When I moved to Nelson a decade ago I didn’t know my fig from my finger, figuratively speaking. They were in the same category as prunes with notions of purgative medicinal properties that didn’t flick my switch at all. Little did I know I’d soon be growing and enthusing about both of them.
My fig education began on a late summer field trip to the magical Mariri garden of George Christofski. I probably only spent an hour trailing along behind George with the other visitors, but my eyes were opened forever to the wonders of figs. George had over 50 fig trees and generously plucked fruit for us to taste as we toured the property. Succulent, sun-ripened figs were a revelation and an absolute opposite to the dried brown gritty discs I had previously known.
The good news is that figs do well in frost-free parts of the country with warm summers. Years that we enjoy a long hot summer produce the best crops, as the main harvest for most varieties is in those mellow late summer months. Some varieties also produce an early harvest in December and January, known as a breba crop, which grows from small green fruit that have wintered over on the tree. These first figs don’t usually have the same succulent flavour as the late summer ones but they also tend to be impressively large. I like to use them for a savoury fig and red onion jam that is perfect with blue cheese.
The bad news is that birds love figs and over the years I’ve employed various strategies to get that perfect tree-ripened fig. Netting your complete tree is best, but easier said than done if it is a large one. In the past, I have made little hankies of fine mesh and tied them over each fruit. This season I used latex gloves with the fingers cut out for ventilation, but I like Sheryn Clothier’s idea of using little zip-lock bags over each fruit with a few holes in them. Bags would make it easier to see which ones are ripe, and I’ll be trying it next season.
There are many varieties of fig tree on the market and you are best to find ones growing well in your area before selecting a variety to plant. Here are some general pointers on three of the main families:
- As a rule, the purple skinned figs with the red flesh known as Malta types do well in warmer climates. They have smaller fruit, ripen mid to late season and some will continue ripening after you pick them. Their flavour is spicy and sweet and they also dry very well.
- The Sugar Fig varieties are squat with green to brown skin and yellow to pink flesh. They produce an early crop, do well in cooler climates and are very sweet and luscious.
- Adriatic Fig varieties are green skinned with cherry red flesh. The fruit is longer and firmer than Sugar Figs. They ripen later and have magnificent flavour when fully ripe. They need a long summer to reach full ripeness.
Since that first visit to George’s figs, I’ve planted two of his favourite varieties, his Macedonian Fig and his Black Italian (photo top). Both are doing well and the Black Italian is in the warmest most sheltered spot I could find for it. Also, a Prestons Prolific which lives up to its name and has an impressive early crop and an existing large tree which I think is an Adriatic variety and I have practised fig pruning strategies on it.
Fig trees can become large but they take pruning very well provided you follow a few key rules:
- Do major pruning late winter before the sap is flowing and paint all large cuts with anti-fungal pruning paint.
- If you are trying to reduce and reinvigorate an old overgrown tree only remove a third of the old wood each winter until you have the tree back in shape.
- Main crop fruit is borne on current season’s growth for most varieties, so annual pruning ensures vigour and continual new fruiting growth coming on.
- You can either shorten branches back to a node where it will heal or you can remove branches entirely at the base of the tree to encourage new shoots, a bit like berries.
- The later approach does keep the tree low and able to be netted more easily and it is becoming more popular to trellis or espalier these multi-stem figs.
- If you already have a single trunk and you’re just shortening branches to encourage new growth try and keep the canopy open by thinning complete branches and removing excessive side shoots. Don’t snip off all the end buds as this is where the fruit forms!
They have aggressive root systems so don’t plant next to drains, vege gardens or paving. They will seek out good earth and water from some distance.
Two of my favourite ways of eating fresh figs are with runny honey and yogurt and in a salad with mint and basil leaves. And yes, they do have one of the highest fibre counts of any fruit so they are deserving of their reputation.