I recently gave away some small fig (Ficus carica ‘Stella’) plants that I’d grown from cuttings. I was asked how to look after them, so I figured this would be a good topic for a post (it has been a while…).
There are several species of fig in cultivation; they make easy and attractive houseplants, but only Ficus carica produces edible fruit (at least, fruit that’s worth harvesting). That’s the species I’ll be talking about. The following is a mixture of personal experience and research.
Figs are native, more to less, to the Middle East and thus prefer Mediterranean conditions: fairly dry soil that’s not too rich or heavy, and lots and lots of sun. Despite that, they’re pretty adaptable, so it’s not difficult to grow figs in containers here in southern Ontario.
They’re generally reliably hardy to USDA Zone 8; some cultivars are hardy to Zone 7 or Zone 6 or even colder with enough winter protection. ‘Stella’ is one such. They can be placed outdoors in summer and will thrive in full sun; in winter in colder areas they need protection, but they will tolerate light frosts for short periods.
Container: Figs seem to do better when their roots are somewhat restricted, so it’s best to plant them in containers that one would think are a little too small for the size of plant. Consequently they don’t need to be repotted often even though they are fast growers. Every three years (or two at most) for mature plants should be enough. You can even put one back in the same pot if you prune the roots.
Soil: Nothing fancy; standard potting mix will do as long as it is light and free draining. I tend to use topsoil mixed with vermiculite, mainly because that’s what I’ve got at hand.
Water: Again, not fussy, but they prefer to be on the dry side. Anything grown in a pot/container will need a little more water than if it’s grown in the ground, and that does apply here. I keep mine in full baking afternoon sun and I feel guilty if I don’t water it daily, but it doesn’t mind a bit if I miss a day. I hear that too much water affects the flavour of the fruit, but my palate isn’t refined enough to notice much difference.
Light: They will take as much as you can give, but will also adapt to lower light conditions. I have tried them in morning sun/afternoon shade and they did just fine. A sunny window will do for indoor plants as well.
Feeding/fertiliser: Keep it light; use an all-purpose feed during the growing season. I garden organically, so I give mine very occasional doses of dilute comfrey liquid. The soil is pretty thin in their native habitat.
Pruning: Best done before spring growth takes off, so prune to maintain shape at the end of winter/beginning of spring. Greenhouse-grown plants need a somewhat different regimen, but I won’t go into that.
Pests/diseases: Not much of a problem around here. In very low humidity, watch out for red spider mites.
Harvest: ‘Stella’ figs stay green when ripe, but the ripeness of any fig variety can be gauged by how they hang. Unripe figs stick straight out from the branch; as they ripen they droop lower until they hang more or less straight down. If you gently raise them and they come off easily, they’re ready to eat. Stop giggling.
You have several options here, all depending on how much time/effort you’re willing to spend and what resources you have available.
Probably the easiest thing is to send the plant into dormancy. When the weather starts to cool down and there is less light, the plant will start to drop its leaves and go dormant. When all leaves have been shed, bring it under shelter (as I said, they’ll survive light frosts, but don’t leave it out if a hard frost is forecast).
During a mild winter, an unheated garage or shed will do, provided it isn’t opened often. Otherwise, a cool, dark spot in the basement will do as well – the same sort of place in which you’d overwinter summer bulbs. A cool greenhouse or conservatory is also a good option. The temperature range you’re looking for is about –4 to 8 °C; anything lower will kill the plant and much higher will cause it to break dormancy in a bright area – so keep them in the dark if you put them in the basement.
A potted plant can also be heeled into the garden. Again, a couple of options are available. The plant can be laid in horizonally in a trench, backfilled with something loose, and the whole thing covered with thick mulch. The stems are pretty flexible, so another way is to heel in the pot at an angle and bend the plant over until it touches the ground, weight it down with a stone or two, then mulch.
Alternatively, the plant can be placed upright and wrapped in insulation. Heel the pot in, mulch well, then tie the stems together in a bundle. Wrap in fibreglass insulation, followed by a tarp. A pot turned upside down over the top will shed water.
If you do either of these against a south-facing wall, your plant will thank you.
Your other set of options is to keep it growing over winter. The plant will adapt to lower light conditions than it likes, so if you have a nice sunny window, it will do just fine there. I’m fortunate in that my house faces southwest and has both a bay window and a skylight at the front, so I can keep a lot of houseplants without much additional light. Start acclimatising the plant to indoor conditions a couple weeks before your fall frost date. Growth will probably be slower during winter, but it will happen. You can even keep it indoors as a houseplant year-round, but don’t expect much of a harvest in this case.
Small plants can easily be kept going under plant lights. The problem with this is they don’t stay small for long.
You can of course grow them over winter in a heated greenhouse. If you have one, I hate you.
During winter, water less and stop fertilising.
In any case, as soon as danger of hard frost has passed in spring, you can restart their outdoor lives. For dormant plants, it’s as simple as unheeling (and/or unwrapping) your outside plants, or putting your dormant indoor plants outside. Plants that have been kept growing over winter will need to be reacclimatised as usual. If you’ve had a dormant indoor plant and move it to somewhere bright and warm, it will break dormancy and get a head start on the season’s growth (and also need acclimatising to outdoors).