How to grow figs
How to grow figs – after reading this I hope that you’ll try it yourself!
Figs are often regarded as an exotic fruit and many assume that they are difficult to grow.
This is not the case as I’ll explain here.
A bit of background
I used to get a good crop of figs on my wall trained ‘Brown Turkey’ every year at Cleeve, near Bristol.
However, I had to leave that plant behind when I moved.
Fortunately I took cuttings when the tree was dormant and have a young plant now established here at my new garden in South Somerset.
Figs are perfectly hardy in the south of England but the fruit ripens better if the tree is trained on a sunny wall.
And figs enjoy the Mediterranean climate of southern Europe, North Africa, California, etc. As our climate warms here in the UK we will be able to grow figs more successfully and colder parts of Britain.
So how did I get my tree to produce delicious fruits so often? Well actually quite easily !
Figs are easy enough to grow and very vigorous too.
Given good deep soil and plenty of feed they will romp away and grow very large. Then you will get masses of big leaves and little if any fruit!
And so to reduce this vigour and concentrate your tree’s efforts into fruit production, the roots must be starved and restricted.
Containing the roots
My ‘Brown Turkey’ fig at Cleeve was growing in a very shallow raised bed. It lay on top of a sheet of limestone rock!
This bed was filled with poor top soil. It had no fertiliser for more than 20 years!
Drought and shallow soil doesn’t worry figs and indeed they seem to thrive on it!
For the rooted cutting and have here now I, constructed a root constricting box.
This is a bottomless box but the bottom is filled with builder’s rubble.
On top of this I put poor soil to keep the roots in check. And into this well drained soil I planted my new plant.
It’s now established but not yet fruiting.
Figs like to grow in a warm sheltered place and so are often planted against a south or west facing wall.
The wall absorbs the sun’s heat and then radiates that heat back to the fig tree at night.
To grow figs well it helps to do some pruning.
I cut off any shoots that grow directly away from the wall and can’t easily be tied back to fill a space against the wall.
Training your fig tree so that it is fan shaped maximizes the amount of sun that reaches each branch.
When visiting the superb Babylonstoren Garden in South Africa I was very impressed to see fig trees meticulously trained into fan shapes.
But to maximise the amount of sun that reaches the fruits, these fans were angled back at roughly 45 degrees so that they were at right angles to the sun!
So with a combination of root restriction, starving of nutrients and training on a warm wall, I get fruit!
But there is more to it than that!
A fig tree tries to produce two crops of delicious fruits in a year. But sadly our UK summers are much too short and cool for that.
Consequently we need to remove one crop and concentrate all the tree’s energies on producing the other.
So every late autumn and as soon as the leaves have fallen off, I remove all immature mini-figs.
The ones that I take off are those bigger than my little finger nail. These larger ones are just too big to go through a cold winter.
If left they get frosted whereas the tiny ones get through undamaged.
In spring these little ones I’ve left grow rapidly and ripen throughout the summer.
Insects and Figs
Figs rarely have diseases to worry them and only one important pest.
The only pest to worry fig gardeners is the common wasp.
Common wasps [Vespula vulgaris] love ripe figs as much as we do. Sometimes they beat us to them!
Regular picking helps to minimise this problem but I have found that the use of a Waspinator works well.
The Waspinator mimics a real wasp nest and, because wasps are territorial, this will deter real wasps from the area.
You simply hang the Waspinator up in your tree and let this decoy do the work!
Alternatively you could cover your tree with insect proof netting.
Have you heard that figs are pollinated by wasps? Whilst this is true for some species, the varieties that we grow in Britain tend to be parthenocarpic. That means they can ‘set’ fruit without being pollinated.
No wall, no problem!
If you don’t have a tall south or west facing wall you can grow figs successfully in pots.
The pot will restrict root growth.
Fill the pot with John Innes No 1. potting compost. This is the John Innes potting compost with the least fertiliser added to it. As for watering; just water when the tree begins to look stressed!
You’ll need a big pot of 45-50 cm diameter.
I find that terracotta pots tend to produce the best results. Figs also look good in terracotta pots.
During very cold winters it’s wise to wrap the pot to protect the tender roots from frost damage. I’d advise at least moving it into a sheltered corner next to a sunny wall.
Of course once the leaves have dropped off the plant doesn’t need light until next spring. And so you can move the pot into a frost free garage or outbuilding.
Varieties to grow
There are several varieties of fig suitable for growing in Britain.
‘Brown Turkey’ AGM is hard to beat as the RHS Award of Garden Merit indicates.
Incidentally this AGM suffix is always worth looking for on any plant. It denotes a really good garden plant that has satisfied a very demanding group of plant experts. It can be relied upon to perform well!
Blackmoor Nursery is a very reputable supplier that I’ve bought hundreds of plants from and they offer Brown Turkey fig. They also offer a couple of other interesting looking varieties that I haven’t yet tried. Details here.
I’ve also bought many trees and fruit plants from Frank P Matthews tree nursery. They currently offer more choice including ‘Ice Crystal’ which has very attractive foliage. See what they have to offer here.
I love to eat figs for breakfast or for lunch.
To make a delicious salad I use Jamie Oliver’s recipe.
It’s what he calls the easiest sexiest salad in the world!
You’ll need mozzarella cheese, prosciutto ham and baby salad leaves or basil from the garden. Top it off with an olive oil and local honey dressing!
Here’s the recipe. Enjoy!
You might also enjoy reading about other intensively trained fruit trees here.