Garden Guide: This is why fig trees didn’t produce ripe fruit this year.
Fig trees are one of the easiest fruit trees to grow. Not only can handle extreme heat and drought conditions without affecting fruit quality, but the fruit develops without pollination. Pollination is one of the more challenging aspects of growing fruits, so this is one less issue that fig growers have to face.
Fig fruit are an exception to the rule because the part of the plant we consider the "fruit" is actually an inverted flower. Open up a fig and you might even see the yellow stems of pollen inside!
Some rumors online insist that fig wasps pollinate those flowers by crawling inside fig fruit (where they die). If that’s an unsettling idea for you, have no fear! None of the common fig vanities grown in our area or sold at the stores have wasps inside them. There are some fig varieties, like the Calimyrna fig that do require a wasp to pollinate it, but those are grown on the West Coast.
Fig trees are so easy to grow, that it was actually the first fruit to be cultivated by humans! This year though many local gardeners reported that the fruit on their trees didn’t ripen. The most likely culprit was the weather.
How did figs get here
Figs are subtropical trees, and the New York City area is about the cold weather limit for these fruit trees. They became popular garden plants locally in the 1900s with Italian immigrants. Fresh fig fruit were difficult to find in stores, so the only option was to grow them. Back then, gardeners wrapped their figs in our climate to protect them from the cold, but warmer weather nowadays and more cold tolerant fig varieties make it possible to grow these without protection in warmer neighborhoods.
Why didn’t fig fruit ripen this year?
Fig trees don’t require much to start producing fruit, but getting them to ripen is a different story. These fruit require a lot of heat to ripen up and this year extreme heat was lacking.
Unlike common fall fruit, like apples and pears that ripen because of cooler days, figs prefer warmer and dry weather for the best fruit quality. Summer 2023 was wetter than usual in our area, and even though average temperatures were warmer than normal, there were very few hot days.
Last winter was also not ideal for figs. That may come as a surprise because it was the warmest winter on record in parts of our area. The wild temperature swings though are very difficult for our landscape plants. Brief, but rapid temperature drops damaged fig branches because they were not acclimated to the cold. Fig trees emerged from dormancy later in the spring than usual and with dieback.
How to get figs to ripen up north?
You can’t control the weather, but there are some tricks to keep these subtropical plants happy.
Plant figs in a warm and sunny spot, like a south facing exposure. A west exposure is also beneficial because the plants prefer shade during cold winter mornings.
VIDEO: Why fig trees didn't produce ripe fruit this year
Figs that survive the winter without dieback, may produce a “breba” fig crop which is a fig fruit that forms on the previous year’s growth. These fruit ripen much earlier (usually in June or July), are much larger sized, and usually less sweet. Cold tolerant varieties like "Chicago Hardy" may perform better than other common varieties like "Mission.
Figs can also be grown in containers! They do not produce fruit as prolifically as they do when in the ground, but they are low maintenance enough to still produce some fruit. These trees can be brought into a cool garage during the wintertime when temperatures are regularly dropping below freezing. Although it's not necessary to cover a fig tree if temperatures remain above 10F, protection from winter cold and wind will usually result in better fruit production.