Gardening How-to Articles

Fig Trees for Small Backyards or Container Gardens

Figs (Ficus carica) may just be one of the best trees for edible landscapers and urban gardens. They produce an abundance of delicious sweet fruit while thriving amid brick and concrete in containers or small spaces, and provide bold, beautiful foliage in the garden. They are also virtually pest free and practically immortal.

I’m not the first to recognize the near perfection of figs. Figs have been cultivated for thousands of years and are thought to be among the earliest plants domesticated by humans. What our ancestors no doubt realized, and what new generations are rediscovering today, is that figs are an easy-to-manage tree that provides an abundance of luscious fruit.

Planting and Cultivating Fig Trees

Hardy in USDA Zones 7b through 11, figs can survive and indeed thrive in cooler climates when planted in the right location. In Brooklyn, figs appreciate the urban heat-island effect from pavement and buildings, which keeps their roots from freezing. Figs are sun-loving trees and do best in the Northeast when grown in heat-hoarding microclimates, such as near foundations where the heat from the building helps keep the soil warmer through winter or against a south-facing wall to benefit from the radiant heat.

Figs can also be grown in containers if they have winter protection. The container should be no smaller than five gallons and during colder weather needs to be moved into a protected area like an unheated garage or small shed where the temperature won’t fall below 30°F. Figs in unprotected locations can be wrapped to protect them from freezing temperatures and drying winds.

Read More: How to Wrap a Fig Tree to Protect It for the Winter

Unlike many commercially cultivated fig varieties grown in the Mediterranean and California, which require a symbiotic relationship with fig wasps to produce fruit, common figs are parthenocarpic, able to produce edible fruit without pollination. This is because what we call the “fruit” is in fact an enlarged stem covering the flower.

Propagating More Fig Plants

Of course, nonfertilized fruit is seedless. Thankfully, fig tree propagation is easy, in part because of its suckering habit. By taking a division of the tree and planting it, you create a clone plant that can be passed from generation to generation.

One of the most common ways to propagate a fig tree is to prune it in fall and take several leafless, pencil-thick cuttings, bundle them, and bury them horizontally in the ground below the frost line. Over the winter the cuttings will callus and make roots. In the spring, dig up the bundle and insert the cuttings, rooted tip down, in the soil. Given even moisture and protection, top shoots will soon appear and eventually develop into a fruitful tree.

Figs can be kept small by pruning them as shrubs, allowing them to be grown in the smallest of backyard spaces—a boon for urban edible landscapers. The sap of certain figs can be a skin irritant, so be sure to wear gloves when pruning. The large, deeply lobed foliage of shrub-pruned figs looks great planted near other shrubs like rhododendrons and roses.

Harvesting Figs

Even better than its gorgeous foliage, of course, is the fruit. Figs vary in color from yellowish green (called white figs) to copper, bronze, and dark purple. The flesh can be pink, tan, or a soft white. There are several hardy cultivars that do well in cooler climates, including Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey, which has medium to large copper-colored fruit. ‘Celeste’ is another great choice, with smaller fruit that is a purplish-brown color. ‘Hardy Chicago’, which has small to medium fruit with purplish-brown skin and strawberry-pink pulp, also does well.

Many fig cultivars produce two crops per year. The first crop, called the breba, arrives in early summer on the previous year’s wood. The second crop forms in late summer or early fall and stems from the current season’s growth.

Knowing when to pick your figs is as simple as watching the fruit. As they ripen, figs droop from the tree and soften. The longer you can leave them on the tree the sweeter they will be. The best time to harvest is right before they fall from the tree, when you begin to see sugary syrup bead up on the skin. Figs do not last long once harvested, even when refrigerated, and are best eaten fresh off the tree or baked into cookies, tarts, jams, and other sweet treats.

Fresh Fig Cookies

  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup softened unsalted butter
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 cup fresh figs, peeled and chopped
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter and add beaten egg. In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Blend into sugar mixture at low speed. Use a spatula to fold in figs and nuts. Drop dough by spoonfuls on greased baking sheet. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Store cooled cookies in an airtight container in the pantry for up to a week. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Adapted from a recipe by the California Fresh Fig Growers Association.

Robert Newgarden is a former gardener at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. He tended the Cashew Plant Family and other plant families in the Plant Family Collection. He also cared for the Herb Garden.


  • Amanda Kerins August 30, 2021

    Pleasantly surprised to find out figs grow in Brooklyn, do you happen to know where I can buy one? The picture is of a couple acquiring one but I’ve never seen them for sale around here!

  • Angela July 16, 2020

    Hi, I have a fig tree in a pot and it’s looking great has lots of beautiful leaves and not too many figs. I was wondering how to get them to grow lots of figs. Does it need a certain fertilizer or compost? I saw the ones at the Garden and they had so many large figs in a pot.

  • Vince July 23, 2018

    The white fig is much larger than the black fig. I had some in Europe. Can you grow it here?

  • [email protected] July 7, 2018

    Can you please teach me about fertilizing and planting my fig. I understand about the south facing wall. Please instruct about depth, width away from the foundation and fertilizing.
    Thanks so much!

  • Maggie October 21, 2017

    Protection from elements in winter is one thing, but one also needs to protect figs from hungry rodents, who easily girdle a tree because they are safely protected from predators by insulating burlap. We’ve had far more success wintering dormant figs in large pots stored in a cool dark place.

  • Evan Elisseou August 20, 2013

    Does the ‘Brooklyn Dark’ fig have a more common name? I’m trying to find one.

  • BBG Staff June 12, 2013

    If by “insect free” you mean pollinated without the aid of insects, yes, except for Smyrna and San Pedro figs, which require a wasp for pollination.

  • hirsh lefkowitz June 11, 2013

    Are figs truly insect free? Thanks a lot.

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