If your figs have suffered this season as Monty Don’s have, follow his advice to save next year’s succulent crop
Our expert’s figs haven’t flourished this year. Here he describes what steps to take right now if yours have suffered too
The weather this year has been extreme, thanks to the cold winter and early spring followed by that blazing hot, dry summer. I am aware that I’m writing this from the comfort of the wet, western side of the country and that everyone living to the east has had a much more parched time of it in the past few months, but for us, the harsh sun following a winter of proper snowfalls was very unusual.
By and large we’ve coped pretty well, but the effect on some garden plants has been marked, and not necessarily on those that you might think most vulnerable – or indeed in a manner that you might have expected. There were many more green tomatoes in August than normal because the extra heat was inhibiting ripening. Blossom end rot was also a major problem with tomatoes because we all watered too much or too little in response to the heatwave.
Figs were another fruit ( yes, tomatoes are fruit) that both pleased and ultimately disappointed me. I have seven fig trees in my garden, all planted pretty much at the same time 23 years ago, and all grew better than ever before. They developed healthy shoots and a mass of rather smaller- than- usual leaves – in fact, behaving just as they do in the Mediterranean. They also carried particularly large fruit. But here’s the rub: these fruit were all in the second crop that the trees produce rather than from the first crop, which would normally be ripe at the end of summer. The net effect was that we had far fewer figs to eat than usual.
Let me explain. By mid to late summer, a fig tree will be carrying three separate crops. There will be large fruit, which in the case of my ‘Brown Turkey’ variety will have chocolate- coloured skins and deep-scarlet interiors and will be the size of a large plum. In a normal year there will also be rather small fruits that range from the size of a pea to a largish marble. This second crop will be rock- hard, still green and very unripe even at the end of a long summer. Finally, for the third crop, look closely at the end of the shoots and you’ll see tiny little fruitlets the size of a pinhead to a small pea. These will spend winter on the tree before growing and ripening ready for harvesting 12 months later.
But this summer, my second crop – the marble-sized fruit – became much bigger and more dominant, at the expense of the first crop ripen- ing properly. Sadly, it’s now time to remove these impressively sized fruits from the tree. It might seem like an appalling waste but not only will this second crop never really ripen properly, but its presence and continued growth take energy away from the third, currently tiny, crop, which you’ll want to enjoy next year.
Figs are tougher than you might think and can take all but the harshest cold – I lost a few trees in 2010 when the temperature dropped to -18 º C but by and large they are very resilient. They do need good drainage, and a certain amount of restriction or impoverished soil will improve fruiting. But do not go overboard on that. Give a young fig a good start and allow the roots enough space to develop so you get a reasonably sized tree. If you are growing them in pots, have plenty of grit in the compost but water them regularly and feed once a week in the growing season with a weak mix of liquid seaweed – and if you have any figs on your tree big enough to grasp that are green and hard then abandon all hope; they are not going to ripen!
Monty with his fig trees