Figs are certainly one of the more unusual fruits to be found in Irish gardens. Native to North Africa where it grows on rocky hillsides, Ireland is at the very limit of its range. Given its origin, figs require plenty of sun and warmth and are best planted against a sunny south facing wall. Many of the old walled gardens featured figs and, where they survive, these crop with reasonably regularity, even when neglected.
In warm countries fig trees have the potential to produce two crops of fruit each year but this is not possible in Ireland unless grown with protection where warm temperatures can be artificially maintained from January onwards.
There are only a small number of varieties of figs available, some of which are more suited to glasshouse production while others can be grown outdoors with only a small amount of protection. ‘Brown Turkey' has been the number one choice for many years. It is a reliable cropper giving oval red fleshed fruit of excellent flavour in August and September. ‘Brunswick' is a good second choice as it produces large oval shaped fruit some two weeks earlier than ‘Brown Turkey'.
The fig is one of the few fruits that is grown on its own roots. Old trees self-layer where low branches touch the ground and these layers can be used as new trees. When sold in garden centres the young plants will normally have been grown from cuttings and will be two or three years old.
Root restriction is an important element of the management of the fig tree. This can be achieved by planting into a narrow border or in a trough, open at the bottom, made of stone or slate to restrict the extension growth of surface roots. The soil must be free draining in winter but must retain water during periods of drought in summer. It should not be overly rich, quite ordinary soil will do. The tree can be grown in a greenhouse, but it is a large tree and space is required. It can also be grown in a large pot and kept small by pruning.
After planting, tree growth should be encouraged by liquid feeding every month in summer for about two years. During this time the tree will produce long growths that are tied back to the wall in a fan shape, spaced about 50 centimetres apart. If the tree is lanky to start with, it should be pruned to induce the growth of branches lower down. These shoots form the basis of the permanent branch system.
The first young figs will be produced after three or four years. These will not ripen. Any fruit produced on young growth from spring will not normally ripen under Irish conditions, drying up and falling off in winter. For this reason, it is essential to pinch out the spring growths at about five leaves during the month of June. These will then produce side growths which will carry tiny, pea-sized flower buds going into winter. Only the smallest buds will survive the winter and go on to ripen the following summer. Older trees often produce these late side-growths naturally and, for this reason, figs sometimes ripen on old neglected trees.
The fig flower becomes the fruit - it is actually made up of many small flowers internally. In the wild fig, the flowers must be pollinated by a small specialised wasp but the cultivated varieties are self-fertile. In colder areas, outdoor trees will require protection, such as horticultural fleece, in winter. Figs can grow very vigorously and regular pruning is needed in summer. This consists of thinning the number of unwanted growths. In late winter, any surplus older branches can be removed.
The fruit is not difficult to produce but the tree needs close attention to siting, training and pruning. A good summer helps, but there is no more delicious fruit than a ripe, sun-warmed, fresh fig.