Figs are an expensive delicacy in shops – even during harvest time – and the fruits are a real taste of summer. Their flavour is all about sunshine, as if they have absorbed it and converted every available ray into juicy fruit sugars. Trees can produce a huge crop of fruits between autumn and the onset of winter. Without restraint they can grow quite large but they do respond to tactical pruning and can be planted in pots or trained against the side of a house into spiraling decorative shapes. Figs are generally not cold hardy but there are varieties more suited to cooler parts of the country. Where there is a chance of late spring frosts, they are better grown in containers and protected accordingly. Container grown figs are good for small gardens and roof gardens too.
Companions Rue, marigold, strawberry
Quantity 1 tree per household
Brown Turkey large, juicy fruits with reddish brown skin and sweet flavour. Main crop ripens in late March. Grows into a large tree unless pruned hard to restrict growth.
Brunswick fruit have greenish bronze skins with sweet pink flesh. Harvest slightly earlier than Brown Turkey.
Mrs Williams main crop of large brownish-purple fruit ripen from late March to May.
Kerikeri Dwarf early crop of greenish-skinned fruits with golden flesh that ripen from early Feb into March.
Plant container grown plants year round.
Plant figs in full sun with protection from strong winds. Somewhere with a warm north-facing wall as a backdrop would be good. Without pruning figs can grow to about twice standard ceiling height and a bit wider. Their roots can be invasive unless restrained at planting time.
Figs are great in containers such as half barrels. This means you can put them in your sunniest spot – say on a deck or terrace - if your veg garden doesn’t happen to be big on suntraps.
Figs grow in most soils from clay to sandy but they are most at home in soil that is fertile and free draining. If your soil is sandy or slightly sticky and you want to improve it, you can add well-rotted compost to sandy soil and pumice or fine grit to sticky soil at the time of planting.
Soak plants in water before planting them.
Prepare the planting area. Soil should be weed-free and well dug through to at least a full spade’s depth. Add some well-rotted compost if necessary and mix with surrounding garden soil. Carefully remove fig plant from container by turning them upside down and holding the plant across the base of its stem with a spread hand. Tap the bottom of the container until the plant and its root ball come loose. Handle plants by the root ball to prevent damage to stems and shallow roots. Place fig plant in a hole that is just larger than the container it came in. Back fill around root ball making sure there are no air pockets. Water well and mulch with a finger-thick layer of compost, old straw, shredded bark or untreated sawdust.
To encourage fig plants to fruit well their roots are often constricted at the time of planting. This prevents plants from growing heaps of foliage at the expense of fruit. To do this, dig a large hole – about an arm’s length on each side and about the same depth. Line the sides of the hole with old patio slabs standing on edge. Pour cracked slabs and broken rubble in a layer across the base of the hole – about a hand’s length deep. Back fill with soil and then plant your fig as described above. If this all seems laborious then you can dig a hole and bury a large container with drainage holes in it and plant the fig into that. Every couple of years go around the outer edge of the planting pit with a sharp spade and push down into the ground so you sever any roots that have grown out of the side of the pit.
If planting in a container ensure it is large enough. Half barrels and large terracotta pots look good with figs and they are the right size too. Use a mixture of soil-based compost with plenty of grit and pumice mixed into it so you have a free-draining planting medium. Add slow release granules or sheep pellets before planting. When figs are grown in containers it pays to put them where you’ll be able to easily monitor them and ensure soil is moist – particularly in dry weather.
Keep plants weed free and maintain constant moisture levels – this is especially important in the weeks during which the fruit swell and ripen.
Feed: Maintain a nutrient rich layer of rotted compost as mulch around the base. To give plants a boost you can feed them with a sprinkling of blood and bone meal around outer edge of foliage in spring and summer. Feed plants with liquid comfrey every week once fruit have formed and until they ripen. Container grown plants will certainly benefit from these regular feeds – keep plants mulched at all times.
Flowering: Figs don’t have flowers in the usual sense. Their flower is concealed inside what we call the fruit. Edible or ‘common’ figs don’t need pollinating to produce ripe fruits.
The main ripening season is in autumn and winter but some varieties will also produce a modest early crop as spring moves into summer. Figs ripen on the tree and you’ll have to get to them quickly before the birds do. Trees can be protected with mesh – then again if you have a bumper crop you may feel like sharing it. Pick fruit individually by hand – look for the ones that appear to be flopping as if they can’t quite support their own weight. Ripe figs start to split at the top by the stem. You’ll soon get the feel for the ripe ones - they have just the right amount of ‘give’ to them when squeezed. Handle harvested fruit with care, placing them in a basket or bucket lined with soft cloth.
Storage: Figs don’t last long when fresh – maybe two or three days in the fridge before they start to collapse and seep sugary juice. They can be preserved in syrup, made into jams and they take well to being dried.
In spring usual fruit tree maintenance applies with dead, diseased and crossing stems that are rubbing each other being removed.
Pruning of established trees is generally carried out after harvest and stems are cut back and thinned to prevent over-crowding that can shade fruit and stop them from ripening to full sweetness. Keep the centre of established trees open to ensure good air-flow. Remove any un-ripened figs that are larger than a pea at the end of harvest.
Container grown trees are usually trimmed to a half standard with a short stem and goblet shape formed from a series of upward pointing branches around a cleared centre. To prune a container grown fig:
1. Remove all side branches until tree reaches about chest height.
2. Pinch out the growing tip.
3. Allow half a dozen shoots within a forearm’s length of the tip to grow and develop into branches. These will form the open shape of the tree’s head.
4. In early spring when tree is still dormant prune all branches back by a third.
Figs can be trained as fans and elaborate swirling patterns that look great in winter when stems are bare of foliage. This is an involved process that requires specialized reading.
Birds are your number one problem once fruit start to ripen. Rust can be a problem in areas with warm humid summers – try and improve ventilation. Passion vine hoppers may crowd tender growing tips in dry summers.