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Growing Figs in Containers

Anne K Moore
Photographs Anne K Moore

Figs were not in my backyard when I was growing up.  I did develop a real love of the canned Kadota figs from the supermarket, though.  Kadota figs are also the figs used in Fig Newton bars, another favorite.  These types of figs can be grown in California and some areas of Texas.

It was only natural that I plant a fig tree when I moved to the south.  What I didn’t know was I could have been growing figs in the cold if I had just planted in a container and moved it indoors during the winter.

The best figs for container growing are those that naturally stay rather small.  Most fig trees are tall and picturesque with widespread branches that sort of undulate and twist.  Since I had to leave my large fig tree at the old garden and there really isn’t enough room in this new place for a large fig, I discovered a fig bred just for containers, a dwarf black fig, Ficus Petite Negra.

It did quite well in a pot but I was running out of room for containers, so I planted it in a partly shaded area.  It has had a good bit of fruit on it this summer but it isn’t ripening very fast, as in years past.  That area has become mostly shady now, so I’m afraid I will have to dig and move it this winter.  It will probably go back into a pot so it can follow the sun in my mostly shady garden. 

If you live in areas where the winter temperatures do not go below 20 degrees, you could leave this fig in the ground or in a pot outdoors.  Be sure to protect the roots from freezing with heavy mulch.  If it is in a pot, move it to a protected area for the winter.  Often, these trees will even survive in colder areas by freezing to the ground but coming back from the roots when the weather warms.

In hard-freeze areas, move the container and tree indoors after the first frost but before a hard freeze.  The frost will send it into dormancy.  Only water it occasionally through the winter.  It will not need any fertilizer until late winter when new growth begins.

This dwarf black fig only gets to about 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide if left to its own growth pattern.  It does have those bow-downs and bends in its branches that make it look old and charming.  You can trim it back, if it won’t fit in your house, but you will lose that first fruit set on the old wood. 

Figs will set fruit on branch growth from the year before, called old wood.  This is the first crop in the summer.  It is also the crop most likely to be lost with a late freeze that would kill back top branches.  A second fall crop develops on growth that occurs in the spring and summer, called new wood.

The fruit of fig trees is quite interesting.  The flowers are actually encased in a swollen stem.  What we pick as fruit is swollen tree stem with flowers inside.  The skin of the fruit on the dwarf black fig is green and turns somewhat purple when it is ripe.  The best ripeness test is a gentle squeeze.  If it is soft, it is time to eat.  The flesh is deep pink and sweet.

When you are harvesting figs, wear gloves so that the latex that oozes from the branch doesn’t irritate your skin.  You will see it as a white seal at the spot where the fruit was attached.

You might wonder how fig fruit is pollinated if the flowers are wrapped up.  Common figs don’t require pollination.  The fruits contain female flowers.  Figs that require pollination have both male and female flowers. They have a small opening on the tip of their fruit.  Usually tiny wasps visit inside, and in the process, collect and distribute pollen.  They do not injure the fruit.

Deer do not especially like figs but pocket gophers love the roots.  To guard against gopher damage, fashion a wire basket larger than the root ball and put it in the planting hole.  Growing in a container should also keep gophers from getting to the roots.

If you would like a large crop of figs, plant two trees.  Not because they need cross pollination, but because you will most likely be sharing with the neighborhood birds.  I like to share so I try to have enough figs for my wild backyard buddies.

If you would rather be selfish and horde the whole crop for yourself, you can build an enclosure with plastic bird netting.  It is very light-weight and easy to handle.  Or, you can try to beat the early birds by harvesting first thing in the morning.

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