Figs do fine with a little TLC

The seeds of figs are actually individual little flowers. Photo: Gillian Vine
The seeds of figs are actually individual little flowers. Photo: Gillian Vine
Growing figs against a wall can help fruit ripen. Photo: Gillian Vine
Growing figs against a wall can help fruit ripen. Photo: Gillian Vine
Australia's Moreton bay figs were a popular Aboriginal food. Photo: Getty Images
Australia's Moreton bay figs were a popular Aboriginal food. Photo: Getty Images
With care, figs will mature in the South. Photo: Gillian Vine
With care, figs will mature in the South. Photo: Gillian Vine
Smaller fig varieties can be grown in containers. Photo: Gillian Vine
Smaller fig varieties can be grown in containers. Photo: Gillian Vine

Gillian Vine puts forward the case for growing figs.

Fruit trees are beginning to appear in garden centres, just in time for winter planting.

As well as the usual line-up of pip and stone fruits, grapes and currants, there are figs, often ignored by southern gardeners because those grown outdoors have a reputation for failing to ripen.

This past summer was a brilliant one for figs and I harvested 20 from my 1.3m potted tree. At $2 to $2.50 each for the figs I saw in the shops, the tree has more than paid for itself.

Figs (Ficus carica) are one of the oldest cultivated foods, with archaeological finds in Egypt and the Middle East going back some 6000 years. Because they could be dried, they could be kept for long periods. That, plus their sugar content, meant they were a prized food.

We now know that figs are rich in vitamins A and D, as well as calcium and iron, while the presence of ficin (an enzyme that soothes the stomach) and their high fibre content make figs a natural mild laxative.

Technically, fig seeds are flowers; the enlarged and fleshy part surrounds numerous tiny flowers inside.

Naturally, those great gourmands, the Romans, caught on to this delicious dessert fruit and by the first century AD were cultivating at least 20 varieties, far more than are generally available today.

While the Ancient Romans were noshing on figs, in Australia Aborigines were eating another variety, F. macrophylla, commonly known as Moreton Bay fig. Not as sweet as F. carica and with smaller fruit, it has the advantage of producing almost all year round, a boon to people reliant on seasonal produce.

Figs like warm summers with lots of sun and will tolerate some frost, although if night temperatures fall below about 5degC when the fruit is developing, it will fail to mature. To overcome this, small trees, like mine in its pot, can be covered with opaque plastic or a small greenhouse cover to aid ripening. Alternatively, grow the plant outside with its trunk threaded into your tunnel house or against a sunny wall, which will soak up heat in the daytime and keep the fig from getting too chilled at night.

Figs perform best in ground that is not too rich and well-drained. Water well from late spring to autumn and give a feed of general fertiliser in early summer. Root restriction is regarded as essential to successful fig cultivation, stopping the shallow, fibrous roots from spreading too far, for if they do, there will be lots of lovely leaves and not much fruit.

A good tree will produce two crops, the first ("breba") in summer. This tends to be significantly smaller than the the main crop, which ripens in autumn.

In the wild, figs are pollinated by a tiny wasp, but varieties available here are all self-fertile, a relief to those who, like me, detest wasps and love figs.

Brown Turkey, Brunswick and Mrs Williams are among the most popular varieties, while Ventura is good for a container. Figs can be propagated from cuttings taken in winter or from the suckers at the base of the trunk. They can also be grown from seed but not all trees produce fertile seed and any that do germinate are unlikely to be like the parent.

Figs grow on new wood, so pruning should be done once the main crop has started to develop in summer. As some people are sensitive to the sap, always wear gloves when pruning.

If you've any doubts about growing figs, remember they can be ripened in the Swiss Alps, so - with a bit of care - there's no reason for them not to perform.

 

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