Common fig (Ficus carica) is native to western Asia. A deciduous tree that produces edible fruits, it grows best in warm, dry climates. A few of its cultivars are adapted to grow in cooler locations such as Pennsylvania but still usually require some protection from the elements to be successful.
Choosing the Right Cultivar
Pennsylvania is within U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 7. The state is prone to harsh winters that include heavy freezes, particularly in its northern regions. Therefore, cultivars of common fig grown in the state must be cold-hardy varieties to survive outdoors. "Chicago Hardy" (Ficus carica "Chicago Hardy"), also known as "Bensonhurst Purple," is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 10 or 11 but requires protection when temperatures fall below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It produces sugary, violet-skinned fruits. "Brown Turkey" (Ficus carica "Brown Turkey") is hardy in USDA zones 7 through 9 without winter protection, and its roots can survive in USDA zones 5 through 6 with proper cold protection.
Planting and Providing Basic Care
The common fig grows best in almost neutral soil, with pH of about 6.5. It needs a location with full-sun exposure and adequate drainage. Because Pennsylvania's USDA zones are on the cusp of the common fig tree's lowest hardiness range, consider planting a common fig near a south-facing wall or building to provide protection. Ensure the tree is at least 20 feet from other trees and structures.
Plant common fig in early spring after the chance of frost has passed. Water the newly planted tree's soil with 5 gallons of water weekly during the first few weeks after planting. Thereafter, continue to water at the same rate during every growing season week in which less than 1 inch of rain falls.
When the tree produces new growth in spring, sprinkle 1/2 to 3/4 cup of an organic, all-purpose, granular, 5-5-5 fertilizer on the soil in a 5-foot-diameter circle around the tree's trunk. Gently fold the fertilizer into the soil. Repeat this application monthly during the growing season, stopping before August. Top-dress the planting area with 2 to 6 inches of mulch or compost in a 5-foot-diameter circle around the tree's trunk, but keep the mulch or compost a few inches from the trunk.
Harvesting the Fruit
Fig fruits ripen from mid September through frost in Pennsylvania. The fruits turn from green to brown or purple, depending on the tree's cultivar. They become soft, droop and slip easily from the branches when completely ripe. Fig fruits do not continue to ripen after they are removed from the tree. So remove only fruits that are fully ripe. They can stay fresh in a refrigerator for two or three days.
Helping the Tree Survive Winter
Perhaps the most important part of growing a common fig in Pennsylvania is overwintering the tree. Even the hardiest varieties cannot handle temperatures below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which commonly occur in many parts of the state. "Brown Turkey" may recover after a single season of frost damage, but other varieties may have permanent damage following one extreme winter.
Once the tree's yearly harvest is over, drive stakes in the ground in a circle around the tree, placing them 1 foot from the trunk, and wrap 3-foot-high wire fencing around the stakes. Fill the space between the fence and tree with insulating materials such as leaves and straw. Wrap the whole tree and fenced area in a layer of burlap and then a layer of plastic. Keep this wrapping in place until late winter, when the chance for extreme cold typically has passed.