Planting Figs and Winter Care - Figs
If you have received a container fig be aware that it needs “hardened off” before putting in all day sun. Figs love heat and sun in NM but need to be adjusted first from their prior growing conditions in a greenhouse. This is easily accomplished by keeping it under a tree in filtered shade or on the east side of a house/building. Every few days move the pot out further a little so it gets a slightly longer period of sun each day. Be cautious of the sun striking the side of the container and overheating or burning roots. Paint black containers white or cover in burlap. Placing the smaller pot inside a larger one will work as well as in a small box. The goal is to keep direct sun off the container. Make sure to keep it well watered since small containers dry quickly and are usually in a fast draining mix.
While technically a containerized fig could be planted at anytime, late spring is usually the easiest for most people. This gives plenty of time to grow roots deeper to withstand any very cold spells. When planting in summer it will need some shade for the transition to fall or you may choose to keep in the container and wait until fall to plant in ground. Don’t worry if it loses or scorches a few leaves, they will grow right back as long as all other care is good. Amend the soil with organic material to hold some water and provide the plant a good growing condition. Make sure you mulch to a depth of at least 4”-6”. This will moderate temperatures, hold even moisture levels and develop a healthy soil underneath.
Figs do not require much fertility to produce delicious crops. Too much nitrogen will give a lot of vegetative growth instead of fruit growth. If you want fast growth in the first few years use fish emulsion without kelp or a 9-3-6 otherwise a 4-8-12 or in that ratio is fine, or organically a fish emulsion with kelp. If growing in ground, stop any fertilizing at the end of August so the fig can start to harden off for winter.
Most figs are surprisingly root hardy. While they may die back to the ground, they will bounce right back bigger and better as soon as it gets warm enough. If growing outside in the ground make sure your variety is rated for your growing/cold zone. Figs will produce on new growth but in colder regions they may not have enough time to grow from the root, set and ripen a crop. Therefore our goal is to keep some of the top growth from dying back to the ground. Many figs have 2 crops per year, a “Breba” crop which grows on wood that grew the previous season and a main crop which only grows on new growth. Usually the breba figs are a little less plentiful and slightly smaller in size.
Most figs in zone 7 will not need many cold precautions once the trunk has reached about 1.5” in diameter. Insulation is the key! Figs should be covered after the first frost or freeze which kills the leaves. There are many ways to achieve this. One of the easiest is to build a circular “cage” about three feet in diameter around the tree. Fill it with dry leaves or dry straw, then cover well with a tarp so the ground heat is held in. Make sure you do not use clear plastic since you want it dark and do not want the greenhouse effect to heat it up. On small figs we have used a white 5 gal. plastic bucket, filled with straw and overturned over the plant. Pile dirt around the bottom to seal and put a brick or block on top so the wind can’t blow it over. On larger we use a plastic 55g drum. Cut off the bottom and cut around the top all the way except 3”-4”. This makes a hinge where you can open and close the top. Pound some rebar or a T stake inside to keep the barrel from blowing over. Open the lid, fill with leaves or straw, close lid, duct tape around the crack and you are done. The hinged lid is handy so in spring you can open and remove some straw when getting warm but can easily cover it by closing the lid when we hit the inevitable late freeze. Of course there are many other ways, but we have used and found these to be successful.
TREE or BUSH
Figs can be grown as either a tree style with a single trunk or as a large bush with multiple trunks or stems. When planting is the best time to decide this. If you want a tree form, stake and train the plant to grow a straight trunk. Remove any suckers that come up about 1-2” below the surface of the soil. Usually the tree will stop having suckers in just a few short years unless it has been damaged. That is Nature’s way to ensure the survival of the tree. Currently we do not sell any grafted figs so the suckers will be the same variety as the main plant. Any leaves that develop on the trunk should be rubbed off. If the fig has reached the height to start branching, just pinch the top. This will cause the nodes below to shoot out branches. If you later decide your branches are too low, it is a simple matter to trim them off just outside the collar.
If you want a bush form, just let the suckers grow. It has been shown that 4 or 5 is the best number and will provide a larger and better quality crop, while ensuring good airflow and light penetration. More suckers will drain energy from the plant, so cut them off. Anywhere you want your main stems to branch just pinch off the leader.