If you are considering the addition of fruit trees to your homestead, but are concerned about caring for finicky trees, consider the relatively trouble-free fig. A symbol of peace and prosperity, once considered a sacred fruit, figs are delicious, easy to grow and propagate, and are a huge hit at farmers’ markets. They are prolific producers and the fruit can be used in a multitude of products, both sweet and savory.
Figs, the oldest cultivated plant, are originally from Southern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Spanish Franciscan missionaries coming to set up Catholic missions in southern California brought them to North America. There are hundreds of varieties, all having a soft flesh and tiny, edible seeds. The most popular varieties available today are the green-skinned, white-fleshed Adriatic fig; the pear-shaped, violet-to brown-skinned Brown Turkey fig; the large, squat, white-fleshed, green-skinned Calimyrna fig; the medium, pear-shaped Celeste fig, with purple skin and pink pulp; the small, thick-skinned, yellow-green Kadota fig; and the purple-black Mission fig.
Figs grow well in Zones 8-10 without much protection. There are cold-hardy cultivars for Zones 6 and 7. For homesteaders north of Zone 6, don’t despair! Figs lend themselves well to container cultivation.
Choosing the Right Tree
When you choose your tree, look for a cultivar that is adapted to your climate. The varieties “Brown Turkey” and “Celeste” are excellent choices for colder climates. If you are buying your tree online, make sure it is a self-pollinating variety. Reputable nurseries will only sell self-pollinating varieties.
Planting a Fig Tree
Your young fig tree can be planted in your yard at any time of the year, although fall is often the less stressful time—for tree and gardener—to plant a tree. To plant your tree, dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball in a sunny area that is fairly well protected from blustery winter winds. Mulch the tree with compost and keep well watered during dry periods. You can apply a seaweed-extract foliar spray or compost tea once a month during the growing season to keep the tree healthy and to encourage fruit production.
If you are growing your fig tree in a container, choose a large plastic container. You want a planter large enough to support a tree. Plastic will help reduce the weight of the plant, which is very important if you are going to have to move the tree to a protected area during winter. Use organic potting soil and top-dress with compost. Plant the tree at the same height as it grew at the nursery. Set the pot in a spot that gets plenty of sunshine. Make sure you do not let the container dry out completely, as this will stress the tree and dramatically reduce fruit production. Water when the soil is dry an inch below the surface. Move the container to an unheated but protected area, such as a garage or shed, for winter. Continue to water them during their winter dormancy and bring them back outside once the last frost date passes and the weather warms.
You can protect cold-hardy cultivars when temperatures drop to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and below, by encircling them with a hardware-cloth cage filled with straw. This provides insulation but will not steam your tree. Do not leave your fig trees unprotected in temperatures below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are two easy and free ways to grow your fig orchard. First, as your tree grows you will notice suckers sprouting from the roots. Use a shovel to remove them from the mother tree. Immediately replant the suckers any place you would like to grow another fig tree. You can expect to see figs growing from these suckers in two seasons. Another way to propagate your fig tree is to bend a low-growing branch down and secure it to the ground with a U-shaped wire. Cover lightly with soil. Place a rock on top of the branch to keep the branch anchored and buried. Once the branch has rooted, cut it from the mother tree with pruning shears.
Depending on your climate and the cultivar you have chosen, your fruit will be ready to harvest between June and October. In warm climates, you can expect to harvest twice a year. You should get your first harvest in June and your second harvest in late summer. Know what color your particular fig should be when ripe—some are brown, others gold, purple, or green. The fruit will begin to hang down on the branch, change color, be soft to the touch and their skin may begin to split. Watch for the birds—they seem to know when the figs are about to ripen. You can protect your trees from birds with nets, by hanging aluminum pans on the branches, or you can just share with the birds. Gently twist the ripe fig off the branch. Avoid getting the milky sap on your skin—it can be an irritant for some and it is sticky on everyone! Let the figs cool slightly indoors before putting them in the refrigerator. Make sure you check your fig stash daily. One fig gone bad can spoil the whole bunch.
Enjoying the Harvest
Figs are delicate but will keep up to a week in the refrigerator. Peel and eat them as is, right off the tree, for a delicious treat. You can also peel them and use them on cereal, ice cream, or yogurt. For a quick breakfast or healthy snack, drizzle some honey over fresh peeled figs and serve with milk or cream. Fresh figs are also a tasty and beautiful addition to simple green salads.
If you have a bumper harvest, you can simmer them in a small amount of water, or fresh lemon juice, and honey for twenty minutes. Mash them into a puree and freeze. You can use this fig puree as a filling for layer cakes and cookies, a topping for ice cream, or a quick spread for biscuits or pancakes.
Figs can also be dried. Because of their high water content, it is sometimes difficult to sun-dry figs. It works much better, with more consistent results, to use a food dehydrator for figs. Once dried, you can use in homemade granola, eat them straight out of the bag like candy, or rehydrate them to use in baking recipes. Dried figs lend themselves well to spiced cakes and quick breads.
There are also several ways to can figs. Of course, you can preserve them whole or make jams, but if you want a fig recipe that wows, try making fig mostarda. Mostardas are Italian fruit mustards. They can be made with all types of fruit, but the fig mostarda is really a winner.
- 2 ½ c.sugar
- 1 c. water
- ½ c. dry white wine
- 2 lbs. fresh figs, peeled and roughly chopped
- 3 T. bottled lemon juice
- 3 T. dry mustard powder
- 2 T. mustard seeds
In a large saucepan, combine sugar, water and 1/4 cup of white wine. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until syrup is clear and slightly reduced, about five minutes. Add the figs and lemon juice. Reduce the mixture to a simmer and cook for about thirty minutes, until figs are translucent and the mixture is thick. Remove from heat. In a small saucepan, whisk together the remaining ¼ cup wine, mustard powder, and mustard seeds. Cook this mixture over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thick and smooth, about three minutes. Add the mustard mixture to the syrup mixture. Whisk to combine.
Ladle hot fig mostarda mixture into hot, sterilized canning jars, leaving half an inch of headspace. Poke a skewer to the bottom of each jar several times to release any trapped air bubbles. Place a sterilized lid on each jar, and ring, tightening to “finger tight”. Place in the canner, covering the jars with two inches of water and bring to a boil. Once water begins its boil, process in a boiling water bath for 45 minutes.
Remove the processed jars and place on a folded towel on the countertop. Leave undisturbed for 24 hours. Press the center of each lid to make sure it has sealed properly. Once sealed, this will store for up to one year. If a jar does not seal, store in the refrigerator.
Fig mostarda is a delicious condiment when served with roasted beef, lamb, or pork. It is a fantastic way to preserve an abundance of figs, and it makes a yummy and thoughtful gift from your homestead. Fig mostarda commands a nice price at local farmers’ markets and specialty shops, and it looks lovely stacked next to bags of fresh figs.
I encourage you to seriously consider adding figs to your homestead. They make a beautiful addition to any property, are easy to plant and maintain, and earn their keep with harvest after harvest of delicious fruit.