When it comes to home-grown fruit, nothing could be easier than figs. Cultivated for thousands of years, figs can remain fruitful for many generations. There are about 470 varieties of common figs—the ones we grow in the southeast. Two of the most commonly available and highly recommended figs for us are ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Celeste.’ ‘Brown Turkey’ produces purplish brown figs that occur over several months. It’s winter hardy to 10 degrees F. ‘Celeste’ bears smaller, violet-brown skinned fruit. The tree itself is more winter hardy than ‘Brown Turkey,’ capable of surviving temperatures as low as 0 degrees F. Both varieties produce excellent fruits that can be eaten fresh; however, ‘Celeste’ figs have more culinary versatility: the fruit can be dried or processed in preserves, glazed tortes, and compote.
Figs are not like those “no pain-no gain plants.” In fact, its seems unfair to expend so little effort to reap so many tasty rewards. Because they demand so little from their caregivers, you should plant one or two in your garden. Figs prefer a well-drained, full sun location. Depending on the variety, some are more cold hardy than others. For protection from winter winds and cold temperatures, marginally cold-hardy figs should be planted on the south-facing side of your home close to a heat-absorbing brick or stone wall. Figs have the potential for reaching heights of 15 to 30 feet or more, but they can easily be maintained at 6 feet, which keeps the fruit within reach. They sucker quite easily, so you should pay attention to controlling or at least accommodating their rampant spread. Fig trees are light feeders, requiring little or no fertilizer. Fertilize your fig when the leaves appear off-colored and smaller than normal, and when it produces less than a foot of growth a year. Any complete fertilizer will be fine, such as a 10-10-10 applied when growth begins in the spring. If necessary, a second application can be made in early summer.
Although figs are heat-tolerant and can cope with dry periods, watering during exceptionally droughty summers will prevent them from shedding their fruit. If you’re looking for a great tasting fig, take a look at my fact sheet titled “Fig” at the Clemson Extension Home & Garden Information Center web site. Of course, visit your favorite garden center or nursery now when the figs are fruiting. Let your palette decide which variety deserves to be in your landscape.
Since figs make great passalong plants, make friends with someone who’s already growing them. My ‘Brown Turkey’ came from a friend in Seneca, SC about nine years ago. After I pruned his 20 foot tall tree in late winter, he tried to pay me for the exercise. I declined the money, but took a branch home with me instead. I dug a trench about 6 to 8 inches deep, placed the limb on the bottom so the branches rose slightly above the ground, and filled it in. It leafed out and grew the first year. In the following year, I was eating figs in my backyard. You don’t have to cram an eight foot limb in your trunk like I did. Dig up and transplant suckers, or take 8- to 10-inch long cuttings of one-year-old wood in early spring. Set the cuttings in a prepared bed so one or two buds on the tip are above the ground. Let them grow for a season before transplanting them.
For the past three summers the scarcity of rain coupled with my reluctance to water resulted in a mediocre crop. Fortunately, this summer was different. I’ve got a bumper crop of figs and I’m the only one in my family who relishes the sweet, soft fruits. Sure, I have to compete with the birds and insects, but thankfully, there’s plenty of figs for everyone.