Growing figs was always something I thought was beyond my reach here in MD zone 6b, but I harvested for the first time an avalanche of tasty large brown turkey figs this summer. Rarely found in stores, occasionally at farmers markets, there is nothing better that biting into a succulent and sweet fig that you grew yourself!
I was gifted a sucker of an established fig tree more than 30 years ago and it was planted in a sunny area that turned partially shady over the years. Producing large lobed fuzzy leaves, the plant is a multi-stemmed giant in my backyard. Deer have never eaten my fig, but I have seen deer eating the fruit in other gardens. I would protect your fig once the figs start to ripen with a wire fence.
Producing many stems that branch out at the top, the above-ground stems were always winter-killed and they would have to sprout anew every season. And that is why my fig never really produced anything. All the spring energy goes into producing top growth and the figs appear in late summer and never had time to ripen before the October frost got them. I might get a handful of scrawny figs before they were toast.
This past winter was different. Attribute it to climate change/global warming, but the stems weren’t killed and in the spring, I noticed live stems and branches and didn’t cut it down to the ground like I normally do. And then in April, the figs started to appear! I even picked a handful a few weeks later in May and June, but the bulk of the crop came in September and I had to pick them every day, filling a large bowl full. I had so many I was giving them to friends and neighbors along with some excess honey I harvested.
I was always puzzled that I never saw fig flowers. Because isn’t that what fruits do? They flower and set fruit. But the fig isn’t actually a fruit: rather it is an inflorescence – a cluster of many flowers and seeds contained inside a fleshy stem. So, the seeds are technically the ovaries of the fig and many types of figs require a special pollinator that can pollinate within the fig itself – a tight fit! And that happens to be the tiny fig wasp. So what I was picking from the bush was actually the flowers of the fig!
The fig wasp, (family Agaonidae), consists of about 900 species of tiny wasps responsible for pollinating the world’s 900 species of figs. These insects have co-evolved with figs and neither can exist without each other. Each species of wasp pollinates only one species of fig, and each fig species has its own unique wasp species to pollinate it. When you eat some crunchy bits of wild figs, that is the seeds you are eating and each one corresponds to one flower.
But the commercially cultivated fig tree is usually a female variety of the ancient common fig (Ficus carica) and does not need pollination to produce fruit.
Celeste, Brown Turkey, Hardy Chicago, Brunswick, Marseilles, and Osborne are some of the most winter hardy cultivars which perform well in my area of the country in Maryland. They are seedless, producing their fruits parthenocarpically (without pollination or fertilization). They don’t need the specialized fig wasps, but do they attract many kinds of insects! I was batting wasps, hornets, and other buzzing insects away as I picked, as they are a particularly sweet treat and will tear into ripe figs. I left a bowl of figs out on the counter and the next morning, ants covered them. So, as soon as you pick them, refrigerate. They won’t ripen up anymore like a peach would, and will just rot.
To select the best site for your fig, choose a sunny, protected location for planting in the ground. Next to a south-facing wall is ideal. Figs prefer full sun (but mine does fine in partial shade) and do very well on a wide range of soils. Figs are usually planted in the spring after the danger of frost but can be planted in the early fall. Cut back the top of your new plant to force lateral growth. Compost or well-rotted manure improves your fig harvest if you incorporate it in the planting hole prior to planting, or for an established fig, top dress it in around the base of the tree.
I have been growing some figs in containers and bring them into my greenhouse to winter over where they remain with green foliage, but haven’t harvested a crop from them yet. As they get too large, I will have to plant them in my garden.
Fruits form in the leaf axils of the current year’s wood. The fruits form from the shoot base towards the tip. Fig plants usually begin to bear in the second or third year after planting, starting with a modest harvest and increasing each year as it matures.
Protecting in Winter
Unprotected fig plants are often winter killed back to the crown in my area with sustained temperatures below 10° to 15°F killing above-ground wood. New shoots will spring readily from the roots if the top is killed and that is how I always grew it. In most cases, however, the plant will require 2 to 3 good growing seasons to return to normal production.
I have protected fig trees for clients using packing material taped around the trunk and top. My fig tree is just too monstrous to protect. Remember these pointers when wrapping your fig:
- Figs grown to a bush or shrub habit are easier to protect than those in a tree form
- Pliable branches can be pinned to the ground and covered with burlap, old blankets or tarps
- Use roofing paper, burlap, plastic sheets – anything that you have handy and tie with twine around the entire tree; top with a plastic bucket
- Some growers encircle their fig plant with chicken wire and fill in with insulating leaves, and straw. The top of the plant can be covered with a plastic tarp or bucket to shed rain, sleet, and snow
- In the spring, remove the winter protection after all danger of frost
For more information , go to Winter Fig Protection.
Each spring, prune out ground suckers and remove all dead or weak wood. Mature plants can have up to 25 to 30 main stems. Your skin may become irritated from contact with the milky, latex plant sap that exudes from the foliage and figs.
Cooking With Figs
Nothing is better than biting into a soft juicy fig, but this year we couldn’t eat them all. I looked for ways to use figs and my two favorites are in salads and on pizza. I have made fig jam as well.
Baked Fig Salad
- 1 Block Feta Cheese
- 3 Fresh Thyme sprigs
- 2 T Honey
- 1/4 t Aleppo pepper
- 2 Fresh fig leaves (optional)
- 2 C Arugula
- 10-12 Figs, sliced in half
- 1/4 C Sliced almonds
- 1 T Honey
- 2 t Dijon mustard
- 4 T Olive oil
- 1 dash hot sauce or Aleppo pepper
- 2 T Lemon juice
- 2 t za'atar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
Spread honey on top of the feta cheese and lay the thyme sprigs on top, sprinkle with Aleppo pepper. Wrap fig leaves around feta cheese - secure with a toothpick. If you don't have access to fig leaves -wrap in foil
Bake for 10 minutes and then unwrap and bake another 5-10 minutes until the honey caramelizes
Arrange the arugula around a plate and set the baked feta in the center and the halved figs on top of the arugula
Drizzle with the dressing and top with the almonds
- 1 Raw pizza crust I make mine in a bread machine and use the dough to make 2 pizzas
- 1/4 C Ricotta cheese
- 12 Figs, sliced thin
- 2 ounces Brie or goat cheese
- Carmelized onions
- 2 ounces Crumbled blue cheese
- Handful Arugula
- Drizzle Honey
- 6 Ounces Prosciutto, cut in strips
Preheat oven to 450 degrees
I make my pizza dough in the bread machine, but you can buy it already made in dough balls at the store
Roll out your pizza dough as thin as you can using cornmeal to keep it from sticking
Place dough on pizza pan or cookie sheet
Spread the ricotta cheese on top
Lay out the slices of fig, cut up brie, caramelized onions on top of the ricotta cheese; sprinkle with blue cheese crumbles
Bake for 10-12 minutes until the crust browns around the edges
Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with the arugula and prosciutto; drizzle with honey