Blackwelder column: Figs making a comeback

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 1, 2011

SALISBURY — Traveling through Rowan County and the Piedmont, you can see many old home sites that have figs planted in a protected area such as a barn or against the house. Figs are gaining popularity as a small fruit in home gardens and landscapes.
Growing figs in Rowan County can be a challenge because of cold weather. Figs are actually considered a sub-tropical fruit and are often killed back to the ground when temperatures fall below 20 degrees. Ironically, this year with the above-average summer temperatures, figs have done well.
Celeste is a fairly hardy fig variety that is small and violet or light brown with strawberry pink pulp. The fruit can be enjoyed fresh or used in canning or making preserves. Celeste figs ripen in mid-July. Brown Turkey figs are another popular variety with light coppery brown skin and amber pulp. This bush produces a heavy crop of medium-sized fruit two to three weeks after Celeste for fresh use and is excellent for preserves. Brown Turkey also adapts well as a container plant.
Both fig varieties should be planted on fertile, well drained soils. Avoid poorly drained, tight clay soils. Fig trees or shrubs prefer sandy-loam soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5.
Fluctuating winter temperatures are a common problem for fig trees in Rowan County. Plant fig trees in an area that is protected from the winter sun and cold winter winds. Unseasonably warm temperatures during the winter months often cause premature growth. Damage is certain with a sudden plunge in temperature. Planting fig trees on a northern exposure will help maintain dormancy and reduce cold injury.
Spring is the best time to plant fig trees to avoid cold injury. Plant them in full sunlight, avoiding competition from neighboring trees or shrubs.
Fig trees require a complete fertilizer. A good rule-of-thumb for the amount of fertilizer to use is one pound of 10-10-10 annually for each foot of height. Reduce fertilization if the fig tree produces more than 2 feet of new growth per year. Excessive growth makes the tree more susceptible to winter injury, light fruiting and fruit splitting.
Although figs require very little pruning, it should be done in late winter, just before new growth begins. Make smooth clean cuts, close to the lateral branches. Avoid leaving stubs. Prune to control the height of the tree or bush. Remove dead wood or suckers from the trunk or main branches. Remove weak or drooping branches. Prune about one foot of new growth each year on most of the branches.
Fresh figs are not tasty until soft and ripe. Pick figs just as they begin to soften. These can be stored in the refrigerator at 40 degrees. Figs used for preserving may be picked a few days before they are fully ripe.
Darrell Blackwelder, County Extension Director, Rowan County Center, N.C. Cooperative Extension, 2727 A Old Concord Road; 704-216-8970.