The tree that’s easy to grow and fruits fast
Perhaps one of the easiest plants to grow on the Gulf Coast is the fig tree. Merely stick a cutting in the ground or a pot, give it sunshine and some water, and it will usually take off.
And within a year, it should be producing the sweet and delectable fruits throughout the summer. But now — after the winter and beginning of spring — is when gardeners need to give their existing fig trees some TLC, said Terry Cuclis, a 30-year Galveston County Master Gardener and expert on all things fig.
The mild climate on the Gulf Coast makes it a perfect place to grow fig trees, which can grow to heights of 15 feet. At one time, there were huge fig orchards in Alvin, Friendswood, Pearland and San Leon. Until the 1970s, there were several fig preserving plants in the area. In fact, Friendswood fig plants provided employment for many residents, including during The Great Depression. But because of increasing production costs and rising land prices, the industry shut down.
That didn’t stop home gardeners from continuing to grow and enjoy the fruit.
Spring cleaning of fig trees begins with removing any dead branches, Cuclis said. Trim away any small “suckers” or new little branches at the base that probably won’t produce any fruit. Mulch generously, about 3 to 4 inches around the bottom of the tree, to protect the shallow roots from any sudden cold snap as well as from summer heat. The mulch also helps keep the roots damp by mitigating dryness. And fertilize with a balanced formula (13-13-13 is best).
“A farmer told me to mulch with composted manure because it keeps the nematodes away,” Cuclis said, explaining that nematodes are parasites that attach to the roots and are harmful to plants. “I took the word of the farmer and my plants are doing pretty good.”
Cuclis’ relationship with figs dates back to his youth in Greece, where, during wartime, his family’s farm and livestock were seized. His family relied on natural growing fruits and vegetables to get them through, and it was then he developed a love for the fig. Now, he maintains a small orchard of them near Alvin and he shares the annual crop with friends as well as critters, including birds.
“As the figs ripen, I get the ones on the lower branches and the birds and squirrels get the ones I can’t reach,” he said.
Fifteen years ago, Cuclis purchased three “historical” cuttings from Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s farm in Virginia. He planted the propagating fig sticks from trees Jefferson brought with him from France in the 1790s.
Recently, Cuclis’ labors have been rewarded. With figs from Jefferson’s farm, Cuclis has successfully grown: Angelique, which is large but not recommended for this climate; Brown Turkey, which is very productive and sweet; and Marseilles, which is productive but not so tasty. But his favorite figs that grow better here are the Celeste or sugar fig, small, bite-sized fruits; the banana fig, which is large and sweet and fools the birds because they ripen with thick still-green skins; and the Negronne fig, which has a black skin and sweet purple fruit inside. The Negronne only grows 6 to 8 feet high and is perfect for potted plants and small yards.
The drawback of the popular Celeste is that the tree produces fruit that ripens all at once. The banana fig produces fruit in late June, July and August and then again in late September, Cuclis said.
Solange Couture, who lives on Galveston Island, planted a little Celeste cutting 10 years ago. Her tree now occupies a large part of her yard and doubles as a privacy fence half the year, when it still has leaves. She chose a spot with full sun, which the tree appreciates.
Each March, she “feeds” the fig tree with fertilizer sticks after she cuts back wayward branches. She recycles water from her kitchen (i.e. pasta water, water from boiled eggs). Her reward is a bounty of fruit that she can hardly keep up with.
“The amount of figs produced is absolutely incredible,” she said. “I give them to my neighbors and I make fig preserves, fig tarts with goat cheese, fig sauce for pork and I come back here and eat them off the tree.”
Cuclis recommends selecting fig tree varieties with the closed eye — the small hole on the bottom of the fruit — because they attract fewer insects. He suggests picking fruit early in the day, before insects can invade the fruit.
“I have some trees that have been producing for 30 years,” he said. “They love the humid and hot weather here.”
Fig Tree Pruning and Propagation
Master Gardener Terry Cuclis will demonstrate fig tree pruning and propagation. He will share his lifetime of knowledge about figs and pruning them. Bring your gardening gloves and pruners.
9 a.m. to 10 a.m. March 22; Galveston County Master Discovery Garden in Carbide Park, 4102-B Main St., La Marque