Give a Fig a Try – How To Grow Figs Successfully
This most Mediterranean of fruits needs very little to give you so much.
I have a confession to make: I never used to like figs. (Or avocados, but that’s another story.) Then I went to Turkey and spent a few days drifting around Istanbul, touristing, eating and trying to resist the supernaturally gifted Turkish carpet salesmen from loading me with their wares. My ultimate discovery was not the culture, but the buffet breakfasts that feature Turkey’s greatest produce: fresh and dried apricots, yoghurt unlike any you have ever tasted before, honey fit for the gods, Turkish delight, sesame treats, hazelnuts, and figs prepared in all manner of ways.
This was my conversion moment, for never before had I sampled anything as delicious.
And the best thing about figs is that you can grow them at home, in a pot or in the garden, and produce a bounty that beggars belief. For some reason people are sceptical about planting a fig tree, especially in an area that falls outside of the Mediterranean-type climate nature designed them for.
Here at Grow to Eat we like to get local knowledge from people with real hands-on experience. Tanya knew of a fellow in the area who makes mountains of fig jam every year (yes, she’s a loyal customer of his!), so we went off to speak to Mike Callaghan to find out how he achieves fig success in the mist-belt of Alverstone, just outside Hillcrest in KwaZulu-Natal.
Most fig trees will produce two crops a year. The first one, known as the ‘breba’, comes in spring from the previous year’s wood. The figs first appear in autumn, on the end of the branches, and are only ready to be harvested in December or so. This first crop usually produces fewer, larger figs than the second crop. The second crop is known as the ‘higos’ crop, and it is normally a far larger crop, but of smaller figs. These figs are produced on the new growth and are harvested somewhere between February and June. Mike’s tip for when to pick figs is, “Wait until the eye at the end of the fig to turn pink, and for the fruit to be swollen. This isn’t 100% ripe, but it’s a good stage for making fig jam.”
If you want to eat the fruit raw, wait longer, until the ripe colour has been achieved, the neck of the fruit softened and it has begun to droop on the tree. Figs to be dried are left even longer, sometimes until they fall off the tree on their own volition.
Plant fig trees in full sun. As usual when planting a tree, dig as big a hole as you can (1m3 is the ideal), dig in loads of compost and manure, and add a few handfuls of lime. Plant and water well. Considering the succulence and juiciness of a ripe, sun-warmed fig, it’s hard to believe that the trees thrive on neglect – give them too much water or fertiliser and you’ll end up with lanky branches, lots of foliage and very few figs. Too much nitrogen, in particular, can negatively affect fruit production, the trees producing branches and leaves instead. Well, that’s the common belief, but Mike has his own methods. “It’s not hard to grow figs,” Mike says. “You’ve just got to feed them and water them, and keep everything from eating the fruit!
“In August, when the fig tree has no leaves, start to water. I fertiliser now too, using 5kg of 3:1:5 fertiliser for the one tree, as well as 2kg of lime – figs love lime! Then water well every week until the rains come.” “In November I fertilise the tree a second time, with another 5kg or even 10kg of 3:1:5, and water it in.” Using this method Mike gets around 40kg of figs off one tree, which equates to about 100 bottle of his fig jam, made with a closely guarded recipe.
Most good nurseries will have stock of beautiful, healthy fig trees of about 1m in height, or more if you’re lucky. But if you have a friend with a fig tree, you can grow one from a truncheon (big cutting). Fig trees are vigorous growers, so the success rate with truncheons is high. There are a number of varieties available, with different colour fruit: there are purple, green, yellow or brown fruited varieties. Some of the varieties available locally are ‘White Genoa’, ‘Evita’, ‘Adam’ and ‘Cape Brown’.
Monkeys and birds (“Crested barbets love figs!”, warns Mike) will strip a fig tree bare. Then there are the little things: whitefly, beetles, spider mites, codling moths as well as fungal diseases. Treat them with an applicable registered product. Fruitflies can be a big problem with figs, in which case Efekto Eco Fruitfly Bait is the answer.
Be aware that fig trees can get enormous and most have aggressive root systems. Don’t plant them anywhere near water popes or septic tanks, or you’re asking for trouble. Also be prepared to prune them regularly to keep them at a manageable size, and to make the fruit accessible.