Fig stats/requirements at a glance
|Ease of Raising:||2/5||Weekly check-ups|
|Water:||2-3/5||Every second day/bi-weekly|
|Sun:||4/5||Full sun, will tolerate some shade|
|Training:||2-5/5||Minimal to maintenance pruning|
|Time to Harvest:||5/5||Forever, 5+ months|
|Frost Hardiness:||3/4||Very hardy once established, can’t cope black frost|
|Most Problematic Nemesis:||Birds, overwatering, fruit fly|
|Container Plant:||Yes, needs roots restricted in the garden as well|
Figs are an ancient food source and were one of the first fruit trees cultivated along with the olive and grapevine. Known for its adaptability and high productivity whilst being easy to prune and maintain. This makes the fig tree a valuable addition to the edible garden and a rewarding long term investment. There is almost no limit to the use of figs; they can be eaten fresh, canned, dried made into an assortment of preserves. Foodies find them lovely with cheese. They can be roasted and added to coffee (Viennese coffee) for an interesting twist.
The fig has a dual-origin, one being in the Mediterranean basin (wild pips found at Neolithic sites, 7800-6600 BC) and the other being Western Asia & Asia minor. The fig has been cultivated in several regions since ancient times, Mesopotamia & Egypt since 2750 BC and Asia since 3000 BC. From there it traveled to England and the New World during the 1600s. It only reached California in the 1800s.
The fig is traditionally cultivated in subtropical and warm temperate regions, but several cold-resistance varieties are available. The major commercial producers of the fig are; Spain, Italy, Turkey, Middle Eastern Countries, Iran, Greece, Portugal, USA, North Africa and South Africa.
The fig belongs to an eccentric family of fruit trees, Moraceae, which includes the Mulberry. The family produce latex (milky sap) to which some people are allergic and their fruiting characteristics are peculiar.
There are four types of figs, all belonging to the Ficus genus.
- Caprifig = requires pollination by a co-evolved fig wasp species
- Smyrna figs = can be cross-pollinated by caprifigs (caprification)
- San Pedro = an intermediate variety
- Common fig = cultivated variety which contains only female flowers and doesn’t require pollination
The most widely cultivated fig is known as the common fig (Ficus carica) and produce figs through parthenocarpy (meaning no fertilisation is required and the fruit is technically sterile).
Fig trees are deciduous becoming dormant in winter. Dormant trees are planted during winter in a sunny, well drained position. They can be grown in many soil types (expect extremely alkaline or acid soil) and they are mildly salt tolerant (grown near the coast). Although they are drought tolerant, fruit yields and quality benefits from regular watering and fertilisation. Fruit will drop from the tree during hot and dry conditions if it is not supplemented with water. It is important to choose a variety well suited to your local climate to ensure optimum growth and cropping.
In the garden:
Figs can be grown either in the soil in the garden or in a container. Whichever methods you choose both require the restriction of the fig trees’ roots. The shallow roots are vigorous and will cause damage to buildings and underground pipes.
Large boxes are dug into the garden and lined non-toxic cement or bricks. The fig can be grown against a sturdy wall in cool climates to take advantage of the re-radiated heat for cropping. In warm climate it can be grown in an open site, where it is fertilised twice a year (once in spring and early autumn of the growing season) and watered deeply every fortnight. Mulching assists with retaining soil moisture, keeps down weeds and reduces nematodes.
In large pots:
Figs in large containers will require more regular watering and feeding. Mine is grown in a pot and I found that it responds well to a feed every two weeks with ½ strength liquid fertiliser during the growing season and once a month feed (1/2 strength liquid feed, Biogrow Biotrissol). I give it water every two days; I fill the pot with water until the saucer is full and only re-water once the saucer is dry. Figs in pot will grow slower, be smaller and produce less than those grown in the garden.
Figs crop twice a year. The first crop (berba) is early in the season (spring) and a few small fruits are borne on old wood (last season’s growth). The second crop (main) is produced on new wood (this season’s growth) during summer and the fruits are larger and of higher quality. It is common practice to remove the berba crop to redirect the nutrient towards the main. Simply rub off any mini-figs that form during spring, if you have late frosts, the frost will remove them for you. The tree is frost hardy once it becomes established (1-2 years), but the fruits aren’t. Fig trees take 1-2 years after planting to crop and will continue cropping for 50+ years. The first 15 years are the most productive after which the crops will become lighter. The trees can be 2-10 meters tall with a wide natural spread.
Pests and disease
Fig trees are fairly resilient, but can suffer from mosaic virus, nematodes, scale and stem borers. Beetles and fruit flies can enter through wide-eye (ostiole) varieties where a weeping eye is indication of infection. Small-eye varieties are preferable in areas with fruit fly/beetle problems.
Mine hasn’t has much problems with pest or disease, but I have a major problem of keeping the birds from eating my figs. I have devised a fruit frost-fleece shield that has been successful at hiding my fruits.
Other Fig Tips
Figs do well with pruning and are very forgiving of pruning mistakes. They can also be pruned back hard when old trees require rejuvenation. I would recommend not pruning young trees, especially pot-bound trees, for the first 5-10 years. Also pruning only needs to be for size control and the three Ds (dead, damaged or diseased). This means that a fig tree can be pruned to fit in any sized garden.
Figs can be left in a free-open form or pruned to espaliers/fans along walls to increase the amount of produce for space occupied. Fans/espaliers against wall in cold climates are especially beneficial. Allow the fig to develop several side shoots to increase the amount of fruits carried.
Figs aren’t too fond of humidity and fruits will split from too much watering/rain.
Cold climate (frosts less than 120 days apart) growers might have a different method of fig growing and harvesting. Figs are cold resistance once established, some varieties can survive temperatures as low as -11oC (12oF) and can be frozen to the ground. They are pruned to two main branches and are low of the ground (1 meter) and cropping in alternated between the two. The crop produced ‘this’ year will only ripen in the next and is overwintered on the tree by thatching it with bracken or fleece.
Dormancy can break during winter hot spells, which can lead to damage when cold conditions return.
Harvesting & Storing
Figs are ripe once they are fully coloured, slightly soft, bend at the neck and some varieties’ ostiole will open/split when ripe. Figs will only ripen on the tree; immature fruits will not ripen indoors. Ripe figs are very perishable and need to be eaten within 2-3 days after harvesting.
Dried fruits are an excellent preserving alternative and can keep for 6-8 months. Figs can be dried in the sun at no extra cost to you, else they make wonderful jams. Fresh figs have a 10% sugar content whereas dried figs have a 50% sugar content which assists with preservation of the fruit.
Figs are easily propagated by taking cuttings of branches (20 cm) that are one year old. These are treated with the appropriate rooting hormone and potted up. They can be planted out the next winter by which they would have developed strong roots.
First I would like to bring your attention to the fig’s peculiar fruits, which are not true fruits at all. Figs are actually a flesh inside-out cluster of flowers known as a synconium. The interfloserence (flowering structures) are modified to infrutesence, where female only flowers are contained within the fruit. These swell without pollination or fertilisation in a process known as parthenocarpy which results in seedless fruit.
Wild relatives on the other hand need a little help to crop and produce fertile seed. Figs have a millions-of-years old relationship with specialised fig wasps. These wasps have co-evolved with figs to only pollinate figs and without each other they will surely perish. The infructesence is pollinated when a fertilised female wasp, Blastophaga psenes, enters the fig through the ostiole. Ostiole size is related to the size of the female wasp, which is quite the squeeze to get through, breaking off her wings and results in the female not being able to get out again. She lays her eggs in the under-developed flowers and by walking over several (male and female flowers); she effectively pollinates the fig. Egg-containing flowers swell and form ‘galls’ containing the developing wasps. Wingless males hatch before females and fertilise the females whilst they are inside their galls. Males then chew holes through the fig wall and die. Mature fertilised females then leave through these tunnels, collecting pollen on their bodies along the way and fly out in search of a new fig host. This means that severe inbreeding occurs in fig wasp populations, but they still remain viable and thrive, which has puzzled geneticists for years making them popular subjects of study.
I have a White Genoa: It bares green medium-sized fruits with excellent flavour and is suited to Mediterranean and subtropical climates. It doesn’t like heavy rainfall and as such fruits split under these conditions. I haven’t pruned it as it is still very small, but it is coming along nicely. In its first year of cropping it produced a whole crop of 3 figs, the next year we got 13. Hopefully I can work this up to a good bunch, enough for drying and jam! Yum!
The Brown Turkey variety is a superior one for most gardens (especially South Africa and Australia), but the Cape Brown/White are also very suitable for South Africa. Additional recommended varieties for SA include; Adam, Black Velvet, Preston Prolific, Sugar and Adriatic.
Cool climate varieties would include Marseille and Negronne, which can be grown as fans or espaliers against sunny walls.
For fig pruning in to fans and espaliers (as well as pruning of other fruit trees) I recommend the following book: The Ultimate Practical Guide to Pruning and Training – How to Prune and Train Trees… by Richard Bird.