Growing a Bumper Crop of Figs

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Ripe figs

My aunt has an old fig tree clinging on for dear life in her tiny suntrap courtyard. It’s a gnarled, pretty ugly thing and it certainly doesn’t get any special treatment. But here’s the thing – it has immense character and never fails to produce a sumptuous gift of succulent figs every summer. I’m sure my aunt will be the first to admit she’s no gardener. But ironically, it’s this fact that has probably helped her fig to flourish!

Figs don’t exactly thrive on neglect, but they don’t like to be fussed over either. Overly rich soil can lead to masses of leaf growth at the expense of fruits. A generous, clutter-free planting area will encourage far-reaching roots that only serve to promote even more rambunctious growth but still fewer fruits. Figs need reining in. If you can do that, then you too will be in line for a repeat performance of delicious fruits.

“Growing
Figs fruit best when their roots are constrained, so are ideal for growing in containers

Growing Fig Trees in Containers

The simplest way to grow figs is in containers. This naturally restricts root growth and also means that in temperate climates, where hard frosts can damage the embryonic fruits, it’s easy to move plants under cover for winter. Figs are normally sold in containers anyhow, so planting them is just a matter of moving them up one container size, filling in the gaps with a soil-based potting mix that both supports and anchors young trees in place.

It’s worth reinforcing, so forgive my insistence: figs really don’t need lots of room at the roots. So move them on to the next size of container no more frequently than once every two years. Avoid the temptation to ‘swamp’ rootballs in over-sized containers. Grow figs in full sunshine – a sunny patio or against a sun-drenched wall is ideal, especially as the fruits ripen. At the end of the season, once the leaves have dropped, lift or roll containers into a frost-free greenhouse or shed until spring.

“Fan-trained
Grow figs against a sunny wall for best results

Growing Figs in Planting Pits

Figs look stunning planted against a sunny wall where they may be trained into luxuriant-looking fans. To restrict root growth in this instance you’ll need to use a ‘planting pit’. To make one, dig out a square hole 60cm (2ft) deep and wide then line the walls with vertical slabs, leaving about 3cm (1in) poking up above ground level. Now fill the base of the hole with 20cm (8in) of compacted rubble, stones or bricks. Roots will have a hard time breaking free from that, but should still enjoy good drainage courtesy of all that rubble. Planting pits should be made at least 20cm (8in) away from the base of the wall so roots are clear of any rain shadow.

To plant, use the excavated soil, enriched with some well-rotted organic matter such as compost to help plants establish in the first instance. You could also use a soil-based potting mix. Regularly spaced horizontal wires, every 30cm (1ft) or so, will offer support for the young branches to be tied to.

Fig Tree Care

Prune figs in early spring then again in early summer. The first pruning is to remove any unwanted growth, dead stems or generally weak branches. Then in early summer new growth is pinched out to encourage bushier growth and, for wall-trained trees, a fuller fan shape.

“Ripening

Right at the start of the season, a general-purpose organic fertilizer is a welcome way to wake trees back up, with an additional blanket of well-rotted compost or manure laid around ground-grown plants for good measure. Plants need regular watering during the summer, particularly as the fruits start to swell and ripen. Apply a potassium-based liquid feed – tomato fertilizer is perfect – to give plants a boost during this period.

How to Ripen Figs

In warm climates you may get as many as three crops of figs in any single year. Lucky you! For temperate-climate gardeners like me the best you can aspire to is one.

Figs first form as tiny embryonic fruits. In cooler climates if these haven’t swollen and ripened by fall I’m afraid they’re not going to. Any figs left on the tree at this stage won’t cross the finishing line and will drop off at the first frost. It means that any figs larger than a pea should be removed before the end of fall. Those left on the tree will then overwinter to form next summer’s fruits.

“Figs
Figs served warm with yogurt and a drizzle of honey are irresistible!

The trees themselves are reasonably hardy, but the fruits are not. For this reason you’ll need to protect outdoor figs from the worst of the frosts. Row cover fabric, or straw or bracken held in place by netting, should help to keep the young fruits safe. Remove this protection towards the end of spring as the trees burst back into life.

Sunshine is crucial for successful ripening, which is why it’s best to reserve the sunniest corner of your garden for these warmth-loving fruits. They are ready to enjoy when the fully coloured fruits soften and point downwards. A tiny bead of nectar at the end of the fruit is your cue to get picking.

The most decadent way I’ve found to indulge in figs is to warm them in the oven with a drizzle of honey before serving them on a cooling pillow of creamy, Greek-style yogurt with all that honey-juice goodness poured over the top. Garden-grown figs are absolutely divine – whether grown yourself or scrounged from a long-suffering auntie!

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Comments

 
"Very irrefutable Last behalf my gig tree grew, the other half was lacking leaves all summer,let's hope this year is better."
Glenn on Sunday 17 February 2019
"I wintered the fig tree outside WITH INSULATING PROTECTION as described on the web. In March, it looked like a dead tree stump and my husband wanted to cut it off at the ground. I kept hearing the Secret Garden song in my head, "When a thing is wic, it will grow!"…. I just thought it might be alive. So now its August 20 and the fig tree has regrown to its last summer size and is covered with baby fruit. With a fig tree, you should possibly never give up. Sing to yourself and the tree…… and hope!!! "
Gale Boutwell on Tuesday 20 August 2019
" Hi Gale. So pleased that your fig sprung back to life for you. And it appears it will reward you with a delicious crop of fruits too!"
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 22 August 2019
"My small 3' tall fig trees are full of figs but won't ripen- so sad, but will try again next year. Question- short growing season here in Wyoming but I have my figs in a heated greenhouse that I turn it off at the end of October what should I do with the fig trees? Seems like an abrupt end to their happy warm time in a greenhouse, should I bring them into the house or right to the garage for wintering? Could they stay in the house all winter? "
Tara on Wednesday 2 October 2019
"Hi Tara. Figs are hardy down to zone 6. Most of Wyoming is sits in zone 5 or 4. There are some more cold-tolerant varieties, such as 'Celeste', which would be suitable. If you bought your tree locally then I would imagine it would be a variety suited to your climate, but it may be worth checking this. You should bring your fig inside - into a garage would be fine, but if you can keep the greenhouse above 20 Fahrenheit then that would be fine too, though possibly a costly exercise. They will drop their leaves in the garage, owing to the lack of light, but keep the potting soil moist throughout winter (but not overly wet!). You can bring your fig back into the greenhouse once it has reliably warmed up, then after a few weeks and after the last frost date, back outside."
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 3 October 2019

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