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How to grow figs in the UK

Growing figs. Exotic, or a 'fig'ment of the imagination?

The mysterious world of figs is easy to figure out once you realise that it's easy to grow these fruit trees. These long-lived plants crop well here in the south east, particularly now that winters tend to be milder and start later than ever before. People have been growing figs in thIs country since Tudor times. They just need a good sunny position, some food, water and shelter. A limited number of fig varieties are reliable in the UK but these are readily available and prolific fruiters.  What's more, these figs are self-fertile and they can both pollinate and set fruit without needing any intervention from insects or gardeners.

Not all figs are purple when ripe. Some have green skin, others yellow. The foliage is similar and they all have an exotic appearance.  

They don't need us to root for them!

If that's not enough, these easy-to-care-for trees generally use their own roots rather than being grafted onto the lower portion of another plant (a rootstock) as are most other fruit trees such as apples. Instead of using a different root to curb their vigour the fig can be contained in order to limit its size. This also discourages it from producing too much lush and leafy foliage in favour of figs.

The foliage of a Ficus or fig tree looks exotic but several fig trees are hardy here in the UK.  

Fruits for everyone

The fruits of a fig need not present any mysteries either. The embryonic fruits form a year before they grow large enough to be harvested. They appear as little pea-sized lumps on the stems.  Fig trees can benefit from extra shelter during a harsh winter but provided the site is sheltered they should cope well in milder regions of the country. Containers can be wrapped for extra warmth and this is easily achieved with horticultural fleece or insulating plastic.

Winter! Fig trees might be fine if they occupy a sheltered site in a warmer part of the UK such as the south east. Otherwise they could benefit from an insulating cover during freezing temperatures.

Which container?

The ultimate size of container in which a fig will be happy for life will be around 45cm in diameter. Adequate drainage holes are essential as they like to be free-draining and don't appreciate sitting in a swamp. Take a look at some pots for inspiration.  The perfect fig position will be against a warm wall, upon which the fig tree stems and branches can be trained. Try a fan shape for maximum fruiting or you can be architecturally experimental and train the whippy new growth into all sorts of pleasing waves, swirls or geometric shapes.

At Sissinghust Castle in Kent there's a stunning fig tree that has been trained up a brick wall in sculptural swirls.  

Shaping up

This is the perfect time to place a fig into its growing position! You can provide horizontal wall cables to enable you to tie your plant to the desired shape, spacing these around 35cm apart.  Use good quality compost and be prepared to feed your plant regularly during the growing season. Remember to leave enough room at the top of the pot for a top dressing of mulch in the future.

 There are plenty of pots which would easily house a growing fig tree. These low level planters would be ideal on a sheltered, sunny balcony.

Keeping in trim

Containerised figs are very easy to tame! The main pruning time is spring when you can take out any crossing growth or those twigs that are growing towards the centre of the tree. You want to achieve a good free-flow of air through the plant in order to maintain its good health. Branches that grow too long can be cut back to around 5cm in length and you can pinch out new growth if you want to encourage a nice bushy plant. What do fig trees need the most? Water and sunshine. They need regular watering during the growing season, especially whilst the fruits are forming and swelling. If you see a significant fruit-drop in June, it's generally because the plant is too dry. Some potash feed during this time is also beneficial - tomato fertiliser is ideal. They need sunshine for the fruits to ripen. Fig fruits grow easily provided they have enough sunshine. They take a year from pea-sized beginnings to ripened fruit around July onwards.

Juicy fruit

The fig fruits should be ready for eating from late July onwards and the fruiting period often lasts right through until September. How do you tell when they are ripe? Bear in mind that figs are not always purple like the shop-bought fruit. Some are green or even yellow, so the colour doesn’t necessarily tell you when they are ripe.  The clue to picking is when the stem becomes limp and the fig hangs downwards. At this time the fruits might also show small splits in the skin, and sometimes a sticky release of juice towards the base of the fruit. Once they reach this stage they quickly become over-ripe and will begin to rot. Fresh figs can be stored in a cool place for up to two weeks and they can also be dried on a low heat in the oven for a couple of hours.

Fig varieties suitable for the UK

Enjoy eating the fruits of your labours. Growing figs is easy and rewarding too! Undoubtedly, Ficus carica 'Brown Turkey' is the most successful variety in cooler climates. It is a reliable mid-season tree and produces dark-skinned fruits which have deep red flesh.  Next comes Ficus carica Brunswick which is also extremely hardy. The sweet fruits have greeny-yellow skin and reddish flesh. For a greenhouse, conservatory or really sheltered site there's Rouge de Bordeaux which has deep purple fruits with red flesh. These are said to have the best flavour of all. Then there's White Marseilles' with its pale green skin and almost translucent flesh.
By Perfect Plants


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