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Growing fig trees in North Carolina

By Nancy Lehto
Posted Monday, May 16, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - Newcomers have shown a great deal of interest in our homegrown figs. Late fall or early spring is a good time to plant a fig tree and should be successful in our area if the soil is well-drained and fertile. Climate and nematodes would be the only problems, and nematodes will be discussed further down. As always we suggest you take a soil sample and follow instructions for your site.

These trees do better if protected from winter sun and winter frost. Most local growers locate their trees adjacent to a building with a northern exposure to protect them. Figs originated in the Mediterranean Basin and are kin to rubber trees, mulberry trees, and Osage orange or hedge apples.

Celeste is fairly hardy with small violet or light brown fruit with amber pulp. The fruit is well suited to canning and preserves. It bears in mid-July. Brown Turkey is also sold as Texas Everbearing and Harrison. This is not the same tree as California Brown Turkey. This southern tree bears medium to large fruit and bears a light crop two weeks earlier than Celeste and a heavy crop two to three weeks after Celeste. It adapts well to container growing. It is good for fresh use and canning. Brunswick or Magnolia bear large, hollow fruit that are light brown with darker ribs. This fruit splits and sours during hot weather. It is only good for canning, but it is not a vigorous grower.

Trees that are dormant and nursery grown may be planted between late fall and early spring. Container plants will be better suited for spring planting. Figs need full sun and should be planted 15-20 feet apart. Prepare the hole 1-2 inches deeper than in the nursery pot. Water well and cut back to 3 feet if it is to be left in a container. No pruning is required if grown in the ground. Figs have a shallow root system and will benefit from mulch to conserve moisture and keep weeds down.

Fig trees may be grown from cuttings using well-matured limbs 8-10 inches long from the previous year’s growth. Cuttings must be kept in a cool, dry place and planted in the spring. One bud must be left above ground. They may also be propagated from air layering. Bend a sprout or sucker branch parallel to the ground, covering the middle section with soil several inches from the mother plant. Leave the tip uncovered.

Apply one pound of 8-8-8 fertilizer for each year of the tree’s growth until a maximum of 12 years. In sandy soil apply one-half of the fertilizer when the buds swell and 1/2 in late May. In heavy soils apply fertilizer when buds swell. Put the fertilizer on the mulch around the tree. Over-fertilizing with nitrogen can cause fewer or poorer fruit or make the tree more susceptible to frost if used later than May.

Figs do not require pruning, but any done should be in late winter before new growth begins. Make clean cuts leaving no stubs. Remove dead wood and suckers from the main trunk to encourage larger fruit and an open tree form.

Figs are highly perishable and will ferment if conditions are too damp. North Carolina is unsuited for fig drying because of our humidity. Figs have a better taste if picked when they are soft, but figs used for canning will hold together better if less ripe. Because birds love figs, a large net thrown over the tree may be necessary.

Some callers to the Cooperative Extension Service have asked why their tree does not bear or why fruit drops before maturity. It is probably a variety which requires pollination from a special wasp not native to North Carolina.

Nematodes or root knots on fig trees affect figs grown in sandy soil. It is progressive and causes poor growth, low vigor, yellowing, and bronzing of foliage, low yield, and poor fruit. To determine if this is present, examine the roots for galls or you may bring a soil sample to the Cooperative Extension Service. There are a few things one can do to prevent nematodes. Do not grow where tobacco, tomatoes, or okra have been recently grown. One can purchase only nematode-free trees. Also, providing a 4 foot by 4 foot area of new soil can prevent these galls.

Blights, Stem Cankers, and Leaf Spots: These can be prevented by pruning and removing dead, injured, and broken limbs. The dead leaves and branches should be raked up and disposed of. Dried and diseased fruit should also be removed to prevent fungus or anthracnose .

Premature Fruit Drop: Can be from natural conditions such as dry weather or damage from a spring frost.

Souring or fermentation is due to fungus, bacteria, or yeasts caused by excessive rain. Rarely in our weather is frost damage a problem, but the placement of the tree as explained above will prevent this.

Susan Morgan, Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Science, with the Brunswick County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has brochures containing recipes which may be requested by calling (910) 253-2610.

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Growing fig trees in North Carolina

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