how to grow figs, with lee reich
IF THERE IS A FRUIT that’s the grail for grow-your-own, it’s the fig–too delicate to ship in peak ripeness, and unsurpassed at just that moment. The fig can be a tricky character, one that readers and listeners often ask for help with, whether they are trying to cheat the Zones and grow one in a pot, hauling it into shelter in winter, or planting in a warmer zone in the open ground.
I invited my favorite fruit expert, Lee Reich, author of many exceptional garden books, including “Grow Fruit Naturally” and “Weedless Gardening” and “The Pruning Book,” to come talk figs on my public-radio show and podcast. (I’m giving away a copy of “Grow Fruit Naturally;” enter by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page.)
I often refer to Lee as “the unusual fruit guy,” because one of his first books I read was “Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention.” Lee lives with blueberries and paw paws and medlars and kiwis and of course figs and more not far from me, across the Hudson in New Paltz, New York, on what he calls his farm-den (as in half-farm, half-garden) loaded with unusual fruits.
Learn what figs want wherever you’d like to cultivate them; how to make them happy in winter storage if they can’t stay outdoors at your place; how to tell if a fig is ripe–and more. Read along as you listen to the June 1, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
read/listen: my fig-growing q&a
a q&a with lee reich
Q. I read on your website that you left behind a collection of 35 fig varieties when you moved to the Hudson Valley from Maryland–which was how many years ago?
A. It was many years ago, when winters were much colder. Nowadays in Maryland you can just plant figs outdoors, from Philadelphia south, and get a crop. Maybe not last winter, when they might have died back, but generally. At that time you could not. I actually had 35 varieties and I would bend them down to the ground and cover them.
Q. So you were a “bend them down to the ground and cover them” kind of guy?
A. I’m no longer that kind of guy.
Q. And why not? I think you are in Zone 5B now, so…
A. Zone 5A. One reason I don’t do that any longer: It looks so horrendous, like a morgue or something, with all these mounds of soil with things under them. Also, it’s not entirely straight-forward. You have to time it right; you have to make sure rodents don’t find a nice home in there, and start gnawing at the branches.
But mostly I don’t do it because I have a greenhouse that’s barely heated in winter, that’s like a Mediterranean winter inside: It never goes below freezing, but gets near freezing.
A. Yes; they have trunks probably 8 inches in diameter now [photo above]. It sounds extravagant, but it’s not really that extravagant, because in that greenhouse (which as I said is barely heated, and not that big), I’m growing all the salad greens that we eat in the winter. I grow all the vegetable seedlings I need for the garden in there, too, which is quite a lot, so I get triple-duty from the greenhouse.
In the summer, I let it get really hot—figs can really take the heat—and in the beds I sometimes grow cucumbers or melons. But this summer I’m going to grow ginger in there.
Q. That’s daring—very tropical-sounding of you.
A. Well, it’s very tropical in there in summer.
Q. When you say it’s barely heated, how warm?
A. I set it to about 35 or 37 degrees F, and when the sun comes out, it gets warmer.
Q. Years ago, you had 35 kinds of figs in Maryland—so how many kinds do you grow now?
A. I’m always getting new ones. In the ground of the greenhouse I have four varieties, but I also have some in pots that I move to my unheated basement. So it’s probably another six kinds, and then I got cuttings recently of another one…
A. When I moved from Maryland I decided that I was only going to take the best two fig varieties and that’s it, or the ones best for here. But it’s sort of like an addiction: They just keep creeping into my life.
Q. It’s an infestation of figs. [Laughter.]
A. I’ve had a couple that didn’t do well in the greenhouse, and one I actually killed. One I dug up and tried planting in a different way.
Q. It’s always an experiment, isn’t it?
A. This was actually sort of a unique way, rather than putting it in a pot in the basement. If you do that, you have the pot in the summer that needs to be watered—and it takes a lot of water. Instead I would just plant it outside in spring, and it would grow fruits, and I’d dig it up—not easy, but I didn’t have to water so much all summer.
Q. So you’d haul it in, then put it back out in the ground.
Q. Can you give us a little 101 in the way figs work? We mentioned that they can fruit even if they get dieback from frost, which is not like a lot of our temperate-zone fruits, such as apples or pears, is it?
A. It’s so interesting the way they grow and fruit. There are three types of figs, and at least one of the types need pollination. Those you would grow in California or some Mediterranean climate, because you need very special pollinators.
The kind you grow here [in a colder, more Northern zone] does not need pollination. The fruit is called a syconium, which is kind of like an inside-out stem, with flowers on the inside.
That’s just sort of interesting—but the most practical thing about figs is the way they fruit.
Most temperate-zone fruits, and in fact a lot of fruits even beyond the temperate zone, will fruit on wood one year or more old. Like apples, which will set up buds or “flower initials” this year, and then the flowers open next year. Figs are different, because they can fruit on new wood that’s growing in the same season. And they can also flower and fruit on shoots that are one year old. Some will fruit on both; some just one or the other.
Q. Wow; you really have to know which one you’re getting.
A. Yes, because it relates to pruning and dieback. If you want to cut back the fig every year heavily, you grow one that fruits on new wood. You can’t cut it all the way to the ground, because then it takes too long to start bearing on those new shoots. But say you can keep it alive to about 3 or 4 feet high, then when it starts growing it will bear on those new shoots.
Or say you have one you’re growing in a pot, that you’re going to move indoors to a cool spot for the winter, it would be nice to have one you can cut back, so you can get it through the doors.
Even in my greenhouse, since in there the figs would get to be too big. In the fall, I cut them all back to about 3 or 4 feet high, so they don’t shade the greenhouse in the winter.
Q. Forgive me for this stupid question about my figs in pots—probably just ‘Brown Turkey’ or some hardier type. What are those little green sharp points at the very tip, that overwinter on the stems?
A. Those are just the buds, but alongside those you might also see little round things. If it was a type that bears on one-year-old wood, those could be figs that might ripen earlier in the season. But if you have ‘Brown Turkey,’ it’s probably not; they probably fall off.
A. It might be, but I have observed that some varieties that don’t bear a breba crop might have those, and then they’ll just drop off.
Q. Yes, that’s what happened. Should I pick them off and let the plant put its energy into a proper crop? [Photo above from Margaret’s potted fig in spring.]
A. No need; the fig is a parthenocarpic fruit, that doesn’t really make viable seeds. It does not put a lot of energy into fruiting.
Q. Sorry about my little green pointy things and tiny little figlet problems. [Laughter.]
A. And one other thing about the breba crop: If you have one that makes a breba crop—which means it can fruit on one-year-old wood, and you can keep that wood alive through the winter. The breba crop ripens before the main crop, like in July, and after the breba crop finishes, the new shoots that developed will also ripen the main crop, say in early September.
That’s another way it’s different from apples or pears: They blossom, and then have a ripening period after blossoming. Figs will just keep on bearing until low light or cold stops them, so in the greenhouse mine go well into October.
Q. So I have never seen a fig flower…
A. …because it’s a syconium.
A. It’s an inside-out stem, and they’re on the inside. And as you might guess, not very showy. [Laughter.] A whole lot of not-very-showy flowers on the inside-out stem.
Q. Do you grow any varieties that produce a breba crop?
A. I have one that does. I didn’t think it did, but when I cut it back I didn’t cut it totally back, and now I have figs [in May] about an inch and a half diameter already.
Q. What do figs want culturally to thrive? You said some of the three types need to be in a Mediterranean climate with a special pollinator…
A. Yes, the ‘Smyrna’ fig—but you would definitely not be growing them here.
Q. Of the type we can grow in other zones, what do they want?
A. Basically you want to picture an Arabian courtyard…
A. …with the sun beating down, and dry air, and sufficient water at the roots to keep them from wilting. You give them the warmest, sunniest spot you’ve got.
Q. So an Arabian courtyard—I’m just writing this down so I can put it in the budget for 2014: “Build Arabian courtyard.”
A. [Laughter.] And a lot of sand.
Q. OK: “Import sand.” What else?
A. It doesn’t need a lot of fertility, or an organically rich soil. They’re very cosmopolitan as far as needs. As long as they have sun and heat.
Q. And enough water that they don’t dry out.
A. Because if they do dry out, that can also cause fruit to drop.
Q. I have to say, growing them in pots, when I’ve had fruit drop I think that was my mistake: I have not understood how much they needed. I put them in a hot, sunny spot in my Arabian courtyard, in Copake Falls, New York, and I have to keep up with the watering—even in a really big pot. If you miss it, it will sulk, and abort some of that fruit.
A. And when they are in full leaf and growing strongly in July and August, they really need a lot of water. I remember many years ago, when I lived in Wisconsin, I had figs in pots, and I felt like a dairy farmer. I couldn’t leave my house for more than about four hours as a time, because I had to go back to water them. The ones I have in pots now are on drip irrigation.
Q. A good idea.
A. And if you do that, you can set it to have them watered more than once a day. So I use a very light potting mix, one with extra perlite, so the pots are easier to move, but since I’m watering twice a day they’re not going to dry out.
Q. What size pot?
A. I have to carry mine down the narrow basement steps, which are also rickety, and there is stuff on the side—a broom hanging, and everything falls off the walls…
Q. This is not in the Arabian courtyard. [Laughter.]
A. Definitely not. So my pots are probably a maximum of 18 inches in diameter.
One thing people have to know is that the fig is a subtropical plant—not a tropical plant. If it were in the tropics, it might not lose all its leaves in the winter, but in the subtropics it will lose all its leaves—so they don’t need light in winter.
Q. Before we talk about aftercare: How do you tell when a fig is ripe?
A. One thing is that you should never pick a fig under-ripe. People think some fruits including figs can sit on the counter and they’ll soften and ripen, but a lot of fruits won’t do that. They’ll rot, and that will soften them, but that’s not ripening.
You don’t want to pick a fig till it’s dead ripe, and at that point they’ll be hanging a little limp, and have a drop in their eye—the opening at the end of the fruit. And they’ll be soft.
Q. So they’re not being held as stiffly as they were before they were fully ripe.
A. They should be very soft, and very sweet. And that’s why it’s great to grow them yourself, because they’re very perishable and soft, so you can’t handle or keep them.
Q. You said they’re subtropical—do they need a dormant time?
A. They don’t actually have to have it, but in my experience they’ve always done better with a rest period. If I’m ready to bring them in in the fall, and they still have leaves, I’ll just pull them off.
Q. You’re very cruel. [Laughter.]
A. They thank me in spring.
Q. So if it’s fall, and we’re in a cold zone—we can bring the pots into the garage, or dig up the figs and store them. But what’s the ideal temperature?
A. The ideal temperature is between 30 and 45. In most houses, it’s hard to find a place that temperature. It could be an unheated garage, or depending where you are you, if you’re farther south than here but it’s still too cold to leave them outside, you could just put them in a shed sometimes. It also depends on the size of the pot.
The important thing is you want to keep them dormant in winter. A lot of times, they start growing indoors, and that succulent growth doesn’t make the transition easily to outdoor conditions. So I keep mine slightly on the dry side, as cool as possible, and by the end of March or early April, I move them outside. As long as they don’t start growing too much if there is going to be a really heavy cold snap, I can leave them outside after that.
Q. Favorite fig varieties?
A. There are so many varieties of figs. People often say, do you grow brown figs, or green figs? There are probably a thousand varieties because the fig has been grown since antiquity. They have multiple names, too.
One favorite is a two-crop fig—a breba and a main crop—and it’s ‘San Piero.’ ‘Brown Turkey’ is a common one that’s a good one. Another of my favorites is ‘Kadota,’ the kind of fig you find in canned figs. It didn’t do well in my greenhouse, because it has an open eye, and tends to not do well with the high humidity. It started to spoil.
Q. The eye is the dimple on the underside?
A. It’s actually a hole—with the kinds of figs that have to get pollinated, the insect goes into the hole and does it.
Q. Who knew?
A. Another one I got from the farmer at Stone Barns, who got it from someone in New York City, a Hasidic Jew. It’s just called ‘Rabbi Samuel,’ and that’s the one that has quite a big breba crop on it, too.
other fruit-growing advice from lee reich
- how to grow blueberries
- how to grow native paw-paws and persimmons
- raspberries, gooseberries and more
- more on fruit and vegetable growing on Lee’s blog (that’s Lee’s garden, above)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 1, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
enter to win ‘grow fruit naturally’
I’VE BOUGHT two extra copies of Lee Reich’s “Grow Fruit Naturally” to share with two lucky readers. All you have to do is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page (after the last reader comment):
Have you ever grown a fig, and with what success and where? Is it on your wishlist of plants to master, or have you nailed it, or no interest?
I struggle along, ever the optimist, with my two potted figs that I store in the unheated garage. I’m thinking they might like the basement better, the way Lee stores his, and am trying to imagine getting them down there…uh-oh.
Feeling shy, or have no answer? Just say, “Count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but an answer is better. I’ll pick a winner U.S. or Canada) after entries close at midnight Sunday, June 7. Good luck to all
(All photos copyright Lee Reich, used with permission, except tiny figs in spring from A Way to Garden. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon links may yield a small commission.)