garden seeds

Fig tree plant and care

The edible-fruited Fig, Ficus carica, is a leaf-losing tree that is a native of the Mediterranean region. It is now successfully cultivated in many other parts of the world and thrives especially well in mild, semiarid climates.

More than most fruits the Fig is subject to harm by unfavorable weather conditions. Frost, excessively high temperatures, unseasonable summer rainfall, strong winds and high humidities can all be damaging to crop production or may interfere with the drying of the fruits for sale. Because of this, the commercial production of this crop is limited to a comparatively few areas, the most important of which, in the United States, is California, particularly the San Joaquin Valley region. Figs are also grown commercially in Texas, Utah, Oregon and Washington, and to a small extent in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida.

Although Fig growing for profit has strict geographical limitations, the tree can be cultivated and fruit produced in gardens over a large part of the United States. Where winters are too cold for the Fig to live outdoors, it may be grown in large pots and tubs, be wintered in a cellar or similar place and be fruited outdoors in the summer.

With the special winter protection suggested, Fig trees may be grown in the open and be fruited successfully in climates similar to those of New York City and Newport, Rhode Island; from Washington, D.C., and southwards, they may be cultivated without special winter protection, although it is often advisable to plant them where a nearby building will give them shelter from winter cold.

Soil and Planting. Figs may be successfully grown in a variety of soils, from those of a light, sandy character to heavy clays. They flourish particularly well on rich alluvial or river bottom lands that do not lack moisture and where the water table is not closer than 6-8 ft. from the surface. Alkali soils are not favorable to their growth, especially those that contain sodium carbonate or black alkali.

Planting should be done in winter or spring. In California, trees of the strong-growing Mission variety are spaced 40-50 ft. apart; less widespreading varieties 30-40 ft. apart. In most other parts of the United States closer planting is the rule; in the South small-growing varieties are spaced 10-12 ft. apart; stronger-growing varieties, such as Celeste and Brunswick, 15-20 ft. apart.

Great care should be taken that the roots do not dry during the planting operation. The trees should be set 2-4 in. deeper than they have been growing, their roots carefully spread out and good soil packed between them and made firm. Newly planted trees should be watered immediately and be kept moist throughout the first growing season. After planting, the trees are headed back (pruned) to a height of about 2 ft.

Cultivation and Fertilizing. For the best results the ground around Fig trees should be kept mulched or should be cultivated sufficiently often to keep it free of weeds, but deep cultivation should not be practiced because it harms the trees by destroying their surface roots.

Fig trees respond to discreet fertilizing but care must be taken not to apply too much nitrogen; otherwise, leafy growth is likely to be encouraged at the expense of the fruit crop, splitting of the fruits may occur, and the trees may be made more susceptible to cold. Organic fertilizers such as rotted manure and compost applied in the form of a mulch are likely to be extremely beneficial. The Fig benefits from applications of lime if the soil is decidedly acid.

Irrigation. In California and other dry climates regular irrigation throughout the summer growing season is desirable. If the moisture supply is insufficient the trees make poor growth and good crops can not be expected. In the eastern United States summer rainfall is normally sufficient for Figs but in periods of drought the trees benefit from being given thorough soakings at weekly or ten-day intervals.

Pruning. As with all fruit trees, one object of pruning is to encourage the development of a good trunk and well-spaced branches that are mechanically strong and unlikely to be broken or damaged by storms. In addition, the pruner should bear in mind the need to encourage the development of vigorous branches that will bear, during their first season, a crop of Figs. This crop, borne on shoots of the current season's development, represents the second crop that most Fig tree varieties carry in a season; the first crop is borne on older shoots that have lived through the winter. The amount and character of the cutting needed to produce the above-mentioned desirable results vary according to the variety and the natural growth of the tree.

Caprification. Some varieties of Figs will not mature their fruits unless the tiny female flowers that are borne on the insides of the immature, enlarged fleshy receptacles (commonly called fruits) are fertilized by pollen brought from a special kind of Fig tree called a Caprifig. Other varieties bear larger fruits if they are subjected to this process, which is known as caprification.

The pollen is transferred by a tiny wasp which lives for part of its life in the fruits of the Caprifig and then, covered with pollen, enters a tiny hole or pore in the immature edible Fig fruit and pollinates the female flowers that are inside. As a result of this pollination, fertilization is effected and the fruit develops and matures.

In regions where Smyrna and other Figs requiring caprification are cultivated, Caprifigs are grown to serve as sources of supply of pollen and as host plants for the Fig wasps that transfer it to the fruits to be pollinated. The fruits of the Caprifigs are picked just before the pollen-distributing wasps are ready to leave them and when the stamens contained in the Caprifigs are beginning to shed their pollen. The Caprifig fruits are then placed in baskets or other containers or are strung on fine wires or raffia and are suspended from the branches of the Fig trees that are to be pollinated. Fresh Caprifigs are placed among the branches every four days over a period of about three weeks. The number of Caprifig fruits needed for each tree over the three-week period depends upon the size of the tree. Twelve are sufficient for a tree with a spread of 12 ft.; 34 are needed for one with a spread of 20 ft.

Winter Protection. The amount of cold that Figs will stand without harm varies according to circumstances. At Washington, D.C., trees have withstood 6 degrees F. without harm but in other areas at higher temperatures they have been severely damaged. Frost that comes after spring growth has started is much more damaging than that occurring while trees are still dormant; some varieties are hardier than others; soft, young growths are more likely to be damaged than the older wood of mature trees; young trees are more susceptible to damage than old trees.

In climates severer than that of Washington, D.C., it is advisable to afford Fig trees special winter protection. A good method is, after the leaves have dropped in fall and before very severe weather arrives, to cut out any superfluous branches, wrap several layers of paper or burlap around the remaining branches, tie them together in as tight a bundle as possible without breaking them and then surround the whole bundle with blankets, mats, or burlap. A final layer of tar paper, oilcloth or plastic film should then be wrapped around and secured, making sure that the top is closed in such a fashion that water cannot enter. The wrapping is removed in spring just before new growth begins.

An alternative method is to grow the trees in large tubs or pots and winter them in a cool (about 40 degrees), frostproof cellar or outbuilding for the winter.

Propagation by Seeds. Figs may be raised from seeds but this is done only when the production of new varieties is desired. Seeds germinate readily when sown in light, well-drained soil in a temperature of 65-70 degrees. Figs produce both fertile and sterile seeds; the latter can be readily separated from the former by immersing the seeds in water; the sterile ones float, the fertile sink.

Cuttings provide the usual method of securing increase. These may be made from shoots up to two or three years old, but thick, pithy shoots should not be selected. The cuttings should be 8-10 in. long and be cut cleanly across at their bases just beneath a node or joint and at their tops just above a node. It is usual to make the basal cut at right angles to the stem and to slant the top cut at an angle of about forty-five degrees. This facilitates recognizing top from bottom at planting time. It is a good plan to remove all side buds from the lower part of the cuttings to prevent or reduce trouble from sucker shoots developing later.

Cuttings may be made from any time after the leaves fall until pruning time in winter or early spring, but they should not be planted immediately where they are to root if they are made much before the time when new spring growth begins. Instead, they should be tied in bundles of from 25-50 and be buried, bottoms up, in a well-drained place where the soil is sandy, and should be covered to a depth of several inches with sand or sandy soil. Care must be taken that the sand or soil sifts well down between the cuttings.

The soil is kept moist but not soaking wet and as soon as the ground can be made ready in spring, the bundles are dug up and the cuttings are planted, tops up and butts down, in nursery rows spaced 2-4 ft. apart. The cuttings are set 3-4 in. apart in the rows vertically, and at such a depth that only about an inch of their tops project from the soil.

To ensure the development of a single trunk from the ground, sucker growths that appear from beneath the ground, as well as lateral shoots that develop from the lower part of the trunk, should be removed promptly. At the end of the first year the young trees will be ready for transplanting from the nursery bed to their permanent location.

Grafting is practiced to change the variety of old trees. Cleft grafting is the preferred method. Limbs to be so grafted are sawed off cleanly and the stubs are split with a heavy knife, saw or chisel. A wedge is then inserted in the cleft to keep it open. For each stub two scions (pieces of stout, firm one-year-old shoots each long enough to include 2 or 3 bud eyes and whittled wedge-shaped at their bases) are inserted in the cleft, one in each end and in such a way that the cambium layers of the stock and scion are in contact (see Grafting). The wedge used to hold the cleft open is then withdrawn and all exposed cuts on stock and scion are well coated with grafting wax. Cleft grafting may be done early in spring, before new growth begins.

Bark grafting, which is essentially budding except that a scion that has several buds is used instead of a single bud, is a less-favored method of changing the variety of established trees. It is done in spring when the sap is rising actively and when the bark slips (separates easily) from the wood beneath it.

Layering. Figs are easily propagated by layering and also by air layering. See Layering and Air Layering.

Varieties of Figs that require caprification to mature fruits include Lob Injur (Calimyrna) a variety of the Smyrna type used to produce fruits for drying. Varieties of Figs that produce fruits either with or without caprification (the fruits are larger if caprified) include: Adriatic, a fine variety, much used for drying; Beall, which bears fruit of excellent quality; Brown Turkey, a hardy and productive variety that is well suited for growing in eastern North America; Brunswick (Magnolia), a good variety for growing in the East and also popular in Texas; Celeste, a well-flavored variety that is adapted for growing in the southeastern states; Dottato (Kadota), much grown in California both for eating fresh and drying; Mission, a black-fruited Fig that is valuable both for drying and eating fresh; Ronde Noire, which thrives well in the cool coastal areas of California but not in the hot interior valleys.

There are several named varieties of Caprifigs; among the most popular are Roeding Number 3 and Stanford.

How to Grow Fig Trees in Pots. When grown in pots, Figs do well. Trees should be potted in autumn, using 10or 11-in. or larger pots for well-developed trees, smaller pots for young trees.

A suitable compost for potting consists of good topsoil with some dried manure and bone meal added. The pots must be well drained, and fairly firm potting is essential. The trees should be repotted every second year; in alternate seasons the surface soil and some from the sides should be carefully removed and replaced with fresh compost. When repotting is necessary, the tree should be turned out of the pot as soon as the leaves have fallen; all loose soil is shaken from the ball of roots, coarse roots are shortened and, after the drainage material has been renewed, the tree is replanted in fresh compost.

Young, strong trees can be placed in a pot one size larger than before, but Figs can be kept small and compact in growth for several years in a 9-in. pot by careful pruning; thick roots should be pruned off and the tree replaced annually in the same-sized pot.

General Management. When growth starts in spring the trees should be moved to a greenhouse, light sunroom or some similar place, watered regularly and kept syringed. After the weather has moderated and there is no danger of frost, they may be placed outdoors and buried nearly to the rims of their containers in a bed of ashes or sand.

Regular watering and feeding with diluted liquid fertilizers during the summer are important and so is timely stopping of the shoots in summer. All strong growths should have their tops pinched out when they have made four or five large leaves, unwanted, ill-placed, crowded shoots being removed as they appear in spring and summer. Winter pruning, after the leaves have fallen, should not be severe; it is sufficient if older growths are pruned off to make room for young, short-jointed shoots which will bear fruit the next year.

The pot trees may remain in a greenhouse during winter or, in fairly mild climates, they may be plunged to the rims of their pots in ashes out of doors in a sheltered corner over winter in a cool, but frostproof or nearly frostproof cellar or outbuilding.

Potted Fig trees and specimens grown in tubs are attractive for standing on terraces during summer.


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