Figs are a wonderful addition to any (subtropical) home garden. Unless you are growing figs in your backyard (or know someone who does), you will most likely miss out on savouring the joys of the luscious fig. They have a very short shelf life so rarely make it (in a fresh form) to supermarket or fruit shop shelves.
Humans have been growing figs for millennia: according to creation stories, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to protect their modesty in the Garden of Eden. The fig tree is a deciduous subtropical tree, native to Western Asia. There are several types of fig grown around the world, and a large number of cultivars of each type are available. In New Zealand, Incredible Edibles stock a great selection that span a wide growing season.
Many people avoid planting figs in their garden because they are very vigorous and can become quite large trees, but the Auckland Botanical Gardens have a specimen in their demonstration home garden that is kept pruned to just above fence height (and this is what I plan to do with mine). They can be espaliered. Plant your tree in full sun, preferably on warmer North to North-East facing slopes. I have two trees: one in a very sunny spot and another in a more shaded spot and the sunny one always does much better. Trees will need some shelter to prevent wind damage to the lush canopy and fruit. Heavy clay soils are ideal for figs as these do not stimulate too much growth. Apply fertiliser sparingly in spring; too much fertiliser can produce lush leaf growth at the expense of fruit.
Figs are great grown in containers where a very restricted root zone makes them more manageable and fruitful – as long as you water them well.
Figs generally grow in warm, relatively dry climates and will not tolerate waterlogged soils for more than a few hours. They should be planted in well-aerated and well-drained soils. Although figs can tolerate dry conditions they need plenty of water during the growing season to produce large succulent fruit. The fruit dislikes rain and may split. However, this has been an extremely wet summer in Auckland and my figs have thrived so I don’t think they are too fussy. I didn’t get any split fruit except when the birds pecked them.
The main pests I have encountered are the birds. In the first year I was able to put a net over most of the tree to make sure I got most of the fruit. Last year I was away at the critical time so the birds got almost the whole crop! This year I tried using bird scaring tape with little success but discovered that if I picked the figs every day just as they started to colour and soften, the birds weren’t too much problem. The fruit ripened up nicely on the kitchen bench.
Figs contain more fibre than most other fruits or vegetables and are friendly to the digestive system (and mildly laxative). They contain an enzyme called ficin that helps the digestive process by soothing the gut. They are also a rich source of iron, potassium and calcium and high in polyphenol antioxidants.
After my first crop, I discovered that you could freeze them whole as they ripened until you have enough to make fig & ginger jam. This year I have been fortunate to have enough to eat, freeze and share with others. Apart from just eating them straight from the tree, I have used them:
- fresh in salads (with rocket, feta, walnuts and drizzled with balsamic dressing)
- grilled and drizzled with lavender syrup, or grilled with walnuts and honey
- and poached in a honey syrup, served with almonds and yoghurt.
I’d love to hear if you have any delicious recipes to try, as I still have lots in the freezer to use.