How to har­ness the sweet­ness of figs

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Steven Des­mond is au­thor of Gar­dens of the Ital­ian Lakes Steven Des­mond

Steven Des­mond ex­plains how to grow the de­lec­ta­ble fruit any­where in the UK

THE fig is a very de­sir­able fruit. When it’s per­fectly ripe and warm in the hand, we are per­mit­ted to an­tic­i­pate its lus­cious flesh, yet most of us can think of flour­ish­ing fig trees in var­i­ous parts of this coun­try, with fa­mously mag­nif­i­cent fo­liage, that never pro­duce any­thing worth eat­ing. There must be a bet­ter way. For­tu­nately, there is. Although crops will vary with the char­ac­ter of each sum­mer, it’s def­i­nitely worth grow­ing your own.

Figs have been cul­ti­vated suc­cess­fully out­doors in south­ern Eng­land, and un­der glass far­ther north, for cen­turies. A ma­ture fig tree is per­fectly hardy in this coun­try. In the 1930s, fig trees dec­o­rated the façade of the Na­tional Gallery in Lon­don and many Sh­effield res­i­dents will re­call the fig trees on the banks of the River Don, which thrived un­til the forges ceased to churn out hot wa­ter in mod­ern times.

In order for the fruit to ripen, how­ever, we would need longer, warmer, sun­nier sum­mers. The sim­ple an­swer is to grow the tree in a pot and to bring that pot un­der glass for the cooler part of the year. If figs can be ripened in the Swiss Alps, we can do it here.

First, choose your cul­ti­var. There are sev­eral well-known good do­ers. Fore­most among these is Brown Turkey, which will bear plenty of ripe brown-skinned, red-fleshed fruit if treated prop­erly. Of course, if you grow it your­self, you’ll en­joy the vis­ual plea­sure of the blue bloom, too.

Brunswick has also proved reli­able for cen­turies. It was known as Madonna un­til the Hanove­ri­ans ar­rived, prompt­ing a flat­ter­ing change of name. Its skin and flesh are green­ish yel­low. You could try White Mar­seilles for its pale skin and translu­cent flesh, af­ford­ing a pleas­ant sense of one-up­man­ship. A mod­ern ri­val worth a go is Per­retta, with greeny-brown skin and red flesh.

Equally good, but only suit­able for full-time glasshouse cul­ti­va­tion, is Rouge de Bordeaux, which I think speaks for it­self.

When your ap­pren­tice fig tree ar­rives from the nurs­ery, put it into a pot some­what big­ger than the one in which it was de­liv­ered. Root re­stric­tion is a ba­sic ne­ces­sity for figs, oth­er­wise you will get lots of those fa­mous leaves to fur­nish mod­esty to your stat­ues—and next to no fruit. Keep your por­ta­ble fig tree out of the frost for the first three years: the thicker the wood, the hardier it is.

Once it’s reached its fourth year, trans­plant it into a big con­tainer mea­sur­ing 2ft in all the rel­e­vant di­rec­tions. Use a loam-based com­post such as John Innes No. 3, which will even out im­per­fec­tions of man­age­ment and pro­vide some bal­last when the wind rises on your ter­race.

The sim­plest form to grow in such a pot is a bush, so that the branches arise from the base. Re­move any spindly ones and cut out the old­est and least pro­duc­tive over time. At the end of May, wheel the whole thing out of its un­heated glasshouse and place it with its back to a south­fac­ing wall. Feed it weekly with a can­ful of liq­uid feed, high in po­tas­sium. The analysis is, by law, pub­lished on the side of the box.

Wa­ter plen­ti­fully through­out the sum­mer. We think of figs thriv­ing on stony riv­ieras, but those leaves are very large and need to be kept turgid.

We’re all fa­mil­iar with the mys­ti­fy­ing sight of two sets of fruit on fig shoots, nei­ther of which seems to be get­ting any­where. Face the in­evitable and re­move the larger ones, which are never go­ing to ripen, and re­tain the rows of pea-sized fel­lows. They’ll ripen next year.

Don’t worry about the lack of the fa­mous tiny pol­li­nat­ing wasp. The di­vine plan has a back-up pol­icy that en­sures all fig flow­ers pol­li­nate and fer­tilise them­selves. You can’t ask for much more.

Figs typ­i­cally fruit dur­ing Au­gust and Septem­ber, but you should think ahead to a glut in Oc­to­ber, when you move your pot back un­der glass. Never mind those leath­ery figs in the shops. Yours will be ripe when slight splits be­gin to form in the skin and lit­tle damp patches start to show near the point of at­tach­ment.

Then you can gorge and call round your gourmet friends to en­joy and com­pare, to serve with smoked ham and a glass of marsala. Now we’re get­ting there.

‘If figs can be ripened in the Swiss Alps, we can do it here’

De­li­cious: Rouge de Bordeaux and White Mar­seilles (in­set)

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