By Emmy Ulmschneider and Debbie Roland, Master Gardeners
My love affair with figs began way before I moved to a place where I could actually grow them. I remember dried figs as a staple at Christmas time and fig cookies as a special treat. When I moved to Midland, I taught at an old school and across the street from where I parked, in the middle of a vacant lot was a fig tree (actually a fig bush) that received no water, was growing in full sun and had survived some pretty cold winter temperatures. But judging from the birds and people that visited, it was a big producer. About that time, I became a Permian Basin Master Gardener and one of the first things I tried was to make cuttings from this plant. And those cuttings led to the tree in my yard: a Brown Turkey Fig, a pass along plant from some early Midland resident.
For many years that fig tree graced a corner of our back yard, produced prolifically, and taught me many things like always wear long sleeves and pants when climbing fig trees and how to make structures to protect a 20’ tree from fig-eating birds and squirrels. Each year I gave away figs, dried figs, roasted figs, canned fig preserves, fig jam, figs in red wine and cooked dinner dishes wrapped in fig leaves. And then came Winter Storm Uri.
I knew that figs originated in the Mediterranean and do not tolerate subfreezing temperatures but mine had weathered cold temperatures before. So, I was so disheartened to see my beautiful tree had died down to the ground. Now, two years later, my tree has become a bush but for the first time I have figs and am once again am covering it to get my fair share of the harvest!
Figs are one of the oldest cultivated fruit trees and are easy to grow. Originating in Asia, they spread across the Mediterranean to Spain, were brought to Californina and then to Texas for the early Spanish missions in our state and later for early settler gardens. Now, they are grown throughout the state where conditions permit. Although there are a wide variety of common garden figs, the favored varieties for us seem to be the old standards of ‘Texas Everbearing’ or ‘Brown Turkey’. Figs can be grown easily along the Texas coast but in our drier, colder, climate they need
irrigation and protection from the cold. Choose a sunny site (6-8 hours of sun) with good drainage. In our area, figs need irrigation but not too much. Check the soil moisture with your finger to maintain a moist soil 1-2” deep. Figs are shallow rooted so mulch them in summer to maintain soil moisture. For a full discussion of the best fig varieties for Texas and how best to grow them check out: https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/fruit-nut/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2015/04/figs_2015.pdf
Common garden figs do not require pollination to bear fruit and technically the “fruit” you eat is not a fruit at all but an enlarged fleshy stem that would hold the fruit. Allow the fruit to ripen on the tree and harvest the fruit when it is soft. On my ‘Brown Turkey’ fig the color changes from unripe green, through shades of golden brown to that just ripe soft brown color. Some but not all figs may have two crops of fruit: a breba crop first, formed from the leftover figs that manage to overwinter in an unripened state come out of dormancy and ripen several months before the main harvest in the late summer to fall.
If you are looking for an easy to grow, ancient fruit that combines Asian, European, and American history, culture, and recipes, plant a fig!
If you have questions, call the AgriLife office in Odessa at 498-4071 or in Midland at 686-4700. Additional information, and our blog for access to past articles, is available at westtexasgardening.org. Click on “Resources”.