Fig trees, while having a beautifully exotic and tropical appearance, can be grown in the UK with no problem. In fact, Brits have been growing figs since the Romans first introduced them. They are so hardy that even if grown outside, a hard UK winter – such as 2010-2011 – will cause very little damage to the plant. However, whether you get a crop or not is a different question, as figs need both warmth and time to fully ripen. For reliable crops of delicious figs, fig trees need either a warm, sheltered spot outside, or a polytunnel. Polytunnels are ideal, as they also give the plants shelter over winter – which can mean two crops of fruit a year for some varieties.
In terms of pollination, there are two types of fig: those which are self fertile, and those which need the assistance of the fig wasp. The fig wasp doesn’t live in the UK, so if you get the wrong kind of plant you won’t be getting many figs.
Planting and potting a fig
If you’re planting a single stem tree, cut it back to between 20-25cms to encourage side growth. On a bush, trim off the growing tips for the same reason.
Figs do best when their roots are restricted, making them ideal container plants. However, if you have any paving slabs lying around, you can dig a hole in a bed roughly 50cms square and line it with the slabs, placing a few cms of broken bricks or gravel in the bottom for drainage. If planted in a pot, figs should be lifted every other year and replanted in something slightly larger until the pot is getting difficult to move around, usually at around 60-70cms wide.
Each time the plant is lifted, up to a quarter of the root ball should be removed to encourage new growth. It’s better to take the harder, woody growth and leave the softer roots behind. Plant it slightly lower in the pot than the last time, leaving at least 2.5cms at the top for watering, and fill with a well draining mix of loam, organic matter and completely rotted compost. Don’t add compost that’s too fresh or you risk burning the roots. Feed plants with seaweed every week during the growing season.
Feeding and watering
Water regularly once growing begins, usually in March. This should be done daily, especially in hot weather, through to October. Feed weekly with the same kind of mix you’d give tomatoes – high potash – from April through to the harvest.
Figs should be pruned every year, from mid-April (in the south) to mid-May (further north) to encourage side shoots, as fruit will only form towards their growing tips. Ideally, nip out the tip on any shoot that has 4 or 5 leaves on it.
If you are fan-training a plant against a sheltering wall, prune out up to a quarter of the oldest stems, as well as any that are crossing or growing out in unwanted directions. Prune again in mid summer to remove any growth which may shade the ripening fruit and trim off all growing tips to encourage more fruit the following year.
At the end of the season, after the leaves have dropped, remove any fruit larger than a pea. Leaving them in place will delay ripening of the next crop.
If you’re buying from a garden centre then you may only be offered ‘Brown Turkey’ simply because it’s very hardy. However, there are plenty of others offering better fruit, especially if you plan on growing them in a polytunnel. Here are three to try:
Violette (also Rouge) de Bordeaux
An exceptionally tasty variety with a flavour suggesting raspberry jam. Grows far better under cover.
Panachee, or Tiger Fig
This spectacular striped variety requires a long growing season, so it does best under cover. The single annual crop of strawberry-flavoured fruit should be ready in late September.
Also known as the lemon fig, because the large, thin-skinned fruit shades yellow as it ripens. This variety was planted at Lambeth Palace by Cardinal Pole in 1525…and it’s still there!