I am famous for adopting unusual trees. Each spring I attend a local tree auction and carry home some young, woody plant to find a place in my garden borders. I've grown heartnut hedges that have soared more than three metres in a season, architectural ginkgoes (used as a trellis for climbing roses) and rooted Japanese maple cuttings now grown to specimen size. But none was more wildly optimistic on my part than the little common fig (Ficus carica) I successfully bid for two years ago.
It was clear from the start that my frosty Zone 6a garden would be an inhospitable winter climate for figs. Only gardeners in Zone 8 in southern British Columbia have the slightest chance of overwintering a fig tree without protection. In colder zones they won't survive below –10°C, so they need substantial winter protection. But they're worth the effort. Their semi-tropical foliage lends an exotic touch to less-than-tropical Canadian patios, and the fruit is such a sweet treat.
My Italian greengrocer supplies ripe figs from his own tree, each carefully wrapped in tissue paper and saved for me behind the counter. But the potential for my own crop of figs (relished with heavy cream for breakfast) elevated the anticipation to new levels of hope and pure joy. Such an overwrought emotional state is not unlike the sentiments of Alexis of Thurii, the fourth-century BC poet of comic Greek theatre, who claimed the fig as “that god-given inheritance of our mother country” and the “darling of my heart.” Along with the olive, the fig is the world's oldest fruit, much appreciated by ancient Egyptians, Hebrews and Persians. The satiny green, purple and almost black fruits were valued for their succulent sweetness and mild laxative effects to “free the stomach.”
Many Canadian gardeners of Mediterranean heritage cherish fig-growing traditions. Some dedicated few build fig houses out of plywood hoardings (complete with roofs) around their trees. These structures are quickly erected in late autumn, when the trees are bare of leaves, and are removed in early spring, just as buds begin to swell.
But the more common method of frost protection is to keep the tree small with yearly pruning, so the plant and its root ball can be carefully dug up in late autumn. It's then buried on its side in a shallow trench and stuffed all around with lots of straw or leaves. Several layers of old carpeting are then laid overtop and covered with plastic held down by bricks. It's not pretty, but it does the trick and, insulated with a thick blanket of snow, safely carries many fig trees through a Zone 5 or 6 winter. For colder zones, you must grow the tree in a container and store it in a shed, cold basement or garage, where the temperature stays between –6 and 9°C.
I decided not to take any chances planting out my fig and kept the 60-centimetre cutting in a container on my back porch, where I could appreciate it every day. I overwintered it in my attached garage. Put a plastic bag over the plant and its container to help conserve moisture, and water occasionally throughout the winter.
A 14-litre pot is a good first home for a young fig tree; after another year it can be potted up into a 23-litre one. The tree can eventually be moved into a 45-litre container. An annual autumn pruning will keep it under control; roots can also be pruned to keep the tree comfortable in its pot. Trim long shoots in July to stimulate branching, thereby increasing the amount of fruit-bearing wood. They'll tolerate some shade, but full sun in a warm location produces the sweetest fruit.
Figs prefer a light and nutritious soil mix composed of two parts pine bark mulch to one part composted cow manure and one part perlite. Clay-based potting soil can be added but isn't necessary. Apply slow-release fertilizer pellets (14-14-14) at the rate of 30 millimetres for a 14-litre container once a season, or water-soluble fertilizer with a similar nutrient ratio two or three times while the plant is in leaf. (Too much nitrogen can result in excessive leaf growth and less fruit.) Keep the soil mix evenly moist, never water-saturated; drought will slow down fruit production.