Like most people in Britain during the middle part of the twentieth century, my only encounter with a fig was as a dried fruit consumed at Christmas and I never saw a fig tree while a boy. However, with the advent of inexpensive foreign holidays I finally stumbled upon them while on a Greek island just off the coast of Turkey. It was the smell of the fig tree that first aroused my curiosity, a smell so elusive yet powerful that I had to investigate where it was coming from. I finally tracked it down to a patch of rather forlorn looking trees on a patch of waste ground that were slowly being eaten by a donkey that was tethered nearby. The leaves were distinctive looking but I didn’t recognise them, neither did the tree have any flowers or fruit on it to give a clue as to its identity.
The mystery was solved for me one evening a couple of days later when the place I was staying at produced a huge plate of figs, laid on fig leaves, for dessert. The figs tasted heavenly and the memory of eating them on a balcony overlooking the Aegean Sea with the sun slowly setting is something that will always remain with me.
Years later I became interested in growing fruit, particularly those less commonly seen in the UK, and figs were an obvious candidate. At first I found that growing ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Brunswick’ figs (the latter being favoured by Justin Brooke
as the hardiest cultivar available to him) in pots worked but left something to be desired. The problem being that potted figs require constant attention to watering if they are to retain their fruit as a drought stressed fig will soon shed its entire crop. Potted figs are also prone to be blown over by the wind unless a heavy pot and soil based potting compost are used to give stability.
Only having a small greenhouse with barely enough spare room for a small potted fig meant that I had to grow my figs outdoors and be content with a single breba crop of fruit. All the usual books on how to grow figs here suggested that this approach could be problematic without the protection of a greenhouse or sheltered wall. The answer was to adopt Mr Brookes
’ recommendations and plant the figs outdoors and grow them in a similar way to that used for apples and pears. As my garden soil was heavy clay this approach worked well and the figs prospered and fruited.
My initial fear of the trees dying due to frost damage proved to be unfounded and they continue to come through the British winters unscathed. However, it must be borne in mind that it rarely gets very cold in my area of the East Midlands of England, commonly to -7° or -8° C in a bad winter and usually our cold weather only lasts a few days at a time before milder weather blows in from the Atlantic. It appears that most figs will tolerate a temperature down to somewhere in the region of -11° C before die-back occurs, but the exact temperature varies depending on cultivar and the state of the plant.
I have continued to successfully grow figs in the way outlined by Justin Brooke
and have also tried other fig cultivars unknown to him to see if there’s anything superior to the traditional figs grown in Britain. My experiences are outlined below.
The area where I grow my figs had previously been used as a place where pheasants were reared. Consequently the ground was well fertilised with their droppings and I found that my figs initially grew quite strongly and weren’t very fruitful. However, as time has passed the growth has become less vigorous but far more fruitful, presumably due to the excess nitrates being washed out of the soil. If overly fertile soil is a problem a quick solution is to add fresh sawdust to deliberately cause ‘nitrogen-robbery’. Of course this is normally something you’re told to avoid, but in the case of figs this vice may become a virtue.
I tried the ‘bark inversion’ technique to dwarf figs but found that it didn’t work as well as suggested. However, the details in the book were rather sketchy and I’ve recently discovered that once the bark strip has been removed it’s essential to scrape the underlying wood to remove all traces of residual phloem tissue. This is because any remaining phloem is still the right way up and will allow the free passage of sap to the roots and thus prevent the restriction that causes dwarfing. I intend to try this technique again but pay much more attention to cleaning away any remaining phloem.
The routine picking off of any fruit large enough to be recognised as a fig in early winter is important. Although the tip of the branch, the fruiting part of the fig plant, is rarely harmed by winter frost here, it’s very prone to being killed by Botrytis which begins on immature main crop figs and then spreads into the branch.
Figs are prone to suckering from the base, some cultivars being worse than others in this respect. It is important to remove any suckers as soon as they appear by twisting and pulling them off. If left for any time the suckers become tough and woody and more difficult to remove, often leading to them being cut off at ground level. Unfortunately this tends to encourage yet more suckering so be vigilant and pull them off early. If suckers are left in place you end up with an untidy looking plant which may impede attempts to place rabbit guards around the trunk.
Although the white sap of figs is slightly caustic (it was used by the Romans to remove warts) it’s a mistake to think that this makes the plant unappetising to wildlife. The fact is rabbits and voles are partial to the bark of figs so always protect the base of the stem with a tree guard or wire mesh.
The main pests of ripe figs, apart from small boys out ‘scrumping’, are birds and wasps. The fig’s thin skin is no defence against the sharp beak of a bird and once the sweet fruit has been sampled you can be sure the feathered thieves will return again and again. They rarely eat a complete fruit, appearing to be quite happy to try them all, but once pecked the fruit becomes a magnet for hungry wasps who’ll devour everything until all that’s left is a scrap of skin hanging on the branch. It’s difficult to combat these two pests apart from growing under glass or using netting so my solution is to try harvest ripe figs as frequently as possible. It’s also a good idea to pick nearly ripe fruit and keep it a day or two before eating it to ensure sound, unblemished fruit. Tree ripened fruit always has the best quality but unfortunately you may not be the one to enjoy it!
The usual three cultivars grown in the UK ('Brunswick', 'Brown Turkey' & 'White Marseilles') are popular because they fruit well here. All produce a reasonable quantity of early breba figs which begin to ripen here around the middle of August. Main crop figs will also form on this year’s growth but won’t ripen before winter arrives, usually in late October/early November. However, I found that the Californian cultivar ‘Desert King
’ (syn. ‘King’) not only sets a very regular and heavy breba crop but is also extremely sweet and delicious. There is no main crop at all in my experience but if I had to grow just one fig this is the one I’d choose. The only slight criticism is that its figs are green instead of the more popular dark blue/black. However this is really only of importance to those who eat with their eyes!
This year (2009), although we didn’t have a hot summer, very mild weather continued until late in the year and the cold nights didn’t begin until late November. This had the effect of allowing a plant of ‘Osborn’s Prolific’ to almost ripen its main crop figs! The fruit wasn’t fully ripe but was soft and sweet enough to eat although rather lacking in flavour. This unusual occurrence has happened once before during one of our rare long hot summers and gave me a bonus crop of tasty violet coloured fruit at the end of October. Interestingly, a nearby plant of ‘Vern’s Brown Turkey’ I’d imported from the USA also did the same thing and from comparing the fruit I’d guess that these two cultivars are actually the same fig. Anyway, although once marked down as a fig to cut down due to its lack of early crop figs I’ve now reprieved this plant as it could be a good choice for trying on a warm south facing wall for those who fancy trying to grow main crop figs outdoors in the UK.
In conclusion, I would say that providing the appropriate cultivar is selected, and that plants are given the minimal care previously described, planting figs outdoors in Britain is probably the best way to ensure a regular harvest of a significant crop of fruit.