Tips for planting a fig tree in your garden this fall
“Soothsayer: ‘You shall outlive the lady whom you serve.’
Charmian: ‘O, excellent! I love long life better than figs.’”
— William Shakespeare, “Antony and Cleopatra,” Act I, Scene 2
This seemingly insignificant exchange between a fortune teller and one of Cleopatra’s ladies-in-waiting is an excellent example of Shakespeare’s masterful use of foreshadowing. At the end of the play, another commoner brings the Queen of Egypt a basket of figs in which lays hidden a poisonous snake. Cleopatra takes her own life with “the pretty worm of Nilus that kills and pains not,” and her loyal companion Charmian soon follows, in the end giving up her wish for a long life for her queen.
The Bard knew his audiences would recognize the multi-layered meanings associated at the time with figs, which were grown in England during the Elizabethan period for the wealthy and imported from Spain. In “Antony and Cleopatra,” and again in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare’s characters discuss figs to elicit images of female sensuality and decadence.
In other plays, figs feature in sexually explicit profanity spoken by male characters: “Bless’d fig’s end!” (Iago in “Othello”) and “Die and be damned! And figo for thy friendship!” (Pistol in “Henry V Part 3”). Pistol accentuates his cursing by making an obscene gesture called “the fig of Spain.”
Today, figs (Ficus carica) don’t conjure up quite the same images as they did in Shakespeare’s time, but they have retained their reputation for being somewhat luxurious (although my mom packed Fig Newtons in my lunchbox practically every day when I was a kid). Store-bought fresh figs from California are expensive because, unlike most other fruit, figs do not continue to ripen once they are picked, so the fresh fig market depends on local boutique growers or quick transport of commercial crops.
Ninety percent of the commercial fig crops grown in the U.S. and elsewhere are sold as dried figs, which are surprisingly nutritious. They pack more fiber and mineral content than all other common fruits, nuts or vegetables. Figs also have up to 1,000 times more calcium than other fruits, and even more calcium by weight than skim milk.
Fortunately, cold hardy fig trees are not difficult to grow in the Rogue Valley; they tolerate our wet winters during their dormancy, and they thrive in our warm, dry summers with only an inch of water every couple of weeks needed during their growing period. One 10-foot-tall fig tree can produce plenty of figs to feed your family and friends.
September/October is a good time to plant fig trees in our area because the fast-growing shrubs/small trees will have time to establish a healthy root system before winter frosts arrive and the plants go into dormancy. They’ll have a head start kicking into their growth phase come spring.
Be sure to choose a variety of fig that grows well in our area; luckily, there are many to choose from. Some of my favorites are: ‘Black Jack’ (semi-dwarf; purple skin/strawberry flesh), ‘Black Spanish’ (dwarf; purple skin/amber flesh), ‘Olympian’ (exceptionally hardy; purple skin/red flesh), ‘Desert King’ (large; green skin/strawberry flesh), ‘Lattarula’ (large; light-green skin/amber flesh), ‘White Kadota’ (used for Fig Newtons; yellow skin/amber flesh) and ‘Verne’s Brown Turkey’ (brown skin/amber flesh).
The OSU Extension Service recommends planting fig trees in loose, well-draining soil amended with compost. Fig trees like neutral soils (pH 6.5-7.0), so add lime before planting if your soil is acidic. Dig a hole twice as large as the root ball and deep enough so the plant can be placed at the same depth as it was in the container. (Actually, there is some debate about the correct planting depth for fig trees. Some gardeners recommend planting deep — about two inches below the plant’s depth in the container, and still others say to plant heat-loving fig trees in mounded soil). Whichever method you decide on, follow up by backfilling the planting hole with soil and adding mulch around the plant’s root zone.
The first winter after planting your fig tree, cut it back to one-half its size to encourage branching. Fig trees with multiple trunks are sturdier and produce more fruiting wood. After pruning hard the first year, prune your fig tree every February or early March by removing old interior wood and about half of the year-old wood (leave the other half for producing spring crops). Year-old wood is green and smooth, whereas mature wood is gray and bumpy.
Fig trees can also be topped to restrict their height, thus encouraging the production of fruit lower in the canopy where it can be harvested more easily.
Newly planted fig trees may need a year before producing fruit, but once established, healthy trees will provide one or two crops of figs every year for decades. The first crop, called the breba crop, grows on last year’s wood and may not be as large or flavorful as the main crop, which is produced on this year’s stem growth and ripens in the fall.
Figs are ripe when their necks wilt and the fruit hangs down from the branch. The fruit feels soft when lightly squeezed. Allow figs to ripen on the branches; they will stop ripening after they are harvested.
Some gardeners say September/October is also a good time to propagate cuttings from established fig trees because the sap is still moving within the plant tissue and is thought to help the cuttings form new roots. Other gardeners say to wait until late February/early March to take cuttings at the same time the dormant fig tree is pruned. I’m going to try both methods to determine which one works best for me.
To propagate fig trees from cuttings, select trees that have grown vigorously that year (several inches of new growth is ideal). For fall propagation, select a fruiting stem (or one that had fruit) at least 6 inches long and has a growing tip. Cut the stem just below a growth node. Some gardeners remove the leaves, while others keep one or two leaves and the growing tip intact. For late winter propagation, cut the top of the dormant stem flat.
Next, use a clean, sharp knife to make vertical slices all around the bottom inch of the cutting to expose the cambium layer and encourage new root growth. There is no need to make a slanted cut at the bottom end. Apply a rooting hormone for hardwood trees, such as Dip ‘N Grow, covering the bottom flat cut and vertical slices. Fall cuttings may not need a rooting hormone, but I recommend using one anyway for better results.
Plant the cuttings in a sterile propagation medium, such as a mixture of 50% washed coco coir and 50% perlite. Avoid using soil because it may foster fungal or bacterial diseases.
Add a layer of medium to the bottom of a plastic storage bin (approximately 64 quarts) without bottom holes, and then arrange 32-ounce see-through plastic cups on top of the medium so there is a few inches between the top of the cups and the top of the bin. I know I’ve written before about reducing the use of plastics for gardening, but the bin and cups will be used many times for propagation. It’s important to be able to see root development on the cuttings without lifting the vulnerable plants from the medium.
With that justification, I suggest filling the cups with medium, and then sticking each fig cutting into a cup deep enough to cover the vertical slices and to stabilize the cutting in the medium. Press firmly around each stem, and then add more medium to the top of the bin so all of the cups are completely covered.
Water the bin thoroughly, and then place it uncovered in an unheated room but on a heating mat to keep the soil temperature around 70 degrees. The excess water at the bottom of the bin will be taken up as the plant roots develop, so the medium should only be spritzed with water if the top dries out.
Remove the cups from the bin to monitor root growth; roots should develop on the cuttings within three or four weeks. For fall propagation, transplant the rooted cuttings to a larger pot once the roots spread throughout the cup; for late winter propagation, plant the rooted cuttings in the ground in the spring once the last frost date has passed.
Shakespeare used lots of bawdy language about figs in his plays, so he may have been fascinated to know that figs have a peculiar sexual reproduction system. In fact, figs are not technically fruit but inverted flowers because the flowers bloom on the inside of the pear-shaped pods. The flesh we eat is actually clusters of tiny flowers. Many of today’s fig varieties are self-fertile; however, during the Bard‘s lifetime fig trees needed a special strategy for the internal flowers to be pollinated.
Over time, fig trees developed a mutually beneficial relationship with a species of wasp (Chalcidoid subfamily Agaoninae), which fertilizes the flowers while laying eggs inside the fig. Having broken off its wings and antennae to get inside, the wasp dies so her offspring can survive, protected, within the fig. How Shakespearean!
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her website at www.literarygardener.com.