Quite possibly the most reliable exotic fruit that can be grown in containers is the fig. They are fast growing, attractive, and can bear fruit at a young age. Modern figs do not require a pollinator nor do they have to be grafted, unlike citrus and many other tropical fruits. Figs just love to grow. And the fruits sure taste delicious fresh off the tree. Interestingly, figs have been identified as among the first plants to be domesticated by humans, at least 1,000 years before cereals. So, we have a collective history with this plant!
The basic requirements of a productive fig tree include a container with drainage (at maturity, a minimum 5 gallon pot), composty potting soil, a bright and warm location from June through September, and an indoor space to winter a potted plant in dormancy. Figs are Mediterranean, which means they require indoor shelter in winter through-out most of Canada and northern regions of the United States (they do grow in ground or in pots outdoor year round all along the west coast including up Vancouver, and may even winter outdoors in southern Ontario; a popular cold climate technique is to burry potted figs outdoors and I have even heard of this being successful to zone 3... but that is another whole topic).
Figs love fertile soil and put on a brilliant growth spurt each spring if given a little love. An ideal potting mix is 1/3 quality compost, 1/3 organic peat and 1/3 coconut husk fibres. I use a commercial compost called Sea Soil, as it is fished based and loaded with nutrients compared to home-made compost. In addition, Sea Soil compost has excellent aeration so the soil is never soggy and roots have lots of air pockets.
Watering figs is all about contrast. During the fast growth of spring and summer containerized figs benefit from regular, deep watering. Small episodes of drought are not detrimental but wilting results in poor fruit development. During the dormant months of October through March figs only require occasional watering; this should be stepped-up once spring growth emerges using the “finger test” to determine how often to water (the finger test involves poking a digit about an inch into the soil and see how it feels - if moist check again in a day or two; if dry water deeply).
One of the often unexpected habits of figs is that they are deciduous, and loose their leaves each fall. This is great: it makes wintering figs indoors much less work compared to other houseplants. It is even possible to leave potted figs for an extended period with no worries. It is best to let dormancy occur naturally by leaving plants outdoors until one or two light fall frosts have landed. If the leaves were not already turning yellow, frost will induce this and slowly cause the foliage to drop off the plant. Ideally, after a couple of weeks, all of the stems will end in pointy leaf buds with the possibility of an occasional leaf sticking around at the tips. This is how a fig should look from November to March. To help keep plants dormant avoid resting plants near heat vents or other sources of warmth. Tucking a potted fig into a cool basement is fine; they do not require light during dormancy - but don’t completely for get about the plant as the occasional watering is required. Late February is an ideal time to bring plants up to a brighter, warmer location where they will start to regrow. If it is not possible to tuck your potted fig away for winter, and it remains in warmer brighter conditions, it may wake up earlier than late February or March. If this happens go with it, and start watering and feeding regularly once again. However, keep in mind that the resting phase is important for the fruit production, and figs that do not spend much time in dormancy are less likely to fruit well.
The fruits develop in one or two flushes, the first starting in late spring. In Winnipeg, my figs often have the beginnings of fruits starting to form by early June. Lucky gardeners will see a second wave of fruiting that starts in mid summer, but in short seasons it can be a challenge to have enough warm days to see the second crop mature. In my experience, fruits that emerge in June are typically ready to harvest starting in August and last through September.
One very interesting botanical factoid about figs is that the flowers are actually inside the fruits (technically called an inflorescence in this case). As a result the fruits just appear one day, attached directly to the plant. Wild figs and certain cultivated varieties require a special “fig wasp” and more than one plant to pollinate the flowers in order to get mature, edible fruits. But rest easy: the overwhelming majority of fig cultivars available at garden centres will be parthenocarpic (basically means seedless types) that do not require a pollinator.
When it comes to varieties, the main differences are the colour of the fruit, the flavour profile, the size if the fruit and the size of the mature plant. There are hundreds of named fig cultivars (all are the species Ficus carica), but five to ten selections are most often grown by home gardeners; some examples include Brown Turkey, Chicago Hardy, Black Mission, Ischia Gold, and Dwarf Negra. Although all of these varieties can grow into small to medium sized trees when planted in ground, their mature height in containers will range from 3 to 8 feet (depending on container size, soil, and growing conditions).
Getting figs to produce in pots generally involves ensuring they go through winter dormancy (a critical requirement) and also allowing them to achieve 2 - 3 years of maturity. Lots of light and warmth through summer also has a very positive effect on fruiting, as does regular feeding. Their is some debate around the perfect fertilizer for container grown figs, but a 3-1-2 ratio for the major nutrients is arguably the best. I make heavy use of compost and also find fish fertilizer to be beneficial.
Plants can be pruned to allow maximum bushiness, light penetration, and to reduce sucker shoots which appear at the base. My observation is that figs bear more heavily on old wood, so pruning in summer will allow branching ahead off winter and many new stems to potentially carry fruit.
Fresh figs are best appreciated at peak ripeness, but the perfect fig is prone to falling off the tree just as it reaches its pinnacle. I like to pick them a day or two before they get soft and ripen them on a sunny windowsill.
There are two quirky things about figs:
The first is that their stems, and the point where fruit join the stems, contain a milky white sap that is highly irritating if it gets in your eyes, mouth, nose and exposed skin. Poison control centres generally regard fig juice as a contact irritant, and the main remedy is to wash off the offending substance quickly, and rinse with fresh water. If a rash persists, calamine lotion is helpful. This is certainly no reason to avoid figs all together - but being aware of this issue helps avoid unhappy surprises (I once got fig sap in my eye, and did go to the hospital to get it rinsed... I was at work when the incident happened and the look of horror from my colleague when she saw my puffy eye was quite dramatic!). The common sense solution to this concern is to wear gloves when pruning plants, and to wash hands after handling stems. Interestingly, the latex from fig trees is under research for its anti-inflammatory properties!
The second and more curious habit of figs is that they sometimes stink. I have never felt really put off by this, but have certainly had customers who took real notice and banished their plants to out doors (or a far off corner of an outdoor space) for a period of time. This topic is hotly debated on fig forums; some people claim to enjoy the aroma of their fig trees, while others describe the olfactory stimulation as comparable to cat pee. One possibility is that different varieties have unique aromatic profiles, while anecdotal evidence suggests growing conditions are the main moderator of this figgy fact (hot weather and late summer being the most often reported conditions for pungency). However apparently-unpleasant fig plants sometimes smell, the consensus is strong that to taste fresh, home grown figs is so worth this small and short lived inconvenience.
I hope this sheds some light on how you too can enjoy this delight in your cold-climate garden.
Have you got a special fig variety that has been in your family collection? Ever had a fig winter outdoors for you in zone 3 (yes, it can happen!)? I would love to hear your fig stories... so feel free to share them in the comments here. - DH