UK summers may not be up to Mediterranean standards but you can still enjoy a hefty crop of home-grown figs, says Anthony Bennett
Served with ice cream or steeped in brandy, there is little to compete with the sweetness and aroma of these delicious fruits. Figs have been grown in Britain since Tudor times and can thrive in our cooler climate given a sunny and sheltered position. There are a relatively limited number of varieties available in the UK but all of them are tried and tested for our shorter summers. Even better, the plants are self-fertile so they will pollinate and set fruit without a helping hand from gardeners or insects.
Tree fruits such as apples and plums are often grafted onto the lower section of another plant (the rootstock) to control their size and vigour. Fig trees are usually grown on their own roots instead, but are planted in containers or in lined pits within the ground to limit their size. This will restrict the tree’s natural tendency towards lush, leafy growth and encourage the formation of fruits. Figs can be grown like this against a warm, south-facing wall or on a sunny patio.
If you think figs are a tricky crop then think again. Given the correct winter protection and careful watering and pruning it is easily possible to achieve a satisfactory harvest. The embryonic fruits are formed a full year before they are ready to pick and so will need shelter from the worst of the winter weather. In southern and western parts of Britain trees can be grown outside with little fuss so long as the local microclimate is warm and sunny. Gardeners further north will need to exercise a little more caution, opting for container specimens that can be moved into a cool greenhouse during the winter months.
Container-grown figs are best trained as freestanding bushes. The size of their final container will be about 38-45cm and in most cases this will need to be moved to the cover of a greenhouse or unheated garage for the winter. Choose a container with adequate drainage holes and use a soil-based John Innes No. 3 compost to pot up new plants. An enclosed patio drenched in sun would be the best possible position for your fig trees.
Those with a suitable south or southwestfacing wall can try growing them as a wallhugging fan-trained tree. Here warmth and light will be reflected back into the framework of the tree to encourage ripening. The roots will need to be restricted and to do this a planting pit is made by digging out a 60cm square hole, which is then lined to effectively create a sunken container. Cover the sides of the hole with tight-fitting paving slabs, then fill the bottom 20cm of the hole with brick rubble, broken tiles or similar before thoroughly compacting it into the base. Backfill the hole with clean garden soil, enriched with a couple of generous handfuls of bone meal. Figs love free-draining conditions and in most circumstances this mixture will suffice, but further drainage material may help if you’re growing on heavy clay – mix one part rubble to two parts soil. Wall-trained figs will need planting holes positioned about 25cm from the wall.
Most fig trees will be bought as two-year-old plants which will have either a single stem or a few sideshoots. Late winter is the best time to put them into position although specimens bought as container-raised trees may be planted at any time of the year. Set out the plants you plan to wall-train within their prepared planting pits and place them in the ground at the same depth as they were at in their nursery pots. If plants are pot-bound, gently tease away a few of the roots to encourage them out into the prepared soil. Before planting, use vine eyes to place horizontal wire supports onto the wall, spacing them 30-45cm apart.
Growing figs in containers is by far the easiest method. Look for plants that have three to four branches emerging from a main stem about 38cm above ground level, as these will be quicker to train into a neat bush shape. Plant them up into a suitable container using John Innes No. 3 compost but leave a 7-10cm gap from the top of the compost level to the container rim. This will capture water and allow it to soak in gradually, while providing enough room to add a top dressing of organic mulch in future years.
The formative pruning of a fig tree varies depending on how you intend to grow the plant: as a containerised bush, or as a fan-trained tree. Container figs are very simple to keep in shape. In the first winter following planting cut back all the stems by half to encourage a compact plant. In the following years the main pruning session takes place in spring when any branches that are crossing or growing towards the centre of the tree are removed to create a good, open shape. In each case cut them back to an outward-facing bud. Branches that have grown too long can be cut right back to 5cm in length to stimulate new growth. This growth should then be pinched out to five or six leaves in June to encourage fruit formation.
Fan-trained figs will need pruning the March following planting. Single-stemmed trees should be cut back to a bud about 38cm from the ground to encourage new sideshoots to develop. Select two of these and pinch out the others, tying them into the wire supports at 45 degree angles to form a Y-shaped framework. Figs with side stems on planting should have the central stem cut out and the sideshoots shortened by a third before these are tied in to the wire supports. Tie in new shoots as they grow to fill out the fan, spacing them evenly to create a well-spaced framework. Established fan trees will need shoots that are growing into or away from the wall rubbed out early in the growing season. As with containerised figs, new growth on fan-trained trees should be pinched back to five or six leaves in June.
Container figs require regular watering during the growing season, especially as the fruits begin to swell. This is also the time when birds can peck at the fruits, so keep netting on hand to cover the tree over at the first sign of attack. Regularly check your nets to ensure birds do not become trapped. As the fruits develop the plants will be using up a lot of energy and nutrients. Give them a liquid feed that’s high in potash every few weeks to help them cope – a tomato fertiliser or liquid seaweed will do the trick and can be applied until the fruits are almost fully ripe. A mulch of well-rotted compost can also be spread over the top of containers in spring.
Figs grown against a wall will also need a very generous mulching each spring, applied at the rate of a bucketful every square metre, or about 7cm deep. Not only will this lock-in valuable moisture, it will reduce the number of weeds around the base of the plant.
Container figs will need re-potting every few years. Do this in stages until the final pot size of 45cm diameter is reached. From then on simply tease away old compost from the outside of the rootball and trim away any older, thick roots before re-potting the plant into the container and feeding fresh compost into the sides and top.
Depending on the variety you choose to grow, figs will be ready for eating anytime from late July to September. Not all plants produce the purple fruits usually found in shops, some figs will be green when ripe. Your cue to begin harvesting is when the stalk attaching the fruit to the stem goes limp and the fig hangs down. Other indications include slight splits in the skin and in some cases a sweet, sticky secretion towards the base of the fruit. Make sure you check the trees regularly and harvest the fruits as soon as they are ready or else they quickly start to rot.
Fresh figs, still warm from the summer sun, are a real treat but if you can’t enjoy them immediately they can be kept for up to two weeks in a cool place. Fruits may also be dried on trays in the airing cupboard (turned daily for a week), on a very low heat in the oven for an hour or two, or in a food dryer.
Begin preparing planting pits. Dig out pits 60cm square and line them with paving slabs and rubble. Doing this on a cold day will warm you up!
February and March are the best months for planting new fig trees. Make sure you choose a position in the garden that's as sheltered as possible.
Continue planting new fig trees. Carry out early spring pruning, removing any badlyplaced branches or frost-damaged stems.
Excess fruits may drop from established trees – don't be alarmed, this is perfectly normal. By the end of the month the earliest fig varieties will be ready to harvest.
The main month for picking figs. Look for the tell-tale signs that they are ready – the fruits should be pointing downwards, and they may ooze sap from their 'eye'.
Finish picking your figs and dry any excess. Thin out next year's crop by pinching out the embryo fruits that are larger than a grape.
Figs are incredible plants with a highly unusual cropping habit. Two to three crops are borne on each tree over the course of a year but in our cool climate only one of these – the set of fruits ready for picking in late summer – will ever develop to maturity. The figs British gardeners enjoy will have been formed the previous year, overwintering in the leaf axils towards the tips of young shoots to swell for a summer harvest. By September next year’s crop will have been initiated and the embryo fruits will be anything up to the size of grapes. Any fruitlets larger than this will have to be removed, as they will be highly unlikely to survive the winter and will only rot on the tree.
Some varieties of fig are suitable for growing in the average greenhouse, so long as root growth is kept restricted. Bear in mind, however, that the large leaves can cast a significant amount of shade. In such a warm and coddled environment you may be lucky enough to get two crops a year – the second in autumn from fruits formed earlier that spring. If you’re expecting flowers to appear on your fig tree then you could be waiting a while – the blooms are enclosed within the fruit and will not be visible.
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Figs: Varieties To Try
Also known as the 'Bornholm' fig, this hardy Swedish variety has been known to survive temperatures down to -5°C. It produces heavy yields of sweet, juicy fruits each September and has a better tolerance for damp conditions than many southern figs.
The most popular, reliable and heavy-cropping fig to grow in the UK's cool climate. This variety has won an RHS Award of Garden Merit. The large fruits ripen in late August to early September, developing a beautiful reddish-brown hue. The red flesh has a sweet flavour that will transform any dessert.
Not quite as popular as ‘Brown Turkey’ but worth growing if you want to extend the season as it crops at least two weeks earlier. The fruits are also considerably larger and plentiful. Each king-sized fig will ripen to a greenyellow colour but slice it open and you’ll reveal a sweet-tasting pink flesh.
It may be a little more sensitive to the cold than ‘Brown Turkey’, but ‘White Marseilles’ is worth growing for its pale green fruits and almost translucent flesh. The figs are sweet and juicy and plenty of them are produced. If you have a suitable spot, then this is a great choice for wall-training.
If you’re nervous about winter frosts then pick ‘Violetta’, which can survive temperatures down to an incredible -20°C. Expect to enjoy a good crop of very large fruits that take on a red blush on ripening. The flesh is deliciously sweet and, of course, very tasty!
This eye-catching variety produces striped wood that bears green- and yellow-striped fruit! The deliciously sweet figs are borne in proliferation but need the shelter of a greenhouse or conservatory to ripen fully. It should crop by late July, making it a very early variety to kick-start the season.
Different varieties of fig have different tolerances to cold but to be on the safe side it is wise to offer plants some winter protection, particularly if they are growing in containers with their root zone raised above ground level. The small fruitlets towards the tips of the stems will be particularly vulnerable to a prolonged frosty snap and will need covering to guarantee they come through the winter unscathed.
If possible, bring container-grown figs under the shelter of a cold greenhouse, conservatory or unheated garage from about November until the buds begin to break at the end of April or early May. If this isn’t an option then move containers next to the shelter of a house wall and away from cold winds. Wrap the pot up in bubble wrap or sacking and then cover the branches with horticultural fleece, packing in straw or bracken beneath this covering to provide further insulation from the cold. Figs grown against a wall can be covered in a doubled-up layer of fleece, which should be tied securely into place so that the wind cannot lift it off. Gradually remove the cover over a few weeks in late April before the buds burst into leaf.