Monday, August 11, 2014

So I bought a Fig Tree...

I bought a fig tree principally because of a short story.

I know, I know. It's a bit of a zany reason for a plant purchase, but let me explain.

I am a longtime fan of Stewart Mclean and his hour-long radio show on the CBC called the Vinyl Cafe.  Of Stewart's many tales, my favourite, and there is no surprise here, is about an aging gardener and his fig tree.

I know it is a little sentimental, but I like the idea of having a pleasant reminder of a favourite story in my garden.

I sure you must be wondering about the practicality of growing figs in Canada. 

After all, fig trees hail from the Middle East and western Asia.

Well, I have it on good authority that it is indeed possible to grow figs here in my zone 6b garden.

Steve Biggs, author of Grow Figs Where You Think You Can't, has become a well known authority on the subject of growing figs.

But why bother to grow your own figs in the first place? In his book, Steve writes:

"A fig picked too early never ripens to perfection. It's just a corky, semi-sweet thing passed off as a fig. Contrast that to a truly ripe fresh fig, which packs a succulent burst of jam-like sweetness. That perfectly ripe fig is far to fragile to withstand long-distance shipping. And that means that many people living in colder climates have never experienced one."

Count me in amongst all those people who has never experienced a proper tree-ripened fig! I have eyed the rather sad, slightly shrivelled specimens in my local grocery and have always passed on buying figs. On the other hand, the "jam-like sweetness" of a homegrown fig sounds divine.

Curious as to where his interest in figs began, I contacted Steve and asked him a series of questions to help me get started with my first fig tree: 

How did become interested in growing figs Steve?

"My first exposure to figs was to the dried sort. I don't mean to disparage dried figs, but they would not be reason enough for me to go to the effort of growing my own figs in my garden. When people say they don't like figs, I am immediately suspicious that they have only tried the dry ones...

My interest in figs grew as I watched neighbours grow figs. Then as a student I spent a summer working at a nursery in the UK that specialized in growing figs."

What types of fig trees are best adapted to life here in Canada?

"Some varieties such as "Hardy Chicago" can tolerate cold better, so are better suited for growing in the ground. Varieties that ripen 'main-crop' figs earlier are always a safer bet. And, varieties such as "Desert King", which have a heavy Breba crop (the early crop in July) are a good bet. 

[Breba fruit grown on wood from the previous year, usually ripening in July; while main-crop figs are on wood from the current year, ripening late summer or fall.]"

I know absolutely nothing about growing figs. What can I do to get my fig tree off to a good start?

"Sun, heat and water are all important to actively growing plants. Unpruned, plants usually grow into a bush, but can be trained into small trees, if that's what you prefer."

How can I encourage fruit and get it to ripen before fall frosts?

"Pick a hot, sunny microclimate, such as next to a brick wall that radiates heat. Pinch out shoot tips after 3 figs form, so that energy isn't wasted growing figs that probably won't ripen in our climate."

What can I do to make sure my fig tree makes it through the winter?

"Fig trees lose their leaves after the first frost. They WANT to go dormant. That means you can keep them over the winter even if you don't have a bright, hot greenhouse. While they're dormant, they don't need light or much heat. Contrast this to lemons...

Do not put your fig tree in a sunny window. If it grows to much indoors it will get to gangly. It is also important not to overwater, as this can rot the roots.

If your fig is in a pot, move it to a cool, dark location such as a cold room; or an attached garage can work well too. A stand-alone garage tends to get too cold in extreme conditions. 

If it is in the ground, bend over the shoots and insulate with soil and some sort of insulating cover."

Just to be clear: are you suggesting I bury it in the ground and then cover it over with additional insulation?

Many people do this, although here in the Toronto area, you can bend it to the ground and mulch heavily. No need to bury your fig tree!

What do you suggest I use as an insulating cover?

"Some people use leaves. One fellow I know uses an old door with a sheet of insulating foam on it. Your goal is to moderate the temperature swings, not to prevent it from freezing."

My hardy Fig tree, Ficus carica: Needs 3-6 hours of sun. Full height 8-10', Full Spread: 10-12' 
USDA Zone 7-10 ( -18 degrees C) 

My fig tree is far too young to produce figs this year, but if it successfully overwinters, I hope to enjoy its first figs next summer.

As Steve describes it,"The neck becomes soft, the fruit drops and becomes soft to the touch, and sometimes a glistening drop of nectar escapes from the eye."

I can hardly wait!

More information and Links:

Steve Biggs is an award winning journalist and author specializing in gardening, farming and food production. A life-long gardener, he favours a practical and fun approach to things. His book No Guff Vegetable Gardening, co-authored with Donna Balzer is a Canadian best seller. Grow Your Own Figs Where You Think You Can't is the winner if the 2012 Silver Award of Achievement, Garden Writers Association.

Steve lives with his family (and a couple dozen fig trees) in Toronto.

Watch a short video of Steve at Richter's Herb Nursery speaking on growing Figs.

Be sure to check out Steve's plans for creating a "Fig Patio Garden" inNiki Jabbour's new book Groundbreaking Gardens.

For those of you that live in the GTA, you can check out the new Fig Patio Garden at the Toronto Botanical Gardens

Stewart Mclean is a best selling author, award winning journalist and humorist. The Vinyl Cafe stories follow the misadventures of Dave, the owner of the Vinyl Cafe (the world's smallest record store) his wife Morley, his daughter Stephanie and his son Sam.   Find some of the most recent Vinyl Cafe podcasts here.


  1. I grow a Hardy Chicago in a pot and take the pot to a crawlspace in winter and it is doing fine. I have seen one grow well against a South facing wall in Kitchener. The Portuguese owner wrapped it in pink insulation in winter and it survived quite well.
    The heat in summer is important. I have seen beautiful fig trees in Victoria B.C. They all produced fruit but often the fruit did not ripen if the tree was not against a South wall. Of course Victoria's summers are cooler than Toronto's. Good luck.

  2. This is just awesome as figs are so delicious! We often have bacon wrapped figs and they are just outstanding! Best of luck with your new fig tree and thank you for the fantastic resources up above! A wonderful week to you Jennifer! Nicole xo

  3. I love the fig tree story from VC. I first tasted fresh, ripe figs in an orchard on Vancouver Island about eight years ago. I had no idea they were so delicious. Here on the Malaspina Peninsula it is not uncommon to find a fig tree in local gardens. Our rather nice climate seems to suit them, no winter burial required. Good luck with your tree. Wishing you many figs to enjoy.

  4. How lovely to have a fig tree. We would love one but we are zone 5b and I have no place indoors to bring it in so it could overwinter. I look forward to reading about your fig tree in the future.

  5. Oooooh, how exciting!!! I've always wanted a small variety for a pot. Our neighbor has a HUGE one, but they all go to waste. I'm very, very tempted to go picking in the middle of the night. :)

  6. It seems there's a real craze for growing figs this summer! I think this is about the 4th post on growing figs I've read in the last month. I hope you have great success and can finally taste your very own tree-ripened fig (I've never done that either). Wendy x

  7. I don't think I have ever eaten a fresh fig (isn't 'fig' a funny name for a fruit). Good luck with yours - I know they are pretty hardy - I have seen them growing here in the UK to the size of small trees with masses of fruit. I think you are supposed to restrict the roots if they are planted in the ground to stop them spreading too far by putting slates or some such in the planting hole. Keeping it in a pot is possibly the best bet. Hope it survives and produces lovely fruit for you.

  8. Fresh figs are gorgeous! I wish you luck with yours and I hope your little tree produces lots of lovely figs for you to enjoy

  9. Jennifer girl you make me so WANT to grow a fig tree too! .. but I know 5b is really pushing my luck so I will have to live this adventure vicariously through your experience (maybe mail me a proper fig some year ?LOL) .. The interview was a very nice touch for more information from a gardener that has gone through the process.
    I hope you are able to do it ! .. will you train it as a small tree ? or a shrub? .. I too have never had a fresh fig ... just those dried ones ... fresh is always best and even better if it is your own ! LOL
    Joy : )

  10. P.S. I forgot to say what a gorgeous header picture you have created ! So beautiful !

  11. What an opportune post for me, I bought a fig tree last year for my new back garden, it doesn't have any figs this year but I'm hopeful for next year. A marvelous informative

  12. Thanks for all this lovely information, I must admit I have never thought of growing figs in my rather shady garden, but I am thinking of digging up my none-edible passionflower and grow kiwis instead – which is supposed to be possible here in London. I wish you all the best with your fig tree, and like Elaine I have also heard that the roots need to be restricted when grown in the ground to encourage more fruit.

  13. I never liked figs until on vacation once, someone picked a ripe one off a tree and handed it to me. It was fabulous, and I was hooked. I decided to grow my own and picked 'White Marseilles', only because it was said to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite. I figured it had to be special to still be around after over 200 years. My tree is too young to produce more than a handful, but they were delicious!

  14. Good luck! I've never grown a fig and have only eaten one a few times but they are delicious. :o) I didn't realize you were a 6b. I thought you were much colder than that.

  15. Count me among those who have never tasted a fresh fig, but they do sound delicious. Hope you have success with your new fig tree!

  16. Hello Jennifer. I'm a big fan of The Vinyl Cafe as well, and loved the fact that you are growing figs because of one of his charming stories. Good luck!

  17. You are brave and I can hardly wait to watch your new little fig tree's journey!

  18. What an informative post, thank you! I love the look of fig trees and as you say, the fruit must be so much nicer fresh from the plant.

  19. Hi I have just blogged about my fig tree and will be looking up Steve Biggs for some tips on growing figs. I love your post and have found it very a great read regarding figs ..xx

  20. I absolutely LOVE anything having to do with figs. So yummy!
    Unfortunately, I could not successfully grow a fig tree here.
    BUT, I will enjoy seeing yours, here! :-)

  21. How exciting, figs are just delicious! :)
    My parents have a few fig trees in Italy, but alas it's too cold in Scotland to grow them.
    Have a lovely mid-August.

  22. I've never tasted a proper fig either. I think it's great you're trying it out. Can't wait to hear the results. Hope you have a safe trip to visit your Mom & that you find her well.


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