A box of fresh figs at a grocery store or a farmers’ market might cost $10 or more, but you can grow your own for next to nothing. Many gardeners consider figs a trophy plant, unexpected and worth the wait, but figs are easy to grow, and the plants will produce a delicious and healthy crop. It might take a year or two before a new plant bears fruit, but fig plants are handsome and undemanding: while the good-looking young plant is becoming established, you have something to look forward to.
Figs have been grown in gardens for centuries. They have a reputation for being tender and finicky, and it’s true that many varieties are not cold tolerant, but there are about 200 varieties, and some are less sensitive to frost than others. Alan Branhagen, horticulture director at Powell Gardens, near Kansas City, is experimenting with about a dozen different varieties. Some overwinter in the area’s Zone 5 climate, including ‘Chicago,’ ‘Black Spanish,’ and ‘Mission.’
‘Mission’ figs are technically hardy only to about Zone 7. A heavy mulch may protect them in colder climates, and, like all figs, they will thrive in a pot and can even be grown as a houseplant. They are naturally large plants, but they can be pruned hard and still produce an impressive crop.
Figs grow best in full sun. Young plants should be watered while they are becoming established, but mature plants are quite drought tolerant; mulching around their roots helps conserve moisture in the soil and also protects the roots during winter in cold areas. The plants grow about one foot a year and form fruit early in the season; as the figs ripen, the fruit begins to hang slightly from the short stem at the neck, and turns from green to brown.
Figs are delicious grilled on a skewer, or sliced in half and served with a thin slice of ham or prosciutto. Fresh figs make excellent preserves. Fig jam is delicious on toast, over ice cream, or on a cracker with a slice of cheddar cheese, but figs taste best of all right off the tree, and if you grow your own, you’ll have the distinct pleasure of warm, sun-ripened figs at the moment of their perfection.