Sweet Fig, in Garden or Pot

By Scott Aker
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Q I have a Negronne fig still in its pot. Is now a good time to plant it in the garden? Do I need to net it to prevent birds from getting the fruit?

A You could plant the fig in the ground now by taking care not to damage the roots too much and watering it well. Transplant it on a cloudy day, if possible, and place it where it will get sunlight, room to grow and shelter from winter winds.

However, Negronne, or Violette de Bordeaux, as it is sometimes called, is a bit smaller than other figs and may be successfully grown in a large tub or pot as long as its needs for water and fertilizer are met. You could move it from the nursery container into something bigger, such as a half whiskey barrel.

Birds are not the main threat to your figs. When they ripen in September, hope for dry weather. High humidity and abundant moisture cause the delicate fruits to split open, ferment and sour. Overripe fruits draw wasps and hornets, so pick the fruits daily when ripening starts.

The beauty of growing a fig in a container is that you can move it to a dry area as the fruits ripen in late August. Allow the fig to remain outdoors until late November to ensure it is fully dormant before moving it to winter shelter. At that time, keep it in a cool location protected from extreme cold such as an unheated garage to prevent the roots from freezing.

Figs are worth growing because they are so delicate and perishable. The complexity of their sweet flavor is not found in dried versions of the fruit. It has no real insect or disease problems and can be grown without pesticides.

What kind of mulch is the best for the soil in the Washington area? My neighbor used bark wood mulch and soon had termites in her house.

Mulch is rarely a source of termite problems. Termites build galleries in larger pieces of wood and are not able to use mulch as a food source because of the small particle size and mulch's propensity to decompose quickly.

Mulch should be used sparingly -- apply it no more than a couple of inches deep -- and it should be as natural and unadulterated as possible. There is no single mulch that is good for all applications. Shredded leaves are tops in my opinion for perennials and annuals, and wood chips are good for trees and large shrubs.

One of my favorite mulches is pine bark. Because of its high levels of resin and tannins, it doesn't break down too rapidly, so it won't rob the soil of large amounts of nitrogen during the slow process of decay. Rapidly decaying mulches such as wood chips and sawdust may be such a draw on soil nitrogen that they harm plants, particularly if applied too thickly. Pine bark tends to float and doesn't work well on slopes. In such situations, opt for shredded hardwood or, better yet, hardwood bark. I find that dyed mulches clash with the natural colors in the landscape.

Scott Aker is a horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum.

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