Fig trees can provide deliciously sweet fruit, but they require some tender loving care to get them established. There are over 750 species of fig trees, most of which are tropical and subtropical in distribution around the globe. It will surprise you to learn many backyard growers can grow fig trees, even if you do not live in the tropics!
Fig trees thrive in well-drained, fertile soil containing organic matter and moisture. They have shallow root systems, which makes them susceptible to damage from heat, cold, drought, and tillage. Fig trees grow best in warm, sunny spots and withstand temperatures as low as 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fig trees are often planted near buildings that may protect them from harsh winter winds and weather. If you are dreaming of the sweet taste of the tropics in your backyard, read on to learn some tips for planting and caring for a new fig tree.
Plant The Right Species Of Fig Tree For Your Area
This is a qualified question you need to get right! Since there are so many species of fig trees, it is really important to choose one that is suitable for your climate.
Always be on the lookout for any fig growers in your area, as they will be your best resource for learning what works best in your region. If you have a trusted nursery, or Master Gardeners Association to contact, that would also be a great place to ask for advice.
When growing unique food, such as figs, tapping into local wisdom can be priceless.
Most fig trees in the United States grow best in California, Texas & Florida but can be grown in any conditions that meet the requirements of the tree, including indoors! Fig trees can also grow in many southern states including Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Oklahoma as well.
Plant A Fig Tree From A Cutting
Fig trees are usually propagated from cuttings. The method is so simple and used so often, no special consideration of other methods is necessary.
In fact, growing fig trees from seeds is quite unique unless you live in a native fig growing region where the fig wasps live to pollinate the flowers. The only way that pollen can reach the female flowers on the fig tree is through a narrow entrance hole. Female fig wasps can carry pollen through these entrances.
If you know someone in your area growing a fig tree, consider asking them to take a cutting for you! Cuttings are taken during the dormant season from well-matured wood of the preceding season’s growth. Be sure to not use the long, slender, sappy shoots that sometimes sprout from the ground.
Cuttings are usually 8-10 inches long pieces of solid wood (not pithy), which is usually found in the center of the branches. For cuttings made in the fall, pack with damp moss and moist sand. Keep them moist and cool so they will remain dormant until the weather is suitable for planting in late winter or early spring.
You can be assured any fig tree purchased from a tree nursery started as a cutting. They are then grown in a pot for at least a year to get their roots established before going to the nursery.
If you’re deciding to grow your fig tree in a pot, make sure to visit our article: 4 Best Soils For Potted Fig Trees
Plant Your Fig Tree During Late Winter or Early Spring
It is most often agreed you should plant your fig trees in the late winter or early spring while the tree is still dormant. Fig trees are deciduous, meaning that they lose their leaves at the end of each growing season. Plant your fig tree before new leaves are emerging for best results.
If you decide to plant your fig tree during the growing season, or after the tree has already ‘leafed out’, there is still a significant chance your tree will survive. It will be of most importance that you keep the roots well-watered, especially when planted later in the season.
Alternatively, planting in the late fall is another option, since the tree has gone dormant and lost its leaves. Just be sure to give extra winter protection to the young roots by covering the roots with a heavy layer of mulch.
You will want to do this regardless of when you plant it, for the first 3-4 years. This is especially important if you need to protect your tree from cold weather.
The Best Types Of Soil For Your Fig Tree
Backyard fig trees and figs grown in an orchard thrive in well-drained, reasonably fertile soil. They also desire plenty of humus, and moisture, according to the book Fig Growing in the South Atlantic and Gulf States by H.P. Gould.
Gould also states you can also successfully grow fig trees in clay-type soils, even though they are not as well-drained. As long as there is sufficient fertility and organic matter, heavy clay soils that are amended will still hold moisture better than light, sandy soils.
Soils that are light and sandy are often low in fertility since the drainage is so effective. Water will wash away all the nutrients as it drains through the larger sand particles. By adding a lot of organic matter, or humus, to sandy soils, you will increase your odds for success.
Fig trees that were planted on alluvial floodplains and river bottoms often have good moisture and sufficient nutrients, naturally. The agricultural community widely recognizes (and envies) these soil types as being ideal sites to grow a variety of crops. Figs are no different, as they often experience strong growth and dark foliage in these sites.
No matter what the soil type, fig trees can suffer badly in times of drought without sufficient humus and moisture to protect their roots from heat. These hot, dry conditions are extremely favorable for nematodes, a type of parasite that may feed on the roots of fig trees.
Use Soil pH Amendments To Help Your Fig Tree Thrive
When planting species that aren’t native to your region, I find it incredibly helpful to understand the natural habitats where these species may have thrived in. Such as, what do we know about tropical and subtropical climates?
These places have adequate moisture, a lot of vegetation (and humus!), which is a great place to start. Since a lot of rain also causes more acidic soils, we might assume that figs also prefer slightly acidic soil. However, growers of figs have remarked that when they increase their acidic soil’s pH with garden lime, their fig trees will thrive.
A study conducted at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica determined that neutral soil pH levels resulted in faster fig tree growth and higher survival rates of young seedlings. A neutral soil pH is 7, which is neither acidic nor alkaline.
If you don’t know what your region’s natural soil type is, reach out to your local extension office or call a Soil and Water Conservation District for that information. Garden centers and Master Gardener Associations will sometimes offer free soil testing as well.
There are very easy-to-use pH meters available for purchase. The Sonkir pH 3 in 1 Soil Moisture/Light/pH tester is a great tool that provides very useful information for the home gardener. It doesn’t require any batteries, since instead, it uses a sensor design to test pH, soils moisture, and even light!
If your garden soil pH is less than 6, then your fig tree would likely benefit from adding garden lime to the soil. Lime is a garden soil additive that is usually added in the fall, so the winter moisture will help the lime break down and make the soil ‘sweeter’, or less acidic.
Jobe’s Organics Garden Lime is a granular de-acidifier that will raise your soil’s pH. Follow instructions on the package for how much to apply. If you need results fast, choose a finer grind lime product, like the Calcium Carbonate Limestone Powder by the Seed Supply.
If you live in an area with naturally sweet, or alkaline soils, then you may need a different amendment to lower your soil’s pH to closer to 7. Clemson University recommends using aluminum sulfate and sulfur to lower soil pH. Aluminum sulfate will change the soil pH instantly due to how quickly it will dissolve into the soil, whereas the sulfur may take several months to change soil pH conditions.
Rich aluminum sulfate works in all types of soil, including sandy soil, loamy soil, and clay soil if you’re needing results fast. This Bonide Aluminium Sulfate is an easy to apply option. It also includes an application chart to help you determine how much of the product to add to your soil.
If you’re amending soil or planting in the fall, you could use True Organic Plant Foods Prilled Sulfur as a granular amendment. It is beneficial to your tree’s overall growth, and can even give your leaves a darker green color.
In summary, it is very helpful to know the natural pH of your soil so that you can add amendments, if necessary. Be prepared to add pH adjusting amendments each year if your soil is not naturally between 6.5-7.5 for the healthiest, luxuriant foliage and fruit.
How To Plant Your Fig Tree Outside
There is a common joke among the conservation community that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. But alas, here we are, dreaming of a canopy of figs while likely looking at a short twig of a tree. Let’s get this right so that our dreams come true!
Choose Strong Fig Trees To Plant
A one-year-old nursery plant with sufficient roots should be strong enough to plant. Keep in mind that the more roots they have, the bigger hole you will have to dig!
If you have a stressed, root-bound tree that has been in a pot, you will need to spread the shallow fibrous roots out gently and possibly even trim them. If you remove many roots, then you should also trim back the tree to help provide balance for nutrient and water needs.
Choose A Sunny Site With At Least 6 Hours Of Sun Each Day
To be considered ‘full sun’, a plant typically needs to be exposed to sunlight 6 hours a day during the growing season. The fig tree can take some shade throughout the day, but be sure to plan for that full 6 hours to get the maximum fruit production and healthiest tree.
Make observations about where other trees are growing and consider how big they will be in 20-40 years. Will your fig tree get shaded out and out-competed for light?
Plant At Least 20 Feet Away From Any Buildings
Fig trees can grow a canopy up to thirty feet wide. Their roots are shallow and will seek the most optimum growing conditions with adequate moisture and shade from the heat.
Plant Near A Water Source Or Hose
Fig roots are naturally shallow-rooted, very fibrous, and sensitive to very hot and cold temperatures and disturbances. They prefer even moisture throughout the year, never drying out.
In nature, they are often found growing along larger river systems in the riparian area on the edge of a forest. On your property, consider how the water is draining and how high the water table is when choosing your planting location. Ideally, groundwater and rainfall will water it, saving you the trouble of irrigation once you establish your tree.
Add Extra Organic Matter To Your Planting Hole
Having well-decomposed organic matter mixed into the soil as you plant your fig is crucial. This one step will protect your roots from the stresses of living outside in a non-native habitat while giving them the nutrients they need to get established in the first 3-4 years of their life.
By adding humus, or organic matter, to the planting hole, and surrounding area, you will provide the best possible start to your fig tree. Just visit your local garden center and ask for the best planting mix full of organic matter, or make your own!
To make your own humus, collect and mix organic matter from compost, a decomposing log, worm castings, rotted leaves, or old grass clippings, as examples. The humus you use cannot be in big clumps, as you’ll want to fill in between the fine, fibrous root system of the tree to eliminate any air pockets. If you make your own, sift it through a screen.
Decide On A Bush Or Fig Tree Form
Hopefully, you know approximately where on your property you’d like to plant your fig tree (s). You can grow figs as a taller tree form, or a shorter, bushier habit with the right pruning.
If you decide on a tree form (single stem), be sure to plant your stem one to two inches deeper than their current soil level in the pot. This is not normal tree planting instructions, as trees often prefer to keep their trunk at ‘soil level’.
If you desire a bush form, plant at least four inches deeper than the soil level in the pot. This deeper planting will induce branching from below the surface of the soil and send up additional stems.
Cover Fig Tree Roots With Mulch
Fig trees are often injured or killed to the ground by cold temperatures. The older the tree, the less prone they are to winter injury; such as by 3-4 years old, their roots have become hardier and their branches thicker.
Adding 3-4 inches of wood mulch, straw, or other local mulch is necessary if you live in colder climates with hard freezes. Think of it as adding a warm blanket to the roots to help protect those young roots at the surface from freezing.
As a bonus, during the growing season, the mulch will decompose and add additional organic matter to the roots, helping to keep them moist and providing extra nutrients.
One last comment here about most mulches. They are often very carbon-rich, and to decompose, they will use up any nitrogen that may be in the soil from all of that amazing humus you provided. Be sure to read the last notes about fertilizers to learn how to stay proactive in the nutrient cycle!
Don’t Forget About Fig Tree Fertilizers!
Whew! That was a LOT of information! I hope you got through it ok and are feeling motivated and educated to plan for your fig paradise. On a final note, I wanted to be sure to include some well-balanced fertilizer recommendations to add each spring.
Be sure to add a well-balanced fertilizer to your fig tree each spring to keep it vibrant and growing up to be its best, fruity self!
Options include a granular fertilizer, such as Jobe’s Organic Fruit and Nut Fertilizer that gets sprinkled around the base of the tree and the roots; or Jobe’s Fertilizer Spikes that get inserted around the tree’s drip-line, where active roots are growing.
There are many others to choose from, but remember that when you choose a product that says it is for fruit trees, you’ll get a higher phosphorus number that is specifically for healthy roots and fruits.
Dreaming of a fig-alicous future for you (and me!)
Gould, H.P., 1921. Fig growing in the South Atlantic and Gulf states (No. 1031). US Department of Agriculture.
Compton, S.G., Wiebes, J.T. and Berg, C.C., 1996. The biology of fig trees and their associated animals. Journal of Biogeography, 23(4), pp.405-407
Banack, Sandra Anne, Michael H. Horn, and Anna Gawlicka. “Disperser‐vs. Establishment‐Limited Distribution of a Riparian Fig Tree (Ficus insipida) in a Costa Rican Tropical Rain Forest1.” Biotropica 34.2 (2002): 232-243.
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