Tu B’Shevat is almost here, the “Jewish New Year for the Trees,” also called “Jewish Arbor Day.” Last year I discussed planting almond trees, and this year I’d like to suggest a fig tree.
Figs are one of the easiest fruit trees to grow in our area (far easier than citrus). Figs do well in our alkaline soils, and can quickly grow into lovely, spreading shade trees. Trees produce fruit in as little as two to three years, and thrive and fruit with little effort for the next 100 years or so. Figs do not need cross pollination, and a single tree can produce ample fruit for a household.
Fig trees have attractive smooth pale creamy-grey bark and large bright green leaves. Trees are deciduous, dropping their leaves in autumn. This means they can save you money on electricity! They are charming shade trees for summer heat, yet with no winter leaves, the sun can warm your home in winter.
For our general area, there are three best-selling cultivars good for both fresh and dried fruit: “Black Mission,” “White Mission,” and “Kadota.” Lesser known cultivars include the fig great for drying, the “Conadria,” and two for cooler areas, such as SaddleBrooke and Tanque Verde: “Texas Everbearing,” and the “King” series, including “Desert King.”
Depending on the variety, a mature fig tree can reach 25 to 40 feet tall and spread 25 to 60 feet wide. Luckily for those of us that live on smaller home lots, fig trees can very easily be pruned to a tidy, compact form, even a tiny 6 by 6 feet, although a larger canopy will produce more fruit. Figs can be espaliered, pruned and anchored to grow flat along a wall. Figs trees can be grown as container plants, so if you are not yet in your “forever home,” you can keep it in a pot and still grow your own fruit.
Care of a fig tree is easy. Prune once a year in January or February when it is dormant to shape its form and maintain its size. Fertilize fig trees with a fruiting fertilizer at Passover, Memorial Day, and Labor Day. You will also have to water it — but don’t overwater it! Figs grow wild in Israel where they get winter rains, but they also grow in areas that do not get as hot as Tucson, so here, water deeply once a week in summer.
Planting anything with your kids is a wonderful way to help them connect with the natural world and avoid “nature deficit disorder.” With a fig tree, harvesting fruit to feed their family is a tangible and valuable learning experience for any child.
If you don’t wish to plant a tree in your yard, there are a number of groups, like the Jewish National Fund, that will plant a tree in Israel for you. In recent years the JNF has been working to plant in a more ecologically sustainable fashion.
Wednesday, Jan. 31 is Tu B’Shevat this year. I hope you will join the celebration and plant something.
Jacqueline Soule’s latest book, “Month by Month Gardening in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico” is available from area nurseries and botanical gardens. She is currently working on “Butterfly Gardening in the Southwest,” due out in fall 2018.