Debbie Arrington

Figs add sweetly to water-wise gardens

Figs have built-in drought tolerance, which makes them ideal for the low-water California garden.
Figs have built-in drought tolerance, which makes them ideal for the low-water California garden. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

It’s a lesson any California farmer knows all too well: Some crops take more water than others.

That knowledge also comes in handy for homeowners thinking of adding edibles to their own landscapes.

For example, fruit trees native to the Mediterranean tend to flourish in California gardens. Meant to grow in a climate similar to ours, they love our weather, with wet winters and dry, hot summers. They can adapt to long periods with less irrigation. Their drought tolerance is programmed into their DNA.

Some like life on the dry side better than others. That’s made fig trees an ideal choice for water-wise edible landscapes.

First introduced to California by Franciscan missionaries almost 250 years ago, figs require about half the water of more popular nut and fruit trees.

“That’s one of the main things I really like about figs – they’re more drought-tolerant,” said longtime fig farmer Kevin Herman of Madera. With about 4,000 acres of figs, his Specialty Crop Co. ranks as the world’s largest fig grower.

Herman also grows several other crops, so he knows firsthand their water needs and differences.

“We’ve all heard about almond trees needing one gallon to make a nut,” Herman said. “We break (water needs) down by tree per day. In August, almonds need 75 gallons per tree per day. Pistachios need 55 gallons a day. But figs need only 35 gallons per tree per day – half that of almonds. They have much better drought tolerance. They’re used to getting by with less water. In fact, if they get too much water, it causes cracks in the fruit.”

In a home garden, figs flourish with deep watering twice a month. They also appreciate a cooling blanket of mulch; that keeps their roots happy. While they prefer full sun, they’ll tolerate some afternoon shade.

They also require little if any additional fertilizer; too much plant food will cause fig trees to drop their fruit all at once.

Unlike showy almond or peach trees, figs don’t dazzle with spring flowers. The fig “fruit” itself is a botanical oddity, an inverted flower. Most popular varieties on the market now are self-fertile and don’t require another tree for pollination.

“The biggest danger to growing figs is late summer rain,” Herman said. “Rain in August or September will cause the fruit to mold.”

There’s little chance of such storms here.

Besides their fruit, figs add a Mediterranean flair to landscapes. With silver-gray bark and twisted limbs, the trees have a sculptural elegance. Some fig varieties grow tall; the Brown Turkey variety can reach more than 30 feet in height. On larger trees, the distinctive large leaves provide welcome summer shade. (Those leaves are edible, too, and can be used like grape leaves for stuffing.)

Fig trees also can be trained to stay short and compact. Black Mission trees – the original California fig variety – often are pruned to keep fruit within easy picking height. No ladder necessary.

Figs do require patience. Young trees need four or five years before they produce their first real crop. But after that, they’ll keep bearing fruit for decades.

That’s a sweet reward for saving water.

Show us your harvest

Got figs? How did your tomatoes and peppers grow? What about your peaches, plums and other backyard crops? We’re putting together a summer harvest gallery and we’d love to include your pic of the crop.

Post photos on the SacBee Garden Facebook page, www.facebook.com/sacbeegarden. Or email photos to: h&g@sacbee.com. Please include your name, hometown and (if possible) variety of your prized tomato, vegetable or fruit along with any other note-worthy details about your harvest.

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