|Figs are fun and easy to grow, but two cold winters and a cool spring have led to a late-producing crop this year.|
Figs are so commonly found on old home sites across the South that many people think they are native to the region, but that is not the case. Figs are believed to be indigenous to Western Asia and were first distributed throughout the Mediterranean. The first record of figs in the English-speaking world was in England in the 1500s and then the Virginia Colony in 1669. They quickly spread all across the Deep South where they grew and produced good crops with little care and no major disease or insect pest. They are also fairly well adapted to all soil textures as long as the soil is not too acid or too wet. They prefer a pH of 6 and 6.5, typical of most food crops.
For those of us in the mid-to-upper zone 7, the main problem we have with figs is cold winters that may kill young plants or kill older plants back near the ground. The last two winters have been tough on us fig lovers. I have had several calls this year asking why the figs were not ripe at their normal time in north Alabama. The answer relates to a unique quality of figs and how they fruit. Most fruit trees produce fruit on previous year’s growth, but figs can actually produce fruit on both old and new growth. This explains why in some years you have some fruit ripe in early summer followed by the main crop that ripens several weeks later.
In our area, the crop produced on the previous year’s wood, called the breba crop, is not particularly large or reliable, especially in the northern part of the state. After cold winters with significant wood loss, you won’t see any breba fruit. However, because figs also produce on the new wood, the second or main crop may still be produced.
These facts about figs help us solve the question of why the figs were so late this year and will have a hard time ripening before the cooler weather comes. The two consecutive cold winters and the relatively cool spring this year have weakened the trees and new growth was greatly delayed. Since the new growth was slow to come out, the fruit were slow to start and they simply did not have enough summer to ripen. This is a common problem for gardeners in the Pacific Northwest who actually grow varieties that produce larger breba crops because the fruit on the new growth almost never has enough summer to ripen.
Often, after figs are killed back near the ground, they make nice long new shoots of regrowth the following summer. That has been the case for most people in north Alabama this year. This vigorous new growth is perfect for propagating new fig trees. Figs are easy to propagate because they root very easily. There are several ways to propagate them. The most common method is to root cuttings taken in late winter or early spring. You may have success by simply taking cuttings of 1-inch diameter wood about a foot long in the winter and storing them in the refrigerator until spring, and then burying the bottom half of the cuttings in the ground and keeping the spot well-watered the first spring and summer.
For a better chance of success, place a half sheet of newspaper tightly into the bottom of a 4- or 6-inch-deep plastic pot. Put a little sand or a good-quality potting mix in the bottom of the pot, then stand one to four cuttings upright in the pot, filling the pot the rest of the way with more sand or potting mix.
Water the pot thoroughly, and set it in a very bright, but not a direct sun, location. It should be warm – at least 70 degrees. If you cannot keep the air temperature above 70, provide bottom heat to bring the soil temperature up. Cover the pot with an empty 2- or 3-liter soft drink bottle with the lid on and the bottom cut out. Do not water the cuttings again until they are very dry. Lift the pot occasionally to test for dryness. If the pot is very light, set it in a pan of water, and let it soak. When you see vigorous growth, it is time to harden off the new plants. Remove the bottle cap, and see how the plants do. If the plants look to be thriving after a few days, remove the bottle. If the plants begin to wilt, cover them again with the bottle.
After a few days, it will be time to pot up the new plants. Don’t do this just because you see leaves growing. Sometimes there will be four or five leaves and few if any roots. Wait until you see vigorous growth. Pot the plants in individual plastic pots (1-gallon size) and apply a light application of liquid fertilizer. In four to six weeks, depending on the vigor of the variety and the weather, the plants will be ready either for a larger pot or for in-ground planting. When you plant them in the ground, keep them well-watered until they are very well rooted. This usually takes one summer of careful attention. A 2- or 3-inch layer of mulch will help the new plants conserve moisture, keep the new roots cooler and provide cold protection the first winter.
Figs are a fun and easy fruit plant to grow in our area. They are interesting fruit because they do not require pollination at all to produce their delicious seedless fruit. One plant is likely all you will need unless you want to make a winter’s supply of fig preserves. Because they produce fruit parthenocarpically (without pollination), they tend to fall off easily under stress. In our area, the stress is usually a drought during fruit enlargement. You may want to place a soaker hose around the plant and give it a weekly soaking while the fruit are maturing.
For more information, visit www.aces.edu and search the keywords "fig production."
Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.