Common fig (Ficus carica) is easy to grow and produces incredibly tasty fruits, yet few Granite State gardeners cultivate it because it can’t reliably survive New Hampshire winters. Native to western Asia and southeastern Europe, figs grow well in USDA Zones 7-10. In Zone 6, plants will usually experience significant dieback in cold winters, which means that figs can’t be grown outdoors reliably anywhere in New Hampshire. However, they can be successfully grown in containers, taking harsh weather out of the equation.
Common fig is a deciduous shrub/small tree that can grow 10-20 feet tall and wide under ideal growing conditions, although it is unlikely to reach this size in a container. Ornamental features include silver-gray bark and large tropical-looking leaves, each with three to five lobes. Figs can be attractive potted plants for decks and patios, fruit notwithstanding.
Fig flowers are inconspicuous and occur near branch tips in the spring, followed by ripe fruit in late summer or fall. Fruit production is easy on a small scale because figs do not require cross-pollination with another variety, unlike other popular fruit trees, such as apples.
If you want to start growing figs in containers, consider the following growing tips:
Choose the right container
Growing attractive and productive figs starts with choosing the right container. The material the container is made of is not as important as whether it provides good drainage and is the right size for your fig plant. Clay, ceramic, plastic and wood containers will all work as long as there is at least one hole in the bottom to allow excess water to escape.
Additionally, the container needs to be stable enough not to tip over on a windy day and hold enough potting mix so that you don’t need to water constantly. Ideally, there will be one-two inches of space between the fig plant’s roots and the surrounding walls of the container at the time of planting. Over time, the fig’s roots will fill the container, at which point you can transplant into a larger pot. By starting small and moving up to larger-sized containers, you are less likely to have issues with pests like root rot and fungus gnats.
Note that you will need to move the container to a protected location as winter approaches. Avoiding overly decorative and heavy containers can be helpful, as is placing figs on wheeled plant stands or dollies at the time of planting.
Use soilless potting mix
Figs prefer organically rich soil that is consistently moist and well-drained. The best option for container growing is a quality soilless potting mix. Potting mixes are specifically made for growing potted plants, are lightweight, retain moisture and supply plenty of air space around the roots. Air space is one of the most critical aspects of potting mix. If the roots don’t have enough air, a fig won’t survive. Although the ingredients tend to vary, good mixes always contain an organic component (peat moss, compost, bark), vermiculite or perlite (to help retain moisture), sand, nutrients and limestone.
Properly watering and fertilize
Proper watering is critical to the success of container grown figs. Figs require regular watering, especially during the heat of the growing season. Once the top one-two inches of potting mix are dry, apply water until it begins to drain from the bottom of the container. Aim to keep the potting mix consistently moist but not soaked.
Figs require a moderate amount of nutrients throughout the growing season to produce new growth and, ultimately, fruit. Abnormally small or yellowed leaves could indicate that fertilizer might be needed. Complete liquid fertilizers will provide all the necessary nutrients and should be applied at no more than the recommended rate and interval.
Synthetic fertilizers are preferred over organic for container-grown plants because organic fertilizers rely on soil microbes to make their nutrients available, and these microbes aren’t found in high numbers in soilless potting mixes.
Move figs indoors during the cool months
Figs need to go through a dormant period in the winter to stay healthy. As day length shortens and cooler temperatures arrive, it is natural for fig leaves to turn yellow and drop. Move plants to an unheated basement, garage or greenhouse when the leaves start to turn or before the first killing frost. Once figs are indoors, reduce watering significantly, making sure the upper two inches of potting mix are dry before watering.
Dormant plant roots won’t take up much water, but moisture is needed around them to keep roots from drying out. Pot size, potting mix and temperature will decide how often you need to water, which may only be once every week or two. Avoid overwatering dormant figs in order dodge root rot and the untimely death of plants.
Gradually reintroduce figs outside during the spring
As warm weather approaches in the spring, move your fig outside for a few hours each day to help it acclimate to outdoor conditions, gradually exposing it to longer periods of sun exposure over the course of a few weeks. Bring it back indoors in the evening until there is no longer a chance of frost. After the last frost date, the fig can be moved permanently outdoors to a full sun location for the duration of the summer.
While growing figs in containers can be fun and rewarding, it is important to have realistic expectations. Healthy fig trees will reliably produce fruit, but likely no more than you can enjoy in a few snacks or meals. However, if you’re willing to push the envelope and grow an interesting fruit tree in New Hampshire, give container-grown figs a try.
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