Figs are incredibly versatile and often used in cooking and baking. Found in both savory and sweet dishes, they often add a delicate sweetness. However, finding fresh figs in Iowa is not as easy as using them for cooking. This does not have to be the case, as growing figs in your home garden can be simple and rewarding.
Cold Hardiness & Cultivars
While figs are typically grown in warm climates, hardy varieties have been developed to survive colder temperatures. Some popular varieties include the Chicago, Celeste, and English Brown Turkey Fig. Of these, the Hardy Chicago fig is the most tolerant to cold weather with a hardiness range of 5 to 10. Most of Iowa is in zone 5a meaning the Chicago fig may not always overwinter successfully since Iowa is located on the upper limit of the hardiness zone. Keeping your fig in a pot and bringing it indoors will increase the possibility of your fig overwintering.
Taking care of your hardy fig can be simple. First, you must choose the right pot and soil for your fig to grow in. When choosing a pot, it is important to have a drainage hole and have the correct sized container for the size of your plant. When planting, 2 inches of soil between the pot and the roots will be a good-sized starting pot. Once the roots start to fill the container, it may be time to repot your fig and give it some new soil. It is important to systematically move your fig into larger containers because it will decrease issues with root rot and fungus gnats. Additionally, any material will work for a pot, including plastic, ceramic, and wood. As for soil, figs prefer loamy, well-drained, highly organic, and slightly acidic soil with a pH between 6.0-6.5. This means a quality soilless potting mix from your local garden center will work well. For your fig to grow well, you must also water and fertilize it properly. Figs require regular water and will need more water during the hotter summer months. When the top 1 to 2 inches of soil is dry, water until the soil is moist, and water drains from the bottom of the container. To encourage flowering and fruiting, your fig may need to be fertilized. Uncommonly small or yellowing leaves can signify that your plant needs to be fed. A complete liquid fertilizer will work well to provide all the necessary nutrients if this is the case. Follow the directions provided and apply when plant growth begins in the spring. Furthermore, figs need at least 8 hours of sun daily so make sure to place your plant in a location with full sun.
There are three main types of fig plants; depending on the type, they must be pollinated in different ways. First, a Common fig will produce fruit without any pollination. The Chicago, Celeste, and English Brown Turkey Figs are all Common figs. The Smyrna figs will only produce fruit after the pollen has been transferred from male trees by the fig wasp. Finally, San Pedro figs are a combination of Common and Smyrna figs. They will produce an early summer crop without fertilization, but the fig wasp must pollinate a later main crop. With this in mind, the Common fig is suggested as the fig wasp is not native to North America.
Fruit Harvest and Storage
Once your fig has flowered and produced fruit, you will have to harvest it towards the end of summer and into fall. Harvest when the fruits are fully colored, drooping, and about to drop from the shoots. If you plan to preserve the fruit, the crop can be harvested a few days before fully ripening. Fresh ripe figs will be tender and bruise easily. Figs have a short storage life, so once picked, use promptly. The ideal refrigerator temperature is around 40°F. However, the best temperatures to store your figs at will be between 30-32°F at 90-95% relative humidity. If it is not possible to store your figs at this lower temperature and higher humidity, a refrigerator will be adequate.
When to Bring Your Potted Fig Inside
While common figs can withstand 15-20°F after proper cold acclimation, this is typically too cold for a potted fig. Before the first hard freeze, bring the plant inside to a sheltered location above freezing. A garage, basement, or other cool, protected location is best. In Iowa, it is very likely to move the fig back and forth. Once the leaves start changing colors, the fig can stay in the protected environment. The key to success is ensuring the fig stays watered and not overwatered all winter. Watering at least once a week will improve the fig’s survival.
How to Reacclimate your Potted Fig
In the spring, gradually reintroduce the fig to the outdoors. A few hours a day of outdoor exposure until the frost date is passed will allow adequate time for fruit production. Failure to reacclimate the fig can lead to not having enough time for fruit to develop.
- Crisosto, Carlos H., and Adel A. Kader. “Figs Postharvest Quality Maintenance Guidelines”, University of California - Davis. 2009.
- Ernst, Matt. “Figs - University of Kentucky.” Edited by John Strang, University of Kentucky, Center for Crop Diversification Crop Profile. 2018.
- Sarkhosh and Anderson. “The Fig”. University of Florida Extension. 2019.
- Slaughter, M. Ryan, et al. “Growing Hardy Figs in Ohio.” Ohio State University Extension. 2020.
- UFDA. “Are You Storing Food Safely?” U.S. Food and Drug Administration FDA. 2021.
- UNH ExtensionMaster. “Is It Possible to Grow an Edible Fig in a Container?” University of New Hampshire Extension, 2021.