Figs are different from practically all other fruit trees, and many people assume they’re no good for British gardens. This is completely untrue – last year I visited the secret fig garden in Tarring near Worthing in West Sussex which, allegedly, was planted in the middle ages. Officially it dates back to 1745, but that’s still quite an age, and to look at the gnarled old veterans you’d believe they were a couple of thousand years old.
It’s open one day per year (by law!) and I’d heartily suggest a visit if only for the tea, scones and fig jam to be had but…well, strange days…
There’s nothing to stop you growing your own figs though. If you’ve got a a west or south facing brick wall, a fig tree will love you. It basks in the sun all day, while behind it the bricks also soak up the warmth like a storage heater, which radiates back out at night.
Failing that, a sunny fence or patio will work too, though figs don’t much care for shade. I’ll suggest something for cool shade another day.
For a fig in open ground, you’ll need a lot of space, even if their roots are contained. They can be kept smaller in patio pots but the’re less tidy than some trees.
Choose wisely. This one will be with you a long while.
The most popular variety in the UK is Brown Turkey. You’ll find it in garden centres, but it’s very uninspiring. Happily, straightened times mean we’re not going to garden centres, and nurseries operating online have much bigger selections.
James Wong recommends Rouge de Bordeaux and Brunswick, which I thought I bought a few years back. It took a couple of seasons to work out that I didn’t have Brunswick (this happens – trees get muddled up at the nursery. I once bought an unusual russet apple which turned out to be a Golden Delicious…) but my Osborn Prolific is well-interred now, I’ll live with it. It produces LOADS of figs, which taste okay, but I think it’s worth holding out for Brunswick or another of James Wong’s suggestions which include White Marseilles and Madeleine des Deux Saisons, which is supposed to fruit twice; I don’t know if that works in the UK.
You do NOT need a pollinating partner for figs. They are ‘self-fertile’ thanks to a tiny wasp that crawls inside the baby fruit to reproduce, accidentally fertilising the fig in the process. It sounds yickky but hey, that’s Nature, it’s all yickky.
Figs must have their roots contained if you want them to fruit. Otherwise they spread out and become the fruit equivalent of couch potatoes, so happy luxuriating in the ground they don’t bother reproducing.
The easiest way to grow figs is in a large pot sunk in the ground. It will need a drainage hole, of course.
If you’re planning to keep the fig in the ground for keeps, make a ‘fig-pit’ for it with paving slabs and rubble – rubble in the base; four slabs (or three slabs and a wall) sunk into the ground on their sides, making the ‘pot’. Don’t give it special compost – it comes from stony, rocky terrain and is used to making do.
Keep it watered until it’s established. If it’s in a patio pot above ground, it will need watering for the rest of its life.
Figs can grow very large. If you’re growing it as an ornamental you can let it do its thing but if you want to actually crop it, keep it small by pruning in the summer.
You may well be surprised by your fig fruiting in the first year, but there is one heartbreaking task you’ll need to do around October. Grit your teeth and rub-away all the little baby figs that haven’t matured yet. They look like they will grow up next year. They won’t, and if they’re left, the fig thinks it’s done its work and won’t produce any new fruit the next year. Keep anything smaller than your little fingernail; remove the rest.
If you have the sun, figs are a fabulous, fabulous fruit to grow. They’re expensive in the shops but home-grown, they keep on coming every year.