I didn’t grow up eating many figs – mostly I just enjoyed snacking on Fig Newtons. I’m pretty sure I never tasted a fresh fig while I was a child. I have a few memories of buying fresh figs at specialty markets as a young adult, and while I definitely enjoyed those, nothing compares to my first time trying a fig freshly picked. I was in my early twenties and volunteering at a farm in California with an organic fig orchard. Every morning, I’d walk through the orchard collecting my breakfast, which included Asian Pears, Grapes, and Figs. Figs very quickly rose up on my list of favourite foods.
Years later, after starting Broadfork Farm, my partner and I received a potted fig from some wonderful customers who were moving to the United States. They couldn’t bring their beloved houseplant with them and so gave it to us to care for. It hadn’t produced fruit for them but was very lovely in their home. They also didn’t mention any variety name, if they had ever known it.
We brought it home and cared for it, though certainly didn’t baby it. I have to admit, for people who grow plants for a living, we’re not always on the ball with potted houseplants. We potted it up into a larger pot, tried leaving it outside when it was hot (which it wasn’t used to and so ended up with sun scalded leaves), then moved it into our sun porch.
Our old farmhouse is heated solely with a woodstove, so we have many different temperature zones during the winter. This quality ended up being ideal for us in our fig-growing journey. Once the fig experienced cool fall weather (in our unheated sunporch), its leaves started to turn beige and drop off. At this point the plant is all branches and is ready for hibernation, so we carried the pot to our basement which is dark (we rarely go down there), damp-ish (it’s a stone foundation, this is good because you don’t want the plant to dry out too much while in hibernation but overwatering during this time is a challenge, as the plants roots aren’t too active), and cool (basically similar to a root cellar). You don’t want to store your figs somewhere over the winter where the temperature fluctuates too much (like in our sunporch where it gets almost as cold as outside during the night but can really warm up on a sunny day).
The next year, we started getting fig fruits forming and we were excited! We’ve since learned that figs produce the most fruit, reliably, when they have a good period of hibernation.
Since then, we’ve propagated many more fig plants from that original plant (we suspect the variety is Chicago Hardy) and have been able to enjoy more and more fresh figs with each passing year. This year, we’re going to try 7 other varieties to see how we like them.
I definitely think they’re a great crop to grow in your home, especially as its unlikely the economics would work out well in our region for it to be grown by local farmers as a commercial crop. Fresh figs are not often seen in stores because they’re not great candidates for shipping. They don’t ripen after they’ve been picked. They bruise or crack easily when being handled. And they only really keep for a few days once picked. Growing a plant may be the only way to experience the delight of a freshly-harvested fig. And they’re really not that hard to grow (certainly not harder than apples or pears).
The basic needs of a productive fig tree include a container, soil, a bright and warm location from June to September, and a space to over-winter a dormant potted plant.
I’m going to answer a few of the most commonly asked questions we get about figs and go into some more detail.
Do you sell fig fruits?
We don’t, sadly because we’ve never been able to produce more than we can happily eat (which is quite a bit). I don’t know anyone locally who is growing figs commercially. We do propagate some plants that we sell each year through our farmers’ market stand. The new varieties we’re trialing this year were purchased through Richter’s in Ontario (though 1 variety didn’t make it after shipping).
Do I need to buy more than one plant for pollination?
No, you don’t. You’ll get fruit from just one plant. The “Common Fig”, which is the category of any fig plants likely to be sold for fruit in Canada, is self-pollinated. Interestingly, self-pollinated plants of all kinds (including lettuce, peas, beans), have become self-pollinated (rather than insect-pollinated) through domestication by humans (or probably more accurately described as long-term, intense plant-human relationships where both species are shaping the others’ behaviour). There are theories that this fig-human relationship was the first use of horticulture in human history. Researchers have discovered carbonized fig fruits in an early Neolithic village dating nearly one thousand years before domestication of grains.
There are types of figs that do require insect-pollination – from one insect in particular – the fig wasp. However, those aren’t the types you’ll be growing. Figs don’t actually flower, well – not in the way you might imagine. You don’t see the flowers because the fruit itself is actually an enlarged, fleshy stem with the flowers inside. Some varieties of figs produce 2 crops a year, one in early summer and the 2nd in September and October. We typically get both crops, unless we’ve taken cuttings from a plant or pruned it. The first crop grows on wood produced the year before, the 2nd crop produces on new growth.
What size pot do I need?
I’d say minimum 5-gallon for a mature plant (in its 3rd year). Though it is best to keep potting them up every few years into a larger pot or add in some new compost and/or potting soil.
Luckily, the tree doesn’t have to be very large or old to bear fruit, though they do bear more and more fruit as they get larger and older.
We are at the point where it’s getting harder and harder to find larger pots, but when we are able to find one, that plant we put in it does reward us with more figs.
What kind of soil should I put in my pot?
We mix organic potting mix with some compost, bone meal, alfalfa meal, and basalt rock dust (for micronutrients). Maybe a bit of kelp. There’s no set recipe that will be the key to success, however you do want a fairly light soil (not too much clay) that can drain well. You don’t want too much nitrogen or else the plant may produce lots of top growth with little fruit. We prefer small amounts of slow release nutrients and we only change it every few years when we pot them up again. Mycchorizal fungi is also a good idea to add for plants grown in pots.
How should I fertilize my fig?
We never fertilize ours but I bet they wouldn’t mind some diluted seaweed emulsion or stinging nettle tea. Just remember nothing too rich or they’ll produce less fruit or perhaps none at all.
How should I care for my new fig plant?
Water regularly but be careful to not overwater – waterlogged roots will be more damaging than drying out a bit.
Notice how your plant is responding to the location you’ve put it in. Our first plant didn’t like too much direct sun, though heat is important for fig ripening. So we moved it to the sun porch for a bit of protection and it was happy. All of our subsequent plants that we propagated from that one have also preferred being sheltered a bit, either in our sunporch or in our greenhouse with shade cloth (or row cover used as shade cloth) over top. I know that all figs don’t respond the same, so just be aware. That’s a great thing about potted plants – they’re easy to move!
We’ve also found that pruning is useful, both for creating a more shrub-like shorter shape that fits inside easier, but also because it ends up creating more branches, which ultimately leads to more fruit. Pruning isn’t necessarily something you want to do every year though, or else you’ll reduce your 1st crop the following season.
Some people recommend removing all the budding fruit in the first year or 2 (if there is any) so the plant can focus on its root system. We never initially did this, though a few years ago we had a kitten who loved to bat the young developing fruit off the branches. We were frustrated then, but we did end up with a bumper crop the following year (and that kitten’s youthful enthusiasm for such activities had passed).
Where should I overwinter my fig?
We have continued overwintering the majority of ours in our basement, bringing the pots in once the leaves have dropped or totally turned beige (so they’re no longer photosynthesizing and don’t need light).
This year, we had a few very large pots and the trees branches were quite wide, so instead of awkwardly carrying them down the basement stairs, we just brought them into our unheated summer kitchen. It does get colder in there than in the basement (sometimes below 0) and there are windows so it’s not always dark. Luckily, larger figs are less sensitive to cold than young (under 5 years) fig plants.
If your basement is heated, you may have a closet, attic space, or garage that could work well.
I’ve heard of people growing their figs in the ground and protecting them overwinter in various ways. Can I do that too?
Possibly. I have no personal experience with this and so don’t have much to say. Our farm is in a little frost pocket so we haven’t tried. We know people who have planted figs in the soil, mulched heavily, but still the top of the plant totally died back. The next year, the plant regrew from its roots, but didn’t end up producing any fruit. It certainly seems reasonable to try in Zone 6.
How can I tell when a fig is ready to harvest?
This is truly the hard part – developing the patience to let your fruit totally ripen. Even now, we don’t always showcase that patience (because an almost-ripe fig is still pretty darn delicious!). The fruit should feel very soft and pillow-y and droop slightly from the neck. Really, experience will be your teacher. If you pick one, and there’s some white sap, you know that it wasn’t quite completely ripe. That sap is a type of plant latex and can be irritating to some people’s skin or eyes so be aware of that.
I always love hearing about other people’s experiences growing figs and perhaps even swapping cuttings of different varieties!
This blog post was originally written by farmer Shannon for our favourite rural living magazine in Atlantic Canada, Rural Delivery. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you should – it’s really much less expensive of a subscription than it should or could be! And every once in a while, you’ll see an article by Shannon in there on some topic or another.