Grow figs: planting, care & harvest
Figs are an interesting sort of fruit. One of the first crops cultivated by humans, figs have long been valued for their nutrition, flavour and versatility. These days, figs still aren't widely commercially grown, being quite fragile and with poor storage ability. Only a handful of growers supply mainly farmers markets and restaurants. So growing your own fig tree is the best way to provide an annual, or biannual, supply of fruit, to enjoy fresh or preserved.
Have I got the right conditions to grow figs?
Very likely! Fig trees are surprisingly hardy during their winter dormancy period, tolerating temperatures as low as -10°C (although they may sustain stem damage if subjected to low temperatures for extended periods for time). For the fruit to ripen sufficiently, however, warm weather during late summer is required. In most of New Zealand, any fig variety should grow and crop well. If you live in an area south of Nelson, go for early-ripening varieties, as temperatures here will usually get too cool for later-ripening types to develop properly.
Fig trees grow in a range of soil types, including clay, though they detest having wet feet for extended periods. Poorer soils can actually be better for figs, because in deep, rich soils, the trees can grow unwieldy.
The trees and the crop benefit from a general fruit tree fertiliser and regular watering, especially when the fruit is ripening, but otherwise, figs are pretty easy care and shouldn't require spraying as they are susceptible to few pests or diseases here.
Can I grow my fig tree in a pot?
Yes. Use a large container, such as a wine barrel, filled with top-quality potting mix and keep your fig well watered, and you should be rewarded with a good amount of fruit. An added benefit of growing figs in pots is that the trees won't get too big, so you can easily cover them with netting to stop birds getting the crop before you. In marginal regions (such as Canterbury and Otago), fig trees in pots can be moved into the warmest spot in the garden to allow the fruit to ripen. Just remember to put wheels on the pot before you fill it with heavy soil.
Can I grow it from cuttings?
Fig trees grow readily from hardwood cuttings in winter. To propagate your own plants:
1. Take cuttings of growth about the thickness of a pencil, 15cm-25cm long.
2. Dip the lower end of the cuttings in rooting hormone or willow water, then set them in free-draining mix (a combination of potting mix and pumice is ideal).
3. Place the tray of cuttings in a warm, humid place, and keep the soil damp. Roots should form quickly.
4. In spring, transplant the figs into small pots, and keep them in the shade.
5. Plant into the garden in autumn.
What fig varieties are best?
Most varieties available in New Zealand are the "common fig" Ficus carica, which have female flowers that are parthenocarpic (the fruit can develop without fertilisation) and don't need pollination for fruiting. There are upwards of 70 known fig varieties in New Zealand, with variations on the size, skin colour and flesh colour of the fruit, as well as the size of the tree. It always pays to visit your local nursery to see what's available, and get more fig-growing tips from their experts.
Overseas, some varieties require the female fig wasp (Blastophaga psenes) to enter the fig to set the fruit – but that pollinator isn't present here, so varieties such as 'San Pedro' only produce a breba crop here, not a main crop. (A breba crop develops from the previous years' shoot growth; main crops are from the current year's growth.)
Do I need to prune the tree?
Figs usually need little pruning, as the growth naturally forms a medium-sized, vase-shaped, spreading tree. Some pruning may be necessary in winter, when these deciduous trees are dormant:
* Remove dead, diseased or damaged branches.
* Take out any large limbs that are congesting the middle of the tree, then shorten long branches.
In very fertile soil, trees may need annual pruning to keep the growth in check, not least so you can continue to cover the tree with netting to protect your crop from birds. Try this simple three-step pruning technique.
Like apples and pears, fig trees are easily espaliered. Espaliered fig trees against a warm wall or fence are perfect for marginal climates, where trees will need every ounce of warmth they can get for their fruit to ripen. Read our step-by-step guide to espaliering fruit trees.
Summer pruning isn't recommended for fig trees, due to the sap leakage. The milky sap exuded from pruning wounds and the stems of picked figs can be highly allergenic, in extreme cases even causing nasty burns or blisters.
When can I harvest figs?
Trees usually start producing from a young age – even baby cuttings can set fruitlets. Depending on the variety and climate, figs can produce their small breba crop in early summer, with the main crop in late summer or into autumn. Harvest your figs when they soften and the skin changes colour. Ripe figs should be cut from the tree using secateurs or snips, keeping the stems intact. Use gloves to protect your hands and arms from the milky sap to avoid unpleasant skin reactions. The fruit usually doesn't last long once picked, but will remain edible for about a week if stored in the fridge.
With good growing conditions, fig trees can produce up to 12kg of fruit per year, which can be several hundred fruit.
What's the best way to eat all these figs?
They're such are versatile fruit, equally delicious as sweet or savoury condiments.
- * Fresh figs are absolutely delicious on their own and also match beautifully with cheese, honey and walnuts.
- * Figs can be preserved whole in syrup and also make lovely jam and chutney.
- * You could also try dehydrating them to make an excellent dried fruit snack or muesli ingredient.
Take a look at Cuisine magazine's great ideas on how to cook and eat figs.
- NZ Gardener