning they won't require pollination, and in the overwhelming amount of cases, seedlings produce poor-quality fruit.

  • It is through the many years of selection that figs have become the tasty fruits that they are today.


Grafting Fig Trees


Grafting is also a great propagation method. It'll help you save space and time. Instead of digging up an unfavorable fig tree and sending it to the compost pile, use it as rootstock.

  • This way, you're saving the time spent on growing it. You can also use grafting to graft multiple varieties onto the same tree, allowing you to save space instead of planting multiple fig trees.

  • I highly recommend choosing a hardy, highly vigorous, and root-knot nematode-resistant, rootstock whenever possible.


Air Layering Fig Trees



Air layering is my favorite and by far the easiest method of propagating fig trees, which involves wrapping moist soil around a branch of your fig tree to propagate it in the "air." After 1-3 months have passed, cut off your air layer to have an identical clone of your Mother fig tree.


Fig Tree Ripening Process



Figs fruit in 3 stages:


  1. They start as small pea-sized figs and increase their size quickly until reaching a particular size.

  2. They'll stay at that size for an entire 30 days until again very quickly swelling to a larger size almost even overnight.

  3. Then again staying stagnant at that particular size for another 30 days until finally swelling and becoming soft.

How Do You Know When a Fig is Ripe?



Figs ripen from the bottom up, so it's important when picking figs to feel their necks. Not the stem. Not the body. Not the bottom. The neck. When the neck is soft, the fig is ripe.

Do not solely rely on other indicators like cracking of the skin, the color, honey at the eye, etc... These are secondary indicators.


Underripe Figs


A definite indication of an underripe fig is latex at the location of the neck or stem post-harvest. That's a sure sign a fig was picked too early. Underripe figs will also be firm, not fully sweet, and will have a resinous flavor to them. Be careful of the latex sap as it's caustic to the skin and will cause burns on our hands, mouths, and even on pets.

The Average Harvest Time for Figs


Figs are thought of as fall fruit, but some fig varieties can produce breba figs that will ripen during the late spring to early summer. Main crop figs fruit during the summer and will ripen continuously even after the first frost in most climates.

If you want an exact estimate of when your harvest will begin, ripe fruits can be seen 70-130 days after fruit formation or after pinching the apical bud. This number is heavily influenced by average soil temperatures and the fig variety you've chosen to grow.

Types of Figs



There are two separate crops of figs that form and ripen on fig trees: The Breba crop and the main crop.

Breba Crop:


Breba buds develop on the previous year's growth and mature at the start of the subsequent season, located just above the points where the leaf stems connect to the tree. Generally, these buds are situated within the top 4-6 buds of a branch, directly below the apical bud or growth tip.

As the fig tree grows its new branches and leaves, it produces new fruiting buds and lateral buds. The fruiting buds are known as the main crop of figs.



What Do Figs Taste Like?


Figs, at their core, taste like a sweet medley of dried fruit, melon, and berry, with varying levels of sugar added from their own nectar. Ripe figs offer the fullest expression of these flavors, while underripe ones have more hints of melon and resin. Each variety uniquely blends these components, creating a spectrum of delicious figgy experiences.

To have better-tasting figs, grow a special variety that tastes better than what's commonly available at most nurseries. Additionally, lower soil moisture throughout the growing season, proper pruning/training, sunlight maximization, and pollination all contribute favorably to ripening better-tasting figs.


Fig Flavors:


  • Fig flavors fall into three main categories: Sugar (melon & dried fruit), Honey (melon & honey nectar), and Berry (berry & fruity punch).

  • Each profile has variations like Sugar-Berry (grape & strawberry), Cherry (intense cherry), and Complex Berry (raspberry & blackberry).

  • Exploring all three profiles helps us appreciate the incredible flavor diversity of figs.




Types of Fig Trees


There are four distinct types within the Ficus Carica species, and it's crucial to familiarize yourself with each one to understand the potential advantages or consequences for your fig tree.

  • Common: Common figs do not require pollination from the fig wasp (Blastophaga Psenes) or hand-pollination to produce ripe fruit. They are self-fertile and only one fig tree is required for fruit production.

    • Common figs are the most "common" classification of the fig tree.

    • While some common figs yield a breba crop, not all do. Common figs lacking a breba crop are categorized as Unifera, whereas those that produce one are classified as Bifera.

  • San Pedro: San Pedro figs are always bifera, however, they will only ripen the breba (the first crop) without pollination. The main crop will fall prematurely from the tree without it.

  • Smyrna: Smyrna figs are always unifera and require pollination of their main crop to reliably ripen fruit. Otherwise, the main crop will fall prematurely from the tree without it.

  • The Male Caprifig: Male figs are not edible, but sometimes they can be classified as persistent, meaning a portion of the fig will be edible. Persistent caprifigs are used in breeding and are still not meant for fresh or dried consumption.

    • All caprifigs are believed to produce pollen that is used to pollinate the 3 female figs listed above. Pollination can increase quality, and size, and greatly improve flavor. The seeds will also become heavier and become viable for germination.



Therefore, if your fig tree is consistently dropping figs before they're ripe, you could be growing a male Caprifig, a San Pedro, or a Symrna fig that is either not edible or requires pollination to ripen properly.

Within each of the 4 types of fig trees, there are also 1000s of varieties. Most of the known trees have their own name allowing growers to differentiate one fig variety from another. When figs are introduced into other countries, a new name is commonly coined creating what are called synonyms. Sorting through synonyms and choosing the right fig variety can enable growers to grow the best fig trees possible.


Pest Control for Fig Trees



Fig trees compared to other fruiting plants are largely unaffected by pests. However, two recently on the rise and of great concern to fig trees are the Black Fig Fly (Silba Adipata) and the Fig Weevil (Aclees Taiwanensis). These are currently localized in Asia, parts of California, and the Mediterranean.


Some common pests are:


Scale, spider mites, fruit flies, wasps, ants, borers, nematodes, slugs & animals if we can squeeze them into this category. The one of biggest concerns to many fig or fruit growers is fruit flies, wasps, and ants. Control their populations by picking up fallen fermenting fruit or fruit that is damaged by the rain. Don't give them a food source.



Conclusion


Now you're officially ready to grow the best fig tree possible with these expertly curated tricks and tips. To learn more about growing fig trees and proper fig tree care check out these articles. You'll become an expert in no time!

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