How to harness the sweetness of figs
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)