Figs on a tree

When to plant fig trees

The perfect time to plant is during the autumn and winter, so the trees can establish themselves while it’s cold.

“If planting during summer make sure the soil is constantly kept moist,” Yates Horticulture Consultant Angie Thomas says.

You can buy figs as bare-rooted stock or in pots at the nursery.

Climate

They will tolerate a wide range of climates, but fruit best in areas with a relatively dry summer and little to no frost during winter. Young trees are susceptible to frost and should be protected during their first and second winters. However, once established, fig trees are frost hardy.

Aspect

Plant in full sun, in a spot protected from strong winds.

Soil

Fig trees will grow in almost any type of soil, but it must be well-draining for best results. Before you plant, you should enrich the soil with compost and manure, which will encourage strong and healthy growth. If growing your tree in a pot, use a good-quality potting mix such as Yates Premium Potting Mix.

Planting

You don’t need a large garden to grow figs. They’ll happily grow in small spaces, such as a pot or small, contained garden bed. This restricts the spread of their roots, which most plants don’t like, but it encourages fig trees to be more fruitful as well as limiting their size. Fig trees are small, reaching a height of 6 metres, with a 5 to 6 metre spread.

“Figs can also be trained to grow horizontally across a wall taking up very little room at all,” Angie says. “This can help make the most of a bare spot and even camouflage a less than attractive fence.”

Dig a generous-sized planting hole for the tree, twice as wide as the root ball and a little deeper. If your soil is strongly acidic (below pH 6), add a little lime to the soil as you backfill. Water the new tree thoroughly, spread a layer of organic mulch over the surface and water again.

To ensure your crops survive, you can cover the tree with netting, as birds are quick to swoop in on the sweet fruit.

RELATED: Common gardening mistakes everybody makes

Getty Images

Water

Make sure young plants are well watered, especially during hot, dry periods. A general rule is 2.5 to 4 centimetres of water per week either from rainfall or irrigation. If you have noticed the leaves of your fig tree turning yellow and dropping it’s likely you’re overwatering.

Feeding

Caring for fig trees is fairly simple with little work required. In spring, apply a complete slow-release fertiliser such as Osmocote Plus Trace Elements Fruit, Citrus, Trees & Shrubs. During the growing season, you can also feed with a high- potassium fertiliser, like Yates Thrive Soluble Flower & Fruit, to promote fruit production.

Picking

Fig season in Australia is late summer. For juicy, sweet figs, let them ripen on the tree as unlike many other fruits, figs will not continue to ripen after they are picked. You can tell when it’s time to pick a fig as the fruit necks wilt, the figs hang down and they come away from the tree with ease. Each type of fig becomes a different colour when ripe, ranging from green to dark brown. Once you know your variety you will know what to look out for. No matter what variety you grow, wear gloves when harvesting, as the sap in the stems can be a skin irritant.

You can expect to start harvesting your figs around 2–3 years after planting and most varieties produce two crops a year.

Pruning

“Prune a fig tree in winter by cutting off any dead branches, if the centre part of the tree looks like it has become congested also remove a few inside branches,” Angie says. “Old fig trees can be given a more thorough prune by removing half the length of each branch, which will encourage fresh new growth.”

Propagating

Want to increase your harvest? Fortunately, figs can be easily grown from a cutting.

“For the best results I recommend using cutting taken during the winter months,” Angie says.

Problems

Fig Rust, leaf blight, mosaic virus and endosepsis are the main diseases seen in figs. Stem borer, mealy bugs, fruit fly, aphids and scale can also affect fig trees.

RELATED: Your guide to perfect propagation

What is this oval, small green fruit?

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Why A Fig Tree Is Not Producing Fruit

Fig trees are an excellent fruit tree to grow in your garden, but when your fig tree does not produce figs, it can be frustrating. There are many reasons for a fig tree not fruiting. Understanding the reasons for a fig tree not producing fruit can make this a little less frustrating.

Reasons for a Fig Tree Not Producing Fruit

First, in this article we will be covering information on why a fig tree will not fruit. Read our article on fig trees dropping fruit if you are looking for that information.

When a fig tree is not fruiting, there are a few reasons that this could be happening. The age of the tree, too much nitrogen and water are the three main reasons for a fig tree not producing fruit.

Fig Tree Not Fruiting Because of Age

The most common reason for a fig tree not producing fruit is simply its age. Trees, like animals, need to reach a certain maturity before they can produce offspring. Fruit is how a fig tree creates seeds. If the fig tree is not old enough to produce seeds, it will also not produce fruit.

Typically, a fig tree will not fruit until it reaches two years old, but it can take some trees as long as six years to reach the right maturity.

There is nothing you can do to speed up the rate a tree matures at. Time and patience are the only fixes for this.

Fig Tree Not Producing Fruit Because of Too Much Nitrogen

Another common reason that a fig tree is not producing figs is because of too much nitrogen. This commonly happens when you are using a fertilizer that is too high in nitrogen. Nitrogen causes the plant to have lush growth in leaves and branches, but very little, if any, fruit.

If you suspect that your fig tree may not be growing figs because of too much nitrogen, start using a lower nitrogen fertilizer or add some phosphorus to the soil to counter the nitrogen.

Fig Tree Will Not Fruit Because of Watering Conditions

If a fig tree is suffering from water stress caused by either too little or too much water, this can cause it to stop producing figs or never start producing, especially if it is a younger tree. Water stress will send the tree into a survival mode and the fig tree will simply not have the energy needed to invest in making fruit.

If your fig tree is getting too little moisture, increase the water. Remember, fig trees in pots will need daily watering when the temperatures rise above 65 degrees F. (18 C.) and twice daily watering when the temps go above 80 degrees F. (26 C.).

If your fig tree is getting too much water, either cut back your watering or improve the drainage in the area or in the pot. Don’t let fig trees grow in standing water.

These are the most common reasons that fig trees will not make fig fruit. There are many other less common reasons that are mostly tied to the nutrients in the soil. If you feel that the above reasons are not what is affecting your fig tree, have the soil tested and amend according to the results of this test.

Figs

1. Q: Why won’t figs ripen on my fig tree?

A: It may be an environmental phenomenon or a problem with the variety. Often figs freeze to the ground in the winter. The regrowth is lush and vigorous and often the bush is growing too vegetatively to mature the fruit. Figs are also shallow rooted and easily stressed which can hinder ripening. Mulching and regular watering should help. Certain unadapted varieties will never mature the fruit regardless of the management program.

2. Q: Request for information on what to spray for rust on large fig tree. Client has a concern about children eating fruit from a tree that has been sprayed; also birds

A: Control with neutral copper spray; 1 or 2 applications in May or early June (in very wet seasons, 1 or 2 additional applications may be necessary.) Spray when the first leaves on the tree reach full size with second spray in 3 to 4 weeks. Be sure to get good leaf coverage with spray. Control is usulally not 100%.

3. Q. I am harvesting hundreds of figs but the birds are harvesting thousands! How can I beat the bird’s pecking and the weevil’s souring the fruit?

A. Those birds have keen eyes and know exactly when the figs are ripe. They don’t wait until the fig has softened and you had better not either. Figs are ripe when they turn from green to brown. Granted, the fruit will get sweeter if allowed to hang on the tree longer but if the bird damage is too severe, you must harvest them as soon as possible. As fruit ripens, it will also spoil and be invaded by weevils. The best strategy is to get the fruit as soon as it is harvestable. Unfortunately, figs do not ripen further once harvested and will only keep a few days in the refrigerator.

The only surefire way to keep the birds off of the fruit is to cover the plants with bird netting which is available at various garden centers. Also, only plant closed-eye varieties such as Alma to preent wevils from getting in and souring the fruit.

4. Q. I don’t have bugs in the fruit but I have figs that never ripen. The plant is large, has beautiful foliage and forms little figs in the axil of every leaf as it is supposed to but that’s where the process stops–the fruit never ripens. What could be wrong? Have I got an unadapted variety?

A. Your fig is exhibiting signs of stress. A fig is sort of a mongrel fruit anyway. Being a parthenocarp (not requiring sexual fertilization) fruit, it is real sensitive to any and all environmental factors such as water stress (both too much and too little), root damage (nematodes or soil fungi) and weather. Persimmon trees are susceptible to the same type of situation but instead of holding green fruit on the tree, they abort all of their fruit. Since you can’t do anything to relieve the sexual problems of the fig and persimmon, you will just have to make them “more comfortable” and fool them into producing and ripening a crop. Try mulching with leaves or grass clippings around the base of the trees. Keep the soil moist, not wet or dry, around the trees. I think that you will see that a little care will make your cantankerous trees more productive.

5. Q. My fig plant has small green figs which may not ripen before the first hard freeze. Is there anything I can do to hurry them along? The plant froze to the ground last winter.

A. Fresh figs are not tasty until soft and ripe. Therefore, pick them just as the fruit begins to soften. The fig varieties common to Texas usually ripen their fruit during July or August but because of winter freezes, fruit harvest can be delayed until new growth is forced out. An ancient but little known practice can provide a simple way to ripen figs 30 days or more before their normal ripening date. This practice, in use as early as the third century B.C., is known as “oleification” and consists of applying one of a variety of oils (mineral oil has worked as well as vegetable oils) to the eye of the fig fruit at a time when it will respond by ripening at a greatly accelerated rate. The treatment to induce early ripening is quite simple. Care should be taken to avoid applying the oil to other parts of the fruit. The use of a small cotton applicator makes the job easy. Timing the application is very important. Applying too early can cause the young figs to drop before ripening, and applications made too late are ineffective. The receptive stage seems to coincide with the time that the pulp of the fruit turns pink. By cutting open a few different size fruits, one can easily determine what size figs on the shoot are receptive. An application of oil to the selected figs will usually cause ripening within 5 days after treatment. Untreated figs of the same age may require more than 30 days longer to ripen.

6. Q. Last year I purchased a fig tree and having survived the winter I would like to assure some amount of a fig crop this year. Last year all the figs shriveled up and fell off, and about mid August the leaves began to turn yellow. Is this a mineral deficiency or a reaction to our extremely hot summer?

A: Figs are extremely shallow rooted and consequently very susceptible to stress. I think that is why the figs shriveled up and the leaves turned yellow. Mulch the plant heavily and if possible put a soaker or drip hose under the mulch. This way you can water it heavily and then the mulch will help conserve the moisture. Water is extremely important during the hot summer months.

7. Q. About three years ago my wife brought home a cutting from a Fig tree. We planted it first in a pot to take root and then last fall transplanted it to the ground. It is now about seven feet tall and has good healthy leaves. My problem is though I’ve noticed flowers it never produces fruit.

A: The fig is one of the most unusual fruits as it doesn’t really have a flower bloom per se. The fig is actually an inside out fruit. In other words the flower is on the inside of the fruit. Hence, the reason that most figs are set parthenocarpicly, ie without pollenization of fertilization. There are some figs which require a specific wasp to pollinate the fruit.

So I doubt if you have seen a flower; if you saw a flower it was probably a small fruit. It is not uncommon for fig plants which are growing very fast to shed the fruit. So your plant may still be in too much of a vegetative state to fruit. Once the growth slows down, it should go ahead and set some fruit. The other thing is since the fruit is set without seed development (parthenocarpically), any type of stress will cause the fruit to abort.

Be sure to mulch the crown of the plant this winter to prevent cold damage and you will probably set several fruit. Hope this helps solve your problem.

8. Q: I own a little fig tree which somehow survives our winters near Montreal, Quebec. It is covered with earth during it’s dormancy. Freed in late April to early May depending on the weather. This variety sets fruit early, all at once and ripens out in August, in contrast to another tree which sets fruit throughout the season.

My question is, how and when to prune to maintain a compact tree and still get good fruiting. I noticed a side shoot fuited better than the main tree. Also, does the tree want feeding (manure, compost or fertilyzer)?

A: Normally we prune figs very little in Texas because of potential cold damage, ie. we usually have to prune back to live wood. This past year our varieties went dormant extremely well. We had a lot of cool, mild days prior to very hard winter freezes. The figs went through this very well and most were in great shape. Then we warmed up in February and the plants lost some of their accliminated dormancy and bam, they froze to the ground in March. So our pruning is often dictated by the environmental conditions. Pruning also reduces the potential crop.

Let your trees dictate how much to prune them. The trees should make about one foot of new growth a year. If they are already making that then leave them alone. Use pruning to stimulate new growth, remove weak and/or dead limbs and to keep the plant in check. This pruning should be performed in early spring.

The plants should also be mulched heavily due to their shallow root system and it also aids in cold protection. If organic mulch or compost is used, the necessary nutrients will be supplied from these materials. We don’t want the plants to be overly vigorous or they will not go dormant in the fall and cold damage will be imminent. Let plant growth dictate how much fertility the plants are given. If they are making a foot of growth, then leave them alone.

9. Q: How do figs set buds and do they fruit from new growth or from second year wood?

A: There are four types of figs: Caprifigs, Smyrna figs, San Pedro figs, and common figs. Of these, only the common fig is of significance to southern fruit growers. It is a seedless fruit which does not require pollination. The fruit is produced as a main crop on wood that has grown the same season. In other words the current season shoots will usually produce the main crop of figs if the bush is “mature”, ie. not overly vegetative. Some common fig types like Texas Everbearing will produce a few figs on last years growth. This crop is known as the Breba crop. Figs should make about one foot of new growth every year to produce a crop the following year.

The other fig types are either pollinators (Caprifig) or require pollination (Smyrna and San Pedro). Hence, they are not commonly grown in the south.

10. Q: We live in Harris county around Houston, and we were wondering about the proper way to get a cutting off of a fig tree to produce another fig tree. We also have a minature apple tree that produces apples and all, but the tree had a wrapper around the trunk which stunted the growth of the trunk will the tree be alright and grow strong at the lower trunk or will it die?

A: Figs root relatively easy from dormant hardwood cuttings. Take some cuttings as soon as you can before the buds start to grow. If the buds have already started to grow it is too late for this year and you can try air layering.

The best cuttings are made from two or three year old wood or from the basal parts of vigorous one-year old shoots with a minimum of pith. In other words you want the cuttings to have a lot of wood and not much hollowness to them.

The cuttings should be 12 to 18 inches long. They can be placed in either a container with well-drained potting soil or they can be placed directly in the ground. It is best to place 3 or 4 cuttings in each pot. Leave one or two buds sticking out of the ground and bury the remaining buds. They should root in 6 to 8 weeks.

If the cuttings fail to root, you can try air layering. This is a technique whereby the plant is wounded and then media is placed around the wound which induces the plant to root at this point. This procedure is detailed at http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/propagation/propagtation.html.

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Figs

The fabulously delicious fig Ficus carica– known to the Egyptians as the “Tree of Life” – is a wonderful addition to most backyards (and kitchens). A large, deciduous, well-shaped tree, the fig is an excellent shade specimen for small to medium sized backyards. They can be trimmed and trained into a manageable size, grown as a hedge or even espaliered like the one on the wall of the SGA office (pic below).

Figs are a versatile fruit, eaten fresh, glazed, dried, poached and cooked, and they are a very healthy option as well. Figs are high in fibre and vitamin C and the sap of fig trees is reportedly useful in getting rid of warts! (Some people are allergic to the sap though use caution when handling it for the first time.) Figs are said to be an aphrodisiac too!

Another interesting fact about Figs is that they flowers on the inside – the pulp inside the fig fruit is actually lots of tiny little flowers. Many figs require a wasp to pollinate the flowers through the small white eye on the end of the fruit, so think very carefully before using chemicals and traps in your backyard that may harm these wonderful wasps. Most commercially available varieties of figs including those listed below are self fertile though.

As a sub tropical tree, the fig prefers a Mediterranean climate with warm to hot summers and cooler winters so it is very suited to most areas of Australia. The hardy fig is quite adaptable though and will cope with cold winters, though if you live in areas prone to heavy frosts you may need to protect young trees. Figs are reasonably drought tolerant, though lack of water can affect fruit production. Fig trees will also grow and fruit well in large pots too.

The secret to a good fig is a rich, free-draining soil with a neutral pH. A good layer of straw mulch and plenty of organic matter (like home-made compost) will also give your tree a boost. Figs don’t like wet feet and are often are planted in raised beds or mounds to ensure good drainage. Choose a sunny spot with not too much wind, in a position where you can enjoy the summer shade provided by this top tree. A full grown fig can be 3 meters high and up to 5 meters wide in the canopy so take this into account when selecting a spot.

Many fig trees varieties crop twice each. The first (or breba) crop form on last years wood. You can often see the tiny fruits dormant on the tree over winter. A heavier crop is then produced later in summer when the new growth develops. Fruit normally forms in the leaf axils on new wood, so pruning a fig is a straightforward and infrequent task. Give it a light trim in winter to stimulate new growth for fruiting, but leave some old wood on the tree for the breba fruiting. Dead and diseased wood should be removed and more mature trees may need heavier pruning to encourage new growth.

Harvesting is the best part of growing a fabulous fig. Fruit should be picked when they are slightly soft to the touch and smelling sweet. Figs will NOT continue to ripen once they have been removed from the tree, so pick them when you need them and handle them with care as they can bruise easily.

As if all that wasn’t enough for this versatile, hardy, delicious tree – fig trees are easy to propagate too. Take hardwood cuttings in late autumn, about 20 – 30cm long with several nodes. Plant the cutting in a free draining propagation mix, making sure you cover a couple of the nodes.

Pests of fig trees are fairly minimal, but you may have to fight with the birds and possums to be the first at the figs! Invest in some netting to keep these voracious feeders away but be sure to check it regularly to ensure there are no creatures trapped in it. Though they are considered very hardy trees, figs can also be affected by a number of other pests and diseases.

Queensland fruit fly (Dacus tryoni) – is a major pest in many areas of NSW. Small, brown/black flies with distinctive cream to yellow markings on the mid-section, the female lays eggs in ripening fruit which then spoils. Pheromone traps. attract and kill male flies. Fallen fruit should be destroyed.

Fig blister mite (Aceria ficus) – colourless to white, blister mites attack inside the fruit leaving rust coloured dry patches that affect eating quality. You won’t know they are there till you harvest the first fruits. If you find damaged fruit, destroy it to prevent subsequent fruits being infected as they ripen.

Fig rust and Anthracnose – both fungal diseases that affect mainly coastal areas, Fig rust produces powdery yellow spots form on the leaves. Anthracnose forms small brown to black spots, which develop into a larger patch of infection. With both diseases, leaves will turn yellow and then fall. As with most fungal disease, copper-based fungicides are normally used for control.

Fig mosaic virus – affects leaf pigment and causes a mottled pattern on the leaf. Affected plants need to be destroyed.

Other problems that are not specific to fig but can affect them include root knot nematode (Meloidogyne spp.) and dried fruit beetle (Carpophilus spp.)

Fabulous Figs to try

Black Genoa: Excellent flavour. A Large, conical, greenish purple skin and dark red, rich sweet flesh. A reliable, heavy cropper with two crops a year. Vigorous, spreading tree. Fruits in February for three months. Use for fresh fruit, drying and jam. Self-Pollinating.

Brown Turkey: Large, conical, brown skin, pink sweet-flavoured flesh. Vigorous, productive and hardy. Fruits early Summer and late autumn. Fresh fruit, drying and jam. Self-Pollinating.

Preston Prolific: Very thick flesh, creamy white and juicy, with sweet flavour. Extremely vigorous and late cropping. Harvested February to March.

White Adriatic: A vigorous Fig variety, usually producing one crop a year (the Breba crop can be very light). The fruit is good for drying, but is also delicious fresh. Brown green skin over pink flesh with excellent sweet flavour. Self-Pollinating.

White Genoa: Large, conical, yellow-green skin, red-pink sweet, mild flavoured flesh. Suits cooler areas. Lighter cropper than other varieties. Harvest early Summer and late autumn. Fresh fruit, drying and jam. Self pollinating.

Photos;
Tracey Martin

Resources: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au

The Food Forest

Known as ‘The tree of life’ by the ancient Egyptians and much enjoyed by Cleopatra and Ulysses, the fig is a wonderful and delicious species.

There are several fact sheets on figs (Ficus carica) available from Departments of Agriculture around Australia and many entries in books on fruit growing. This sheet merely summarises information we have had as personal communication from various sources and is not, to our knowledge, available elsewhere. As much of this information has been gathered from other people, no responsibility is taken for its accuracy.

Please use the links below to jump to specific information:

  • General information
  • Varieties
  • Growing figs
  • Propagating figs – its easy
  • Caprification
  • Pruning figs
  • The world’s best fig recipe!

General information

If you have a fig which never produces a crop it may be a Capri, a San Pedro or Smyrna fig without a nearby pollinator (see ‘caprification’) or a poorly adapted Common Fig. Whilst Smyrna used to be the main drying variety grown in South Australia, its management is somewhat tricky and we have not seen one for sale in any nursery. One presumes that there are still a lot of old Smyrnas and their pollinators (Capri) on old fruit blocks in the Riverland in South Australia.

Despite the fact that figs have been in cultivation for over 3000 years they remain somewhat of a mystery crop. They are extraordinary producers of high energy food.

  • Glace figs: Virtually all figs can be successfully glaced
  • Dried figs: Varieties favoured for drying are generally those that have high levels of sugar and usually make good jam too
  • Dessert or fresh-eating figs: Those with an agreeable flavour and texture… sometimes good for drying too

At the time of writing we have a collection of all varieties listed below and stock of some of them for sale in our nursery at affordable prices as well as making budwood available in winter for others to strike. We also sell some of the more popular varieties at the Adelaide Showground Farmers Market.

Varieties

Unless otherwise noted the figs below are self fertile:

  • Adam: a large San Pedro type tree usually producing a useful Breba crop around Christmas time in SA and a major crop (which requires cross pollination with a Capri fig) in Feb. Skin is red to purple and pulp champagne to pink coloured
  • White Adriatic: an early fig suited to cooler areas like the Adelaide Hills, one crop which ripens February, medium to large fruit, brownish-green skin and pink flesh, excellent fresh and very good for jam. A spreading tree
  • Deanna: a large fig suited to the fresh market, green to golden skin with pink pulp, very popular in the USA
  • Archipal: a large greenish-yellow fig with a very thin, edible skin and honey-coloured flesh. Early to mid season. One of our best and most reliable bearers at The Food Forest, but splits catastrophically in strong summer rains
  • Flanders: a shy bearer, but good quality green skinned fruit with pink flesh
  • Black Genoa (San Piero): a medium sized, pear-shaped fruit, purplish skin and red flesh, good for fresh eating but not suitable for drying. Vigorous tree, ripens Dec-Feb
  • White Genoa: mid season and good in cool areas with large greenish-yellow fruit with amber flesh, good fresh eating variety and favoured for jam making. Light crop in Dec and more in Feb-Mar, unique flavour
  • Preston: seems to have trouble maturing Dec-April, somewhat hairy, large green-brown fruit, white flesh, vigorous grower, high quality fruit resistant to splitting
  • Brown Turkey: medium sized, late season (March), brownish striped fruit with pinkish flesh. Excellent for jam. Second crop is main crop. Hardy tree
  • Spanish Dessert: late maturing, spectacular dark purple skin and dark red flesh. It has an initially distressing habit of dropping large numbers of figlets on the ground, to the point that you think the tree will lose its whole crop, but as the tree settles down it bears good crops. It has rather luxurious dark green leaves making it a lovely landscape feature
  • Yellow Ischi: Small, possibly useable for jam
  • Excel: small, early season, light yellow skin, amber flesh, limited value for commercial market because of yields but good flavour for fresh eating
  • Celeste: commercial variety in USA, violet skin, pink coloured, firm flesh, fairly cold-hardy. Very reliable cropper at The Food Forest
  • Persian Prolific: strong grower, mid season fruit, light purple skin and honey coloured flesh
  • Cape White: early maturing, ripens Jan, medium-sized fruit, green skin, cream coloured flesh. Great for jam, compact tree
  • Smyrna: golden yellow skin and red pulp characterise this special drying, glazing, jam-making fig. It requires cross pollination (caprification) with the Capri fig
  • Sugar Fig: is it another name for White Adriatic, the White Genoa or a separate variety? There is much confusion and misnaming of figs. Our Sugar fig is great for jam and drying and is a medium-sized, sweet, green-skinned variety obtained from a local nursery!

An Australian collector with an extensive collection of figs and a remarkable data-base on figs was Tony Stevens.
Here is a list of his varieties.

Growing figs

The fig is a deciduous, sub-tropical tree producing its best fruit in hot, fairly dry areas with extra water provided to the root system. The Riverland in South Australia provides an ideal climate. Too high summer temperatures can result in pulpless fruit and cool, damp conditions during ripening give rise to splitting and fungal attack. It doesn’t like cold but can survive temperatures of minus 10 degrees C when dormant. Late frosts (after the new spring shoots have emerged) hurt it badly.

Figs are not nearly as tough as many people would have you believe, so kid-glove treatment is in order for the first year in the ground particularly but even beyond that time they need a steady supply of water and fertilizer to be productive. Mulching around the trees helps to keep the shallow root system cool and moist.

  • It is tolerant of alkaline soils of many textures but will not put up with wet feet or very acid soils (under pH 6). It is somewhat forgiving with respect to salinity accepting water of up to 1000 ppm salts
  • The fig dislikes wind but loves creekside locations and high fertility sites (and is adept at cracking its way into underground sewer pipe systems)
  • Too much Nitrogen can cause excess leaf production and slower ripening of fruit
  • Its spreading root system is quite shallow and competitive, giving nearby trees a fairly hard time. It doesn’t appreciate having its roots torn up by cultivation
  • Trees are generally planted about 4.5m apart in rows 6m apart
  • Inter-row cultivation should be avoided where possible to prevent damage to the shallow root system (which also causes suckering)
  • Prune the tree up on a single trunk of at least 75cm and don’t allow sucker growth or you’ll end up with an unpickable thicket. Generally annual pruning for form is all that is required. Bear in mind that the fruit is mainly borne new wood. The Californians have some new-generation orchards which look almost like vineyards with the trees trained to just a couple of metres in height in a hedgerow. This helps with picking and with netting the trees
  • Fig Leaf Mosaic is a common disease in figs and reduces vigour but does not lead to the death of trees
  • On current prices you would not grow rich growing figs for the dried market and if you decided to chase the fresh market your bird netting arrangements would need to be of a high standard. Birds are enormous fig-lovers. We net whole hedgerows of figs rather than netting individual trees
  • Figs often produce two crops annually; the early picking, often in about Dec, is known as the Breba crop (these are frequently big fruit) and the later picking is the Higos or main crop
  • Traditionally figs for drying were allowed to drop on the ground to ensure absolute ripeness and maximum sugar. We tend to pick when the fig softens and droops. Judging ripeness in the Common fig is a bit of an art. The milky sap which oozes from the stem of unripe or not-quite-ripe figs when picked can be irritating to the skin, so you may want to wear cotton gloves.
  • Drying is an efficient way of storing these very perishable fruit but you lose about 40% of the Vitamin C and B group by so doing. In his great book ‘The complete book of growing fruit in Australia’ Dr Louis Glowinski notes that, like dates, dried figs have so much sugar in them that diabetics are warned not to eat them.

Propagating figs – it’s easy

In the winter, when the fig trees have lost their leaves, take cuttings about 25cm long from the trees you want to multiply. This can be conveniently done when you are pruning trees. Make sure you label the bundle of cuttings from each variety.

To make sure your cuttings have their requirement for winter cold satisfied it is not a bad idea to put them in the fridge for 2 or 3 weeks (this doesn’t seem completely necessary but helps set the wood’s biological clock). This is also a way of temporary storage while you get propagation materials organised. To do this wrap the bundle of cuttings in damp newspaper and then put in a plastic bag in the fridge. Don’t forget that it is there!

Striking the cuttings should be done in coarse sand or similar – plasterers sand or the commercially available propagation mixes work well – and the cuttings should be planted at least 2 or 3 buds deep (you only need a couple of buds above ground). Ensure that the cuttings are planted the right way up! You can do this in pots, bags or in the ground itself but I prefer to do it in containers so you can keep them all in one spot in the nursery for watering etc.

Before planting the bud sticks are dipped in one of the hormone powders or liquids that encourage root development (with indolebutyric acid – available through nurseries) and planted in the propagation material. Keep moist but not wet in a shady place until leaf shoots emerge and as the plant develops full leaves feed regularly with a fairly dilute liquid fertiizer. When it has a lot of leaves (maybe after a month or 2) carefully transplant (avoiding root damage) into a bigger container with potting mix. Keep in a shady spot for a week or 2 to avoid transplant shock. Grow on and plant the tree in the field the next winter.

Bud-wood for propagation by striking is collected in winter. The figs would be removed to prevent the wood being exhausted

Remember to plant cuttings the right way up!

Unripe Capri figs which contain the pupae of the fig wasp for its overwintering phase

Caprification

Caprification is essential for the production of figs of some varieties.

The fig is a peculiar fruit which is in fact a pretty much vegatative receptacle with thousands of tiny flowers inside it, each of which grows into a tiny fruit (but they are very small and all assembled together so we don’t notice their separateness).

Whilst most fig varities are self fertile the San Pedro or Smyrna figs need to be pollinated by a Capri type fig. This is done by a tiny wasp which lays its eggs in the Capri fig and, when moving around inside the fig, ends up covered in its pollen. When the wasp flies around the orchard checking out other figs for laying sites it goes into other types of fig but finds them unsuitable for her purposes and leaves… but not before she has spread pollen from the Capri fig onto the female parts of the Smyrna or San Pedro type, so pollinating it.

Figure 1: Diagram of a fig fruit (Univ. of California, Division of Agricultural Science, Leaflet21051. 1978)

The wasp covered in Capri pollen fertilizes the Smyrna type fig

Fig wasp pupae

The pupae of the fig wasp inside the Capri fig. The male wasp emerges first, fertilises the female wasp through the pupa case and then cuts a hole in the pupa case for the young (pre-fertilized) female wasp to emerge from

Acknowledgement is made for images drawn from the Fruit Gardener vol 23 6 1991

Unlike common figs the caprifig produces three crops of synconia. These are known by their Italian terms: profichi, mammoni and mamme.

  • Profichi synconia form on buds just above the scars of fallen leaves on the previous season’s wood (like the breba crop). They develop from October through to December. At this time new shoots and leaves are forming on the tree.The synconia develop rapidly, and within three weeks the female flowers are ready for fertilisation. The male flowers do not produce pollen until early December. This pollen fertilises the edible fig varieties
  • Mammoni form on the new growth each year (like the main edible crop). Mammoni start to develop in early December when the profichi crop is almost over, and continue to grow through until late March – early April. Mammoni caprifigs do not shed pollen
  • Mamme start to develop in May, when the mammoni crop is almost over and the tree has started to become dormant. They form near the tips of the branch. They stay on the tree during winter, and develop fully in September when the female flowers of the profichi crop are receptive. The male flowers do not shed pollen

The main varieties used to pollinate Smyrna and San Pedro figs in California are Roeding, Samson and Stanford. It is best that the correct variety of caprifig is chosen to ensure that pollen from the profichi crop is available at the right time. At this stage The Food Forest has only one variety, known as Caprifig.

Finer details about caprification

The process of caprification is complex. It involves the presence of both the fig wasp and the correct stage of fig on the caprifig tree.

Commercial Smyrna-type figs are pollinated in early summer with pollen from the profichi caprifig. If the female flowers are receptive, the wasp will also pollinate the female flowers of the mammoni caprifig at this time. The flowers will then form seeds, completing the reproductive cycle of both the caprifig and commercial trees. The female wasp lays eggs in all the female flowers, pollinating at the same time. The larvae hatch and develop in flowers with short styles. The long-styled flowers develop seeds.

Generally one caprifig tree is needed for every 15 to 20 Smyrna trees. Planting the caprifig trees within the block is not recommended, as pollination is not even: the trees closest to the caprifigs can be over-fertilised and split, and more distant trees may not be pollinated. Caprifig trees should be planted in a separate block. The profichi caprifigs (with wasps) are picked and placed in wire baskets around the Profichi caprifigs on the previous season’s wood when the first wasps start to emerge. Each basket needs to contain six or seven figs. The profichi need to be replaced every three days for about three weeks, as not all the synconia of the Smyrna figs are receptive at the same time. It is useful to have more than one variety of caprifig so that the pollination period is extended.

Pruning figs

Pruning regime (years 1- 4)
for fresh fig production

Pruning regime (years 1- 4)
for dried figs production

Pruning the Capri fig tree
(years 1- 4)

Links

The best site on figs that we have found is Ray Givan’s homepage (California)
Other links may well be available through the California Rare Fruit Growers website

The World’s best fig recipe!

This is the most amazing and delicious way of keeping figs I’ve come across and was collected by my grandfather Tom Bowen who worked with dried fruit growers in the Riverland when figs were a significant crop up there.

Grandfather Bowen’s Figs

  • 6 lbs figs, 4lbs sugar, 2ozs ginger (half that will do),
    6 wineglasses vinegar,
  • 1 wineglass water
  1. Boil figs in the above ingredients until clear (about 2 hours)
  2. Drain dry and press-roll in castor sugar
  3. Bake in hot oven for 5 minutes and allow to cool
  4. Store in an airtight container

Feedback: If you have any experiences or further useful information about fig varieties, recipes, cultivation etc please let me know so we can continue to improve this fact sheet for everyone’s benefit.

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