Figs Don’t Drink

Headshot of Nan StermanYou might wonder if the drought means the end of fruit trees in our backyards. The answer is “no.” There are many kinds of fruit trees that produce with little, if any, irrigation once trees are established. My top five list includes fig trees.

Figs originated in the hot, dry Middle East. They grow easily here, and there are many varieties to choose from, thanks to their being in cultivation for over eons and by different cultures across the world.

In my garden, I grow the mild flavored, apple sized ‘Long Yellow,’ which has yellow skin and pale flesh. ‘Brown Turkey’ is medium sized fruit with brown skin and very sweet burgundy/brown flesh. ‘Panachee’ (also called ‘Tiger Stripe’) makes small figs, green and yellow striped outside with strawberry colored flesh that tastes sweet and bright.

There are many more fig varieties on the market too.

Once you select a variety, plant your fig tree in the hottest area of your garden, where it will get at least six hours of full, direct sun each day. Figs prefer well-draining soil, so plant into a raised mound if your soil is clay.

Dig the hole so the tree sits at the same height in the ground as it did in its pot; then one and a half or two times as wide as the pot.

Don’t bother amending the planting hole, but do add a few handfuls of worm castings to help jumpstart beneficial soil microbes.

Next, set a gopher basket into the planting hole to protect roots at the base of the tree. If gophers eat the peripheral roots, the tree will likely survive, but if they get the main roots the tree will die. Purchase Gopher baskets in nurseries or make your own from chicken wire (just be sure to wear leather gloves!).

Fill the hole and the container each with water and allow it to drain. Then, remove the tree from the container and rough up the rootball. Gently set the tree into the hole, then backfill tamping soil down and wetting it every few inches.

Finally, make a shallow basin around the trunk of the tree for deep soaking right after planting and every few weeks through the first few months.

At the same time, install in-line drip irrigation (rather than bubblers or individual drip emitters) around the tree trunk. Starting at about eight inches away from the trunk, make concentric loops of irrigation lines, spaced about 12 inches apart. Set the last loop a foot beyond the tree’s canopy.

Figs require no special spraying or pruning. Their soft, white wood is easy to prune and even to shape as espalier. Prune right after harvest, in the short window before next year’s fruits begin to form.

While figs can be fertilized, fertilizers promote vigorous growth that counters the goals of drought tolerance. Instead, spread a three-inch thick layer of mulch over the soil under and around each tree. Leave the soil right around the trunk bare so mulch doesn’t touch the tree.

The cooler months of fall and winter are best planting months. If there is no rain, deep water often enough to keep roots damp (not wet) through the first year or two.

After that, some gardeners can stop watering altogether, depending on the garden’s microclimate. That said, monitor plants, especially in the hot months. If leaves droop a little during the day, that may not be a problem but if they droop first thing in the morning, that plant is water stressed. Deep water it right away.

Figs have two ripening seasons, depending on the variety. Most ripen at the end of summer but a few also have an early crop, called a breba crop, in early summer. Either way, figs ripen only on the tree so don’t to pick them early.

I love eating figs fresh off the tree, but of course they are wonderful as jam, roasted, tarts, and baked in chicken dishes.

Nan Sterman is a garden expert, author, designer, and educator. Nan leads international garden tours and hosts the show A Growing Passion on KPBS TV. Learn more about Nan at plantsoup.com.