Gardeners who have searched for bold leaves on a tall easy-to-grow plant for their indoor garden are familiar with Ficus by such names as the rubber plant (Ficus elastic) and the fiddleleaf fig (Ficus pandurata). But, it is Ficus carica that goes beyond the endearing foliage to produce a harvest of edible fruit gardeners with stoic green thumbs are sure to enjoy.
It can be said that gardeners who attempt to grow plants on the edge of their hardiness Zone push the proverbial envelope. For Midwest gardeners living in hardiness Zones 5 and 6, growing fig plants outside will be a challenge, albeit worth the fresh fall harvest.
Midwest Strategies for Growing a Fig Tree
Ficus carica produces fruit on a large deciduous shrub or a short tree, ranging from 10 feet to 30 feet tall. Considered a Mediterranean plant, this fig tree likes growing in hot temperatures and is evergreen in Zones 8 to 10. On the other end of the spectrum are hardiness Zones 5 and 6, where fig plants living outside must be heavily protected or brought indoors to survive the winter months. Outside during the growing season, figs should be planted in well-draining sandy soil (not rich soil) and positioned in full sun.
Midwest gardeners will have better success growing fig plants by thinking ahead on plans for winter protection. Locating a fig on the south side of a building will provide that sunny exposure and, at the same time, give it a wind break against harsh winters. Butting the small tree up against a trellis or training the fruit tree into an espalier form against a structure will add stability.
Ficus carica can be grown in a large pot, such as in a whiskey barrel. The tree should be staked and be limbed up or kept pruned to a manageable size for easier moving later to an inside location.
Gardeners start pruning their fig trees when the plant turns dormant. Pinch back stems and cut back limbs to create a strong central trunk and to later prevent issues with snow load, no matter the style of garden or technique used growing a fig.
Fig Trees Bundled Up Against Snowy Winters
Winter protection surrounding fig trees is paramount for survival in hardiness Zones 5 and 6. After the tree is pruned down (to as low as 4 feet tall,) young branches can be folded up against the center and encased along with the lower trunk in burlap. Layers of extra mulch should be placed on the ground under the tree’s canopy.
If a young tree has not already been staked up the center or trellised, install a stake — especially if the fig plant is sited on a windy location. Gardeners may want to encircle a temporary fence around the tree with chicken-wire and fill the inside with straw or leaf mulch.
Fig trees living in containers can be moved indoors to overwinter. A conservatory-like setting, a warm greenhouse or an unheated basement are all reasonable choices. Gardeners will want to add protection depending on the circumstances but reducing the amount and frequency of watering is appropriate as fall turns colder. When the last of the spring frosts are gone, un-layering the protection around a fig tree a little at a time will help acclimate the plant to late spring temperatures.
Fig Plants to Tolerate Colder Climates
The fruit of a fig plant is small, but may add an unexpected colorful flair to the edible garden. ‘Chicago Hardy’ fruits evolve from purple to deep brown.
Midwest gardeners should choose cultivars of fig plants that have demonstrated winter hardiness and only need a shorter growing season to produce a harvest.
Cultivars of Ficus carica like ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Chicago Hardy,’ which is also called ‘Bensonhurst Purple’, produce small fruits but, more important, they are noted for the good winter hardiness. The ‘Chicago Hardy’ fig develops a dark purplish brown skin.
At a trial planting at Powell Gardens in Western Missouri, ‘Peter’s Honey’, ‘Atreano’ and ‘Mission’ Fig’ produced substantial plants in their Heartland Harvest Garden.
The fig tree has dark green foliage that features large highly defined lobed leaves. The foliage growing on the tree will cast shade across a small area of garden, but the plant is not grown for its flower display. Gardeners working hard to grow figs, though, will be rewarded with fresh fruit.
1. Chris Eirschele
2. Logee's Plants for Home & Garden