The Elusive Fig

Container of fresh-picked figs. Eat at once as they only hold up for 12-24 hours on the kitchen counter. Do not refrigerate!

Fig questions have been pouring into the Home & Garden Information Center’s Ask an Expert service this fall. One reason for this, I think, is that most of Maryland’s fig trees were not “killed to the ground” during the relatively mild winter of 2016-2017, and were, therefore, able to produce good crops on the new shoots that grew from trunks and branches.

Fig Bush
Multi-stem fig bush 8-10 ft. in height

We were not so fortunate during the winters of 2014-2015 and 2015-2016. Prolonged freezing weather during those winters killed most of the above-ground plant parts. (Fig wood is damaged when temperatures drop below 20⁰ F.) Gardeners were left to cut and remove the dead trunks and branches.

The good news is that fig root systems almost always survive even the coldest winters. The bad news is that the new shoots growing from the roots the following spring rarely produce a crop. Frequently you’ll see many small green figs develop in summer that do not fully enlarge and ripen before the first frost.

Some common fig questions this year:

“Why no fruits?”

Overly vigorous plants that are fertilized regularly may remain in a juvenile stage. Stop fertilizing. Excessive nitrogen can also cause fruits to drop. Extreme heat and drought, low sunlight, and crowded branches are other factors that can reduce fruit numbers.

“My figs stay green and won’t ripen. How come?”

Be patient, it can take up to two months from the beginning of fruit formation to full ripeness. But sometimes the growing season is not long enough for figs to ripen. This is especially true 1) in the colder parts of the state, 2) with late-maturing cultivars, and 3) when figs are growing on new shoots after severe winter die-back. Lack of water, compacted and low-fertility soils, and insufficient sunlight can affect fruiting.

“How and when should I prune my fig?”

Prune to keep the center open for maximum sunlight penetration and maintain the desired size for the allotted space. A mature bush usually has four to eight leaders spaced out to maximize leaf and fruit growth. Prune in late March or early April. Remove dead and damaged wood, interior branches, low-growing laterals and weak root suckers. Heading cuts in early spring encourage branching.

Fig Fruits
The race is on… will these immature fruits ripen before the first frost? It depends on Many interrelated factors: cultivar, weather, soil, sunlight, etc. Green figs will not ripen off the tree but fruits that are almost fully ripe will continue to soften and sweeten on the kitchen counter in response to ethylene produced by the figs.

See more information on fig harvesting, propagation, and winter protection on the Home & Garden Information Center website.

By Jon Traunfeld, Director, Home and Garden Information Center 

10 thoughts on “The Elusive Fig

  1. tonytomeo October 20, 2017 / 4:18 pm

    Most fig trees set fruit twice annually. Some have a better earlier crop, while others have a better late crop. I have grown my mission fig both ways. Without pruning, it makes excellently gooey early figs, but not as many late figs. With major pruning or pollarding, it makes fewer early figs, but more of the tougher late figs that are better for drying. (Pollarding to remove all of the growth from the previous year eliminates all of the early figs. The production of early figs is proportionate to the amount of new stems left intact.) It seems that some that do not make a good late crop will not fruit at all if pollarded, like your figs did after freezing to the ground.

    • Maryland Grows October 23, 2017 / 2:58 pm

      I envy your CA climate for growing figs. Some gardeners in the milder areas of MD harvest an early (usually small) breba crop from older wood. Most of us are grateful for a mild winter and/or do all kinds of crazy things to protect the wood from severe winter dieback.

      • tonytomeo October 23, 2017 / 9:04 pm

        Well, there are a few things that do not do so well here without a good chill.

  2. pisstkitty October 20, 2017 / 8:28 pm

    My fig had finally recovered from being cut back to the ground after those hard winters and was lush and covered with figs. Then, during the very wet phase in late summer, the tree started to fall apart. Several of the large branches that had regrown just split off at the trunk. They all looked fine on the outside, but had a black core. Lost hundreds of figs and about half the tree.

    • Maryland Grows October 23, 2017 / 8:37 am

      Sorry to hear about the loss of branches. The next time you have a problem with your fig (or any question on plants, pests, landscapes, etc.) please send photos and a description to our Ask a Gardening Expert service-

  3. Maryland Grows October 23, 2017 / 3:38 pm

    My colleague Luke Gustafson points out that figs can be refrigerated to extend shelf-life:
    “I was curious that you recommend not refrigerating figs in one of the photo captions. They are certainly very perishable, but refrigeration should extend their storage life.

    I find that the flavor and texture of figs suffers during refrigeration. But that’s a better option than watching them liquefy on the kitchen counter!

  4. Ryan Moore March 15, 2018 / 2:44 pm

    I looked in the USDA Commercial Storage of Fruits, Vegetables, and Florist and Nursery Stocks handbook, #66, for the “official” storage recommendations. Optimum storage is 30-32 F with 90-95% RH, retails display at 32-36 F, 90-95% RH.

  5. Maryland grower July 24, 2020 / 4:13 pm

    In April/May, after fig trees have some leaf growing, pick and leave 5-7 strongest branches from the base, remove all other branches and shoots. (By thinning the plant, you tunnel the energy to the limited branches, and there is enough sun on leaves and increase air flow. ) Starting in early/mid June, after the fig plants have some new leaf growth, I start to pinch all tops, side shoots, shoots from the base and from the ground, off the plant. Keep doing it often because the tree keep sending the growing points. (By topping off all growing points, the plant gets the signal and puts energy for fruits.) Water and feed the plant. (Especially P and K, less N, for fruit forming.) The fruits will form at the leaf base to the branch. Fruits can take 2-3 months of very warn/hot days to ripe. By limit vegetation growth, the tree will produce riping fruits, even in limited quantity. I learned this trick after a few years of 2010 cold winter so every year I get some fruits since then, even from the fig trees in the pots. This year I am doing it earlier than my start pinching date of mid-July, so I will expect to have more ripe fruits by the early/middle of October.
    Happy fig growing!

    • SA August 18, 2021 / 5:08 pm

      I live in Olney, Maryland. As of now(8/17), my earliest figs seem to be RDB and Hardy Chicago. Celeste and Black Malt are loaded with figs but non of them have ripped.

  6. Ben February 26, 2022 / 12:21 pm

    I think the pruning mentioned here might be a bit late for Maryland, as I’ve read the best time to prune is after the last frost. Our 10-year-old Brown Turkey (pretty sure that’s the variety) produced more than 500 figs last year, and I pruned in early March. I also made a few cuttings that I passed to friends, so hopefully they will have figs in a few years as well. We now have four main base branches, and I think one improvement from last year was that I cut off a larger shoot, which ultimately turned into a pretty good potted cutting.

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