There are many plants I like to use in the landscape that can produce an edible fruit. One plant in particular, the edible fig tree, does not get enough use in the landscape. With the ease of propagation this plant offers everyone should have at least one. This week I am going to tell you of the different varieties you can grow in our area, the easiest ways to propagate this plant, and where to utilize this plant in the landscape.
Figs are native to Western Asia but are widely distributed throughout the Southern United States. Most of the fig trees in our area are small to medium sized trees under eight feet in height with most backyard trees being three to five feet. Trees taller than this can be pruned to make them easier to harvest the fruit but beware you may lose a part of your crop the following year due to the pruning. The roots of this tree are typically shallow but may travel some distance from the tree. Because the roots are shallow I recommend the addition of compost and peat to our sandy soils before planting. Make sure you dig a wide hole to allow the roots to spread once the plant starts to grow. Most figs are deciduous meaning they drop their leaves in the wintertime. This gives the plant a rest before the spring which will bring on new leaves and the first crop of fruit.
There are over seven hundred varieties of figs but I want to tell you about the two most common varieties I have grown in the past. The first variety is the “Celeste” Fig. The Celeste is a small pear shaped fig which is brown to purple in color and is probably the most cold hardy of the figs. Trees of this variety can grow tall but most of the ones I have seen fall in the guidelines I set above. Fruit of this variety will ripen in mid June and this tree is a big producer. Planting this variety in full sun is important as you want the tree to dry in the morning sun to reduce the incidence of fungus on the developing fruit. I like to encourage vigorous growth each year as fruit forms on the last year’s growth. Sometimes you may get a second crop late in the year but usually this crop is much smaller.
Fruits form on the stem of the plant just above where the leaf attaches to the stem. The skin of the fruit is green when first formed and as the fruit develops; the fruit will take on a purplish brown look. As the fruit ripens you will notice they become plump and soft. Be careful when the fruits start to ripen, birds and other wildlife will be able to smell the fruit and I seen all the fruit on the tree eaten in one night by rats or other wildlife. Be sure not to over prune a mature Celeste Fig as this may cause a reduction in fruit production. Celeste Figs rarely produce a “breba” crop of fruit. Breba crops refer to a light fruiting of the plant prior to the regular or main fruiting season. Breba crops give you a little taste of what is to come when the tree starts its regular production.
The Brown Turkey fig is another variety which is widely planted and cultivated in our area. This variety has the longest ripening season of most of the fig varieties but is not as cold hardy as the Celeste. Fruit size is just a little larger than the Celeste and the fruit taste very good. Early in the season a light breba crop may be produced. As the figs ripen, look at the reddish-brown skin of the fruit to give the plant a show of color. Most fruit of the regular fruiting season ripens around mid July. When you open the fruit (be sure the fruit is soft to the touch) the pulp has an attractive reddish-pink color. This particular variety produces a large crop so be ready to eat the fruit when ripe. If you have too many fruit to eat out-of-hand, try your hand at making preserves. Both the Celeste and the Brown Turkey Figs are widely available at local garden centers.
Although some people will eat the entire ripe fig, I like to pick the fruit fresh from the tree and while holding the stem I will use a knife to quarter the fruit and pull the flesh from the fruit just as if you were eating a mango. Some people like to cook or stew the figs for use in pies or pastries; others will dry the figs for future use. Be sure your figs are ripe because unripe figs and other parts of the plant produce a latex or creamy white fluid. This fluid can irritate the skin especially if it gets on you for a prolonged period of time.
Propagation of figs trees is easy and can give you additional plants to share with your neighbors. I do my propagation during the wintertime when the fig is dormant but I have also grown cuttings during the summer. After the plant loses its leaves in December/January, I will take several cuttings from the plant about eight inches in length each. Each cutting should be handled delicately to be sure the cutting is not broken. You will need to fill two or three one gallon containers with a good quality potting soil. The use of a rooting hormone can help in the rooting process. Dip the bottom end of the cutting into the rooting powder and then slip the cutting into the prepared one gallon container. If you are using an eight inch cutting then one half of the cutting should be inserted into the pot. I will normally use three to four cuttings in each pot repeating the process above. After I insert the cutting into the pot I will tamp the soil down enough to hold the cutting upright.
Water the new cuttings lightly and place in a sunny location. If you are rooting during the wintertime, be sure to protect the cuttings from the cold weather. Figs normally take about two months to root depending on weather conditions so be patient. Do not overwater during the rooting process. Once the leaves have formed in the spring you can separate the cuttings into individual containers. Once the individual plants have roots coming out of the bottom of the pot it is time to transplant into the garden. Be sure to improve the soil as I mentioned above and fertilize regularly with a good 8-10-10 fertilizer. Share a few plants with your friends and enjoy the experience. Figs can add a nice focal point to any landscape and they are easy to grow and maintain. Good luck and remember, without plants we would not be here.