Originally based on a CRFG 2007 Festival of Fruit presentation, and since updated and expanded.


Briefly, I have been gardening since I was in diapers.
Some people argue that I am getting close to wearing them, again. I joined CRFG nearly 20 years ago, and have been growing figs for more than 20 years.
I operate an online nursery named Encanto Farms Nursery. I have many fig varieties available for sale as plants, and as cuttings, along with nearly 100 banana varieties that I grow.
Understand, however, that I am a hobbyist like you. I am not a biologist, not a botanist and I have no formal education or background in botany or agriculture. So when it comes to growing things, I am not doing anything that you wouldn’t be able to do. I keep experimenting, and I hope that I can shorten your learning curve by sharing what I have experienced. Along the way I have benefited greatly from the experience of CRFG’s Richard Watts, and many collectors I’ve met on the Figs 4 Fun Fig Forum.
I grow about 300 varieties of figs and, although each has its own set of characteristics, the similarities far outweigh the differences.
My goal here, as it has been classically expressed, is not to give you a fish, so that you can eat for a day...
...but to teach you to power fish so that you can eat for a lifetime. I hope to introduce you to the basics of figs, to help you understand the principles underlying successful fig cultivation and to make you aware of information resources available so you can successfully grow any fig.
So I’m not going to devote much space here to the details of botany, except where it is important to successful growing of figs. Each variety has many similarities as well as differences, so before we get to the end there will be several reminders urging you to become familiar with your variety, its specific characteristics and its habits.
I am biased. I do not grow organically. This doesn’t mean I’m opposed to that philosophy and form of plant care, only that I am not qualified to address fig cultivation in terms of organic gardening. So if you grow organically, you will have to adapt my remarks to your situation.
A note about fertilizing: if you have a tree that is a poor grower, try really over fertilizing it for a year and see if it doesn't break out the following year.

Let's begin with taste.

In my experience I have developed a personal theory about fig taste. I have learned that my wife and I have very different tastes in figs.
Many people like dark colored figs. This was my original place on the spectrum.
Many people like light colored figs, I discovered these figs later in my experience.
Some people will eat any and every fig. I am almost here, now, but there is one remaining obstacle.
The dividing line seems to be between people who love Brown Turkey figs...
... and people, like me, who hate Brown Turkey figs. I have two fig trees, grown from cuttings sent by people who were convinced that if I ate "their" Brown Turkey, I would be persuaded. What I discovered was that one of these was a Celeste and the other something akin to Marseilles: both very nice figs, and doubtless why these people liked "Brown Turkey" figs.
A note about fig names: mislabeling is an all too common problem when trying to identify figs.
The point is that taste can vary considerably from one individual to another. So when you ask someone what is a good tasting fig, make sure you are asking someone who shares your taste profile. For example, if you like Brown Turkey figs, you will want to consider these named varieties: Blue Giant, Black Spanish, Black Jack or Walker. If you don’t care for Brown Turkeys, chances are you wouldn’t like any of the above varieties either.
A note about first fruits: never judge a fig's taste by the fruit you get in the first couple years. It may be completely delicious, but it may not be as good as you expected. Often it will improve significantly with a little age.

Available varieties.

Figs are thought to have originated somewhere in the Middle East or Central Asia, and have been transported all over the Mediterranean region, most notably to Turkey, Italy, Greece, France and Spain. From there they made there way to the United States by many routes. Originally they were brought by conquistadors, missionaries and the early settlers of the Americas.
More recently a wide variety arrived with waves of immigrants near the turn of the 20th century. This migration has given us a tremendous heritage and diversity of fig varieties from which to choose.
Breeding programs at the University of California (UC) at Riverside and Louisiana State University have also added to that diversity.
Many nurseries sell figs, but only a very limited number of varieties are available. Most commonly you will see such varieties as Black Mission, Brown Turkey, White Kadota and Desert King. Two well known nurseries, Paradise and Belleclare, closed in 2007 decreasing availability even more.
So the question we face is simple: how do we access the wide diversity of figs in existence when so few are commercially propagated? The simple answer is to buy them from me (grin).
However, you can propagate your own trees by growing them from scion wood, which is available from a variety of sources. So, access to a wide diversity of fig varieties requires understanding how to successfully propagate figs from cuttings.
Scion is available from the USDA collection at UC Davis, international collections and germplasm repositories,...
...through Encanto Farms Nursery, Seedsavers, CRFG scion exchanges, collectors across the country who meet in places such as the Figs 4 Fun Forum, neighbors, and from nurseries around the world.


There are many ways to propagate figs. They may be air-layered, grown from rooted cuttings, grown from suckers or sprouted from seed. Air-layering requires access to a tree for a long period of time, and the variety you want can often be in a different part of the country or the globe; suckers are not always handy when you want them; and seeds do not produce trees that are true to type, plus they are often sterile or functionally male caprifigs.
That leaves propagation from cuttings as the most practical method. Cuttings can be rooted in water, in potting soil, directly in the ground, in a variety of rooting media (such as sand, vermiculite or Perlite) or in a bag.

Principles of rooting.

I am going to walk you through the method I use to root my cuttings, which will demonstrate one of many possible approaches to rooting, and illustrate the principles which are important. I’ve tried many techniques, all of which resulted in some success, but two things greatly improved my success: pre-rooting in a bag, and transplanting to a clear plastic cup containing specific media. The cuttings in one of the "greenhouses" in this picture will be shown rooted a little later.
A Note about greenhouses: anything can make a greenhouse. For our purposes, a green house is not about heat: only about controlling humidity. So a plastic bag, plastic storage box, etc. can be a greenhouse.
The use of a rooting hormone is not necessary. Powdered hormone seems to actually encourage rotting of the cutting. Use a liquid hormone, if you use any, at all.
The most important element of successful rooting is illustrated by the story of Goldilocks. She was looking for porridge that was not too hot and not too cold, but “just right.” Similarly, rooting cuttings is about getting the moisture level not too wet, and not too dry, but “just right.” If you learn nothing else here, and end up remembering only this one point, you will have gotten your money’s worth: controlling moisture is everything.
Rooting success is almost entirely dependent on controlling moisture, both in the potting media and in the atmosphere around your cuttings. Soil moisture and humidity are crucial. The cuttings will rot if their soil is too wet. If it is too dry, the new roots will desiccate and die. If the humidity is too high, mold is a likely outcome, and if it is too low, the cuttings are at risk of desiccation before rooting occurs. Using a rooting media that maintains proper levels of air and moisture increases success greatly.
Humidity can be controlled in a greenhouse, or using something simple like a plastic storage box with the lid substantially closed. Here I used a plastic bag over a black nursery pot, in the shade of a tree. It doesn't need to be expensive or fancy, only functional.
In the dry climate of San Diego, humidity in your cuttings’ rooting environment must be provided artificially. In the muggy Southeast, however, cuttings can be placed outdoors with little risk. Here I made a frame (unglued) of PVC pipe, covered with a plastic drop cloth, a piece of shade cloth for shade, and a 2x 4 to hold the shade cloth in place. Later I substituted a piece of cardboard for the shade cloth.
The other factor is heat. Rooting is greatly speeded up when temps are 70F or higher. Providing a warm environment can be as simple as placing your cuttings in a bag on top of the refrigerator, or a shelf above the stove. Last winter I helped a friend root cuttings from her neighbor’s tree using the bag method. She had never grown a fig tree before. Now she grows new trees for Christmas presents.
I learned “rooting-in-a-bag” from CRFG member Richard Watts. I am sure that I don’t do it quite the way he does, because he puts his cuttings in his van, in his driveway, which provides solar heating to obtain warm temps for rooting.
I don’t own a van, so I can’t follow his technique “step-by-step.” The point is not the exact technique, however, it is satisfying the principles involved: controlling moisture in the scion and providing proper temperature to stimulate root growth.
For me, the procedure is simple:
First, it is important to identify the top and bottom ends of your scion. Tip cuttings are easy, but others take closer inspection. MORE
I wrap scions in lightly dampened paper towels or newspaper—the essential here is maintaining moisture, not a particular paper type—then I place them in a sealed plastic bag and put them in a warm place.
Sometimes I put them on my desk, were I can watch them. Usually I put them somewhere upstairs because heat rises.
Be patient; each variety is different and each cutting, even when from the same tree, can differ in its response.
In a few weeks, you will see root initials begin to form, and then roots.
Once I see roots I transfer the scions from bags to 26-oz. clear plastic cups containing a rooting medium and with holes drilled in their bottoms—and remember that deeper cups are better. MORE
Ideally, this will be the result in a few weeks. "Your results may vary." I have the advantage of having done this many times, and then using the pictures which show the best results.
Some cuttings will also sprout in the bag. That is OK. Some will want to grow leaves before roots. More about that later.
Close up of root formation, in the bag,
Now the cuttings are removed from the bag, for transfer to a clear cup. Don't forget to label.
Close-up of the same cuttings and roots.
Roots on a different batch of cuttings.
Same method, different cuttings. There cuttings are up to 1-1/4" in diameter and 16" long. They were wrapped in damp newspaper and placed in a bigger bag.
Here is a closeup of another bundle from the same bag. This "bag" technique can be used on all sizes of cuttings. I have done some as large as 2" in diameter.
One last picture of nice root development.
Another nice feature of the bag method is the efficiency. You are not using time and space and potting soil on cuttings which are not inclined to root. They only get potted when they have shown root development. In a bag, they can be on top of the refrigerator, on your desk, etc.
These pre-rooted cuttings are placed in clear plastic cups, on wire racks, in plastic storage boxes. These boxes were $5, hold 20 cuttings, are water proof and can be used to control humidity.
These are the pieces I use
The screen "racks" are used to keep the cups above the water that collects at the bottom of the storage box. If the cups sit in water, the rooting media wicks up the water rotting the cuttings. But the water underneath the screen provides humidity to maintain moisture in the cutting. MORE
These pre-rooted cuttings are then placed in these clear cups for further root development. These cups most have drain holes to allow excess moisture to pass through. MORE
I have used a variety of rooting media. Potting soils hold too much moisture. Coarse vermiculite produces very good results. The coarse texture allows for good air penetration in the media, while the vermiculite holds the moisture well. When I couldn’t get the coarse vermiculite anymore, I switched to a mix of 60% Perlite and 40% finer vermiculite. This medium also works well. MORE
I have found that condensation on the inside of the cup is a good indication of sufficient moisture, perhaps bordering on too wet.
If you open the lids a little bit, this allows fresh air to enter, which is important in controlling mold. If the lids are wide open, you lose too much humidity. The water at the bottom of the crate, under the screen, replenishes the humidity lost by having the lids open a little bit.
You can see that each cutting progresses on it own timeline.
Eventually, you should develop roots such as these, but, again, each cutting is different.
The second important principle to remember is this: roots and leaves have no relationship to each other. If you take a dozen cuttings from the same tree and grow them in the same rooting media in the same pot—as close to identical nature and nurture as you can get—some cuttings will grow roots, some will grow leaves, and some will grow both.
You cannot presume root development from observing leaf development. This is why I use clear cups; they allow me to actually see whether roots are developing.
4-5" of stem growth and still very little roots to support a viable plant.
Here is what that cutting looked like in the clear cup. Strong and healthy. But with the clear cup it is easy to see that there was little or no root development. Not a good candidate for transplanting, yet, unless moved to a very high humidity environment.
Again, the clear cup revels that this cutting has very vigorous root development.
Removed from the cup and ready for repotting in a 1 gallon pot.
Good root development seen through the cup... well as good leaf development. The ideal.
Another advantage of vermiculite and Perlite as a rooting medium is the ease of removing the rooted cutting for repotting. Mixes that contain organic materials tend to stick to the sides of the cups, which leads to root damage.
Completely removed with ease. If the roots stick to the sides of the cup, squeeze and flex the cup. The sides of the cup can bend at sharp angles, and the roots will not. The cup may crack, but even cracked cups can be reused because they don't need to hold water.
Ready for potting. The happened to be "Cucumber" which rooted vigorously and very quickly.
Close up of the roots.
I found that when I blew up the bags of cuttings, I had more air inside, which reduced molding. Bags with an actual zipper made blowing them up a little easier than the regular Ziploc bags.
Now forget everything that I just taught you. You don't need to go to all that trouble.
These cuttings sat outside for 6 months, in a black trash bag, through 38F weather, 80+F weather, rain, etc. They got water-logged when the bucket filled with rain. They were not refrigerated, and had no moist paper in with them. In short, I did everything wrong, and yet they continued to root under these conditions. This is much easier.
My ill treated bag of cuttings.
As you can see, they are rooting.
Close-up of the rooted cuttings.
These cuttings were placed in cups, then into a plastic box, and sealed tight. They were outside in cold and warm weather, with no change of air for months. They received late afternoon sun. With out fresh air, in some sun, they rooted just fine. Some solarization may have counter-balanced the lack of fresh air and kept them from molding.
I am not suggesting these methods, but they illustrate something important: when the principles are satisfied, rooting will occur, and there is more than one way to achieve success. Satisfy the principles, and you won't need a "recipe" for success.
When I see good root development, I transfer the cuttings to 1-gallon pots containing a potting mix of 60% Perlite and 40% compost, and then acclimate them to the outdoors, usually putting them in shade with augmented humidity for a few days, and gradually introducing them to more sunlight over a period of weeks. At this stage, potting mix moisture control is still critical. Too much moisture will still cause rot and failure.
After the plants are successfully transitioned and evidencing new growth, I water appropriately. Once a week after I water them, I let them stand for an hour and then I re-water them with a half-strength solution of Miracle-Gro. In many instances, this will produce a 6-foot tree by the beginning of autumn.
When I see roots in the drain holes, I transfer the trees to 2-gallon pots while reversing my mix to 40% Perlite and 60% compost.
When repotting again becomes necessary, I transfer the trees to 5-gallon pots, using 100% compost. Once they begin to outgrow the 5-gallon pots, they are large enough for planting in the ground, and will no longer require constant care—although they will need more frequent watering than an established tree.

Issues and problems.

I will leave you to research appropriate figs for your climate, but I will give you some broad guidelines to help you.
The eye is the opening at the end of the fig opposite the stem. Some are open, some less open than others and some are closed. Closed-eye figs are crucial in humid climates to prevent spoilage. A closed eye is also good for keeping out ants and other insects.
If a variety ripens very quickly—one such as Brunswick, for example—the openness of the eye is not so much a problem. Slow-ripening figs, such as White or Osborn are vulnerable over a longer period.
Rust is a disease problem usually associated with the humid Southeast; it affects the leaves and can lead to defoliation of a tree. This is not reported as a problem in California and the Southwest. Other common pests include ants, beetles (Mexican fruit beetle in San Diego), squirrels, rats, opossums, deer, dogs and birds.
The most effective bird deterrents are nets... MORE
... or newspaper—another technique I learned from Richard Watts: protecting near-ripe figs by fastening old newspaper...
...around them using clothespins, moving the protective cover as you harvest your fruit. This works quite well on smaller trees.
Mold is a problem for many varieties when conditions include high humidity or frequent rain during the harvest season. MORE
Mexican Fruit Beetles, or Fig Beetles and a problem at least as serious as birds, in San Diego. MORE
Ants are also a problem.
They will eat an entire fig from the outside, in. They do not need a bird peck to allow them to penetrate the fruit. Oh, and they eat their favorite figs and ignore others.
This is Capelas. This past season Portland 1 was one of the ones that they just couldn't resist.
Splitting occurs in some varieties, which usually ruins the fruit. In my orchard the guilty varieties are Panachée, Black Madeira, Conadria, Rattlesnake Island, and some Brown Turkey or Brown-Turkey-like figs. MORE
FMV, or fig mosaic virus, while widely debated, will be a fact of life if you collect many varieties. Plants from venerable nurseries such as Belleclare on Long Island, New York, were infected as well as locally grown trees sold at Home Depot. USDA/UC Davis trees are all infected, or potentially so.
The bottom line is this: the virus manifests itself in misshapen leaves...
...and splotchy colored leaves, perhaps stunted growth in some varieties and perhaps results in lesser fruit production.
Root-knot nematode (Meloidogyne sp.) affects the roots of the tree and can stunt growth, sometimes severely.
There is extensive literature about it on the Internet.

Ripening and Harvest.

Many signs indicate that a fig is ripening. Getting to know your variety is critical, because each variety has different characteristics and, more important, progresses through the ripening process at a different rate. Dark Portuguese will need at least seven days after showing a color change, but Brunswick completes the process in about 36 hours. Generally, most of the flavor and sugars are developed in the last day or two of ripening, so just picking a day early can have a significantly negative impact on the enjoyment of the fruit.
Figs exhibit a significant size increase when they begin to ripen.
This usually happens concurrently with a marked color change. The color change is most noticeable in dark colored figs...
...and least noticeable in figs, such as the Whites, which only exhibit a change to a lighter shade of green or turn a yellowish green.
As a fig ripens and increases in size and weight, it will usually soften, which will cause it to droop or sag.
The skin of some figs will split as they increase in size. This is perhaps the most notable attribute of the Black Mission fig.
Celeste is another example of a variety that shows skin cracking, but not always.
This example of cracking is Sultane.
Some varieties will almost dehydrate on the tree, especially in hotter, dryer climates and will look visibly shriveled... and wrinkly when they are ready to eat. Celeste and Vista are two good examples. This is Flanders.
Some varieties when ripe will exude a drop of honey-like nectar from the eye. This is Honey Encanto.
A note about ripening: a cool period during ripening will delay ripening, and in some varieties, interrupt their maturation process, so that they will "ripen", but they will not develop the full sugars and flavors that they would have had if they ripened in warm weather. Black Madeira is a good example of one that ripens without flavor after a cool spell.

Growth habits and Pruning.

As we come to the subject of pruning, we need to make a short digression into the arcane world of botany.
Breba figs form on wood that grew last season and has been dormant through the winter.
This shows Vista Black Mission with the breba crop ripening and the main crop still green. You can see the brown color of the previous years growth and the still greenish color of the current years growth.
Main crop figs form on the new growth that appears this season. Some varieties produce only a breba crop; some have both breba and main-crop figs, and many have only main-crop figs. If you prune a breba-only variety, you reduce or eliminate your fruit for that year. If you prune a variety with breba and main-crop figs, you sacrifice the breba crop. If you prune a main-crop-only variety, you lose nothing. In my opinion, breba-crop figs are not numerous, and mostly of inferior taste, sweetness and quality. MORE
These factors are important in deciding how to prune your tree. Since I am willing to sacrifice the breba-crop figs, I can take a 10-foot-tall tree and prune it to 18 inches, and be quite happy with my main fig crop. Before picture: this Black Mission tree is nearly 20' tall at the end of the season.
Since I planted my orchard on a hill, severe pruning of my trees into a more bush-like shape allows me to reach my fig crop without using a ladder. After picture: once again at about 10' at the beginning of the season. Size control is very dependent on pruning.
These pix of fig growing in Japan are courtesy of Ken Love. This illustrates some extreme forms of pruning designed for very intensive fig growing.
These techniques can be adapted for growing figs in the home garden, as well, where space maybe a consideration. I prune mine this short where I have them planted on a hill, but not in the espalier form.
Figs can be grown in pots quite successfully. In fact, many figs in the east are grown in pots, so that they can be stored in sheds and garages for the winter, so that they are not damaged by freezing weather. These pots live in the Mediteranean climate of Spain, courtesy of another "figgie". MORE
I didn't grow figs in pots, but I received these photos only hours after posting a request for pictures of potted figs at the Figs 4 Fun Forum. This kind of community is part of the fun of growing figs.
These pots live in Orange County, CA at the home of another "figgie", who opened his entire collection for photos in the summer of 2008.
There are dwarf varieties, or perhaps more accurately, some less-vigorous varieties that seldom require pruning. However, for most varieties size control must usually be accomplished by pruning. This is a 10 year old Vista Black Mission will be pruned to about 4-1/2 feet. The parent tree, at 20 years old, is maintained at about 10', but could have been maintained at a much shorter height with more aggressive pruning in the early years.
Varieties such as Black Mission and Panachée can grow more than 10 feet in a single year. The finished product of aggressive pruning.
In many locations, fig trees must be protected from the cold winters. This was one "figgie's" solution to protecting his tree. They can also be winterized by wrapping them in carpets with tarps...
...burying them under piles of leaves, and even burying them in the ground.
Thankfully, we Californians do not need to go to these extremes.
Identifying an unknown variety is usually difficult, and often impossible. The only vivid memory of a seminar on figs by Richard Watts many years ago was this statement, paraphrased here: the size, shape, and color of a fig can be dramatically different depending on soil, climate, fertilization, watering and any other factor.
I have experienced this many times since. I purchased a Sultane fig tree from Paradise Nursery, in Virginia Beach, Virginia (the nursery closed its doors this spring but is still operating its website for a limited time, to offer fig-growing information). I sent a picture of it to nursery owner Sybil Mays to see if she would recognize it, and she did not recognize a fig variety which she had sold to me.
When grown in Virginia, Sultanes look very different.
Often leaf shape is used to classify and identify fig varieties, but fig leaves are extremely variable, even from the same tree. Generally they can be used most effectively to rule out varieties, rather than to make a definitive identification.
But, this tree, Raspberry Latte, has two different types of leaves: one kind on some branches, and a different kind on others. Many varieties exhibit a wide variety of leaves on a given tree though one style usually predominates. This makes identification by leaves difficult.


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How to Root Fig Cuttings in a Bag

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