Growing and Harvesting Figs

Italian Black Fig

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.

breba-crop-figs

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.

bird protection on figs

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.

Adriatic Figs-01

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.

Prestons Prolific Fig

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.

 

Fig Salad

 

  • PLEASE SHARE:

14 comments

  1. I have my brown turkey fig in an old ringer washing machine bowl. it gives enough figs. loves sheep droppings watered down. I have just potted a red flesh one in a big pot. pick warm from the tree. yum I have figs,raspberries,blueberries and strawberries for breakfast.

  2. Thanks for the ‘breba crop’ explanation. I wondered why some years we get an early January crop and others we don’t. I thought it was the fig variety. I would love to visit George’s property someday, his figs and fig jam are the best!

  3. I’ve just had a visit from pals from Blenheim with a bag of their luscious ‘breba’ crop figs and am now desperate to grow a tree in Oamaru, North Otago. Any suggestions as to the best varieties?

    1. I think you’ll be pushing it Heather. Sorry – that might be a bit far south for figs.

      1. To fig lover from Oamaru, We live in South Canterbury inland from Timaru. Our French sugar fig has just started ripening its breber crop as of yesterday. We don’t get the secondary set to ripen, but the first crop is always appreciated. If the summer is too cold it can be a bit hit and miss. The tree is against a north facing shed and if it is frosty after the leaves appear we throw a sheet or frost cloth over it. We like trying to grow things that people say we can’t – persimmons for at least two seasons and this season our first loquats. Not large harvests, but fun to do it. Create a microclimate, ask around if someone else likes to push the boundaries and how they do it. You may find useful tips for your area.

        1. Thanks Jenni, that is really interesting that you’re getting a breba crop to ripen in South Canterbury – thanks for sharing that and your method.

          1. Hi oamaru fig lover!

            Do I have news for you?!
            We are in Dunedin, and have just had our first fig crop after pruning a big old tree on our property – it’s a Brown Turkey Fig. Absolutely massive figs from the breba crop, not many, but they are so big they’re more than enough for a meal! I’d say being in Oamaru, you’d have a better chance than us here on the Peninsula – so go for it!!! Hoping that the second crop will get there too – fingers crossed!

          2. Wow – how cool is that Isabella – thanks for sharing.

  4. Great article! I am very keen to grow figs in Central Otago. Can you suggest suitable varieties if I can protect them from frost? (via orchard wind machine) Thanks!

    1. Hi Anne, thanks for your comment. I really think you will be pushing the limits to grow figs in Central Otago. The summers may well be hot enough but the winter temperatures will freeze the sap in the branches and kill them.

  5. Hi Heather, the later crop of figs that wont ripen can be processed into a Preserve, which is wonderful to eat with sliced cheese, and fabulous eaten with soft cheeses.

    GREEN FIG PRESERVE
    Recipe from Shirley Guy

    Green figs (pick while still quite firm)
    1.5 litres water per 1 kg sugar
    1.25 kg sugar per 1 kg fruit
    20 ml lemon juice per 1 kg fruit

    SOAKING SOLUTION
    25 ml slaked lime (available from pharmacy) per 5 litres water

    If you like, you can add a few pieces fresh ginger and some ginger juice.

    1. Scrape the figs with a knife, and make a cross on the rounded, flower end of each fig. Weigh the figs.
    2. Make the slaked lime solution and soak the figs in it overnight. Rinse thoroughly in fresh water and leave to soak in fresh water and leave to soak in fresh water for at least 15 minutes.
    3. Prepare the syrup by boiling the water and pouring it over the sugar in a saucepan. Add the lemon juice and bring the syrup to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
    4. In the meantime, boil the figs in water for about 15 minutes or until they are just tender (not too long).
    5. Remove the figs from the water with a slotted spoon and place them in the boiling syrup. Boil, uncovered, until the figs are tender and translucent and the syrup is thick. If the syrup is not thick enough, remove figs and then boil the syrup until just thickening (not too much).
    6. Spoon the figs and syrup into hot, dry, sterilised bottles. Make sure that the figs are totally covered by the syrup, or they may go mouldy. Seal immediately.

    1. Oooo Fay – thanks for that – it sounds really good. I’ve got a lot that aren’t ripening this autumn so I’ll have to look out some slaked lime.

  6. Hi Heather, I just got given a Brown Turkey fig tree from a garden centre, which was a very sweet thought but I’m not very happy with the shape of it. It’s taller than me, and all the branches are in the top half (I’ve got a wine barrel to put it in, which will make it even taller!) and the branches are at a really steep angle. Almost vertical. The bottom half of the trunk looks like it’s had lots of branches sliced away right up to the trunk. What I’d dearly love to do is lop it down by at least half and hope that is shoots out some nice vase-shaped branches at a more reachable height. Do you think it might respond to this? I’ve only used that technique on very young stone fruit, whereas this looks a bit older and I’ve never had a fig tree before, so I’m not confident with how vigorously they sprout. Should I leave a couple of the bottom side branches on, so it at least has something? Bit nerve-wracking!!! Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Margaret, winter is a good time of year. I’d leave a couple of the bottom side branches as an insurance policy but I think you’re on the right track. Any dormant buds on the remaining stem should spring to life in spring or new shoots from the ground might emerge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *