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Growing fig trees – the beginner’s guide
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Fig trees are wonderful additions to any home and with so many varieties available on the market today you can grow your fig trees in containers outside or inside, you can grow them directly in the ground, you can get self-pollinating versions as well that give you fruit with a single plant. Of course, in order to get the fruits and enjoy a successful fig tree, you need to know how to grow them and it starts with planting them. When planting in the ground it’s better to restrict the root growth to help stop them getting too large and instead concentrate on producing more fruit. Fig trees planting with unrestricted root growth get very tall which is why they are also perfect for growing in containers.
Create a contained pit in the ground or growing in pots
The soil you pick should be moisture retentive with good drainage. The height and spread of a full fig tree at maturity can reach up to 2 meters in height and 3 meters in spread so you want to allow enough space for it to create its fan shape. Container plants can theoretically be planted at any time but it’s still best to do it in the spring. If you restrict the root growth you will help to encourage more fruiting and control the size to a more manageable size. If you are growing in a container obviously a smaller container around 2ft wide will help to do this automatically but if you are growing it in the ground you need to dig a hole that is approximately 2ft by 2ft by 2ft and then line the perimeter of the hole with vertical slabs or flags and add a layer of broken rubble such as bricks or even broken pots to the bottom to create a boundary for the root expansion that is 20 centimetres deep. This will help contain the roots but keep the soil well-draining.
Growing them in containers
When you are growing fig trees it is recommended that if you live in a very cold area, for example, more up north towards Scotland you grow them in containers so that you can move them inside into a cold greenhouse or shed when there is a danger of hard prolonged frost. Once this danger has passed you can move them outside to a sunny location in spring.
Feeding in spring
Give them an all-purpose feed and mulch at the base to help maintain moisture levels and suppress weed growth.
Once you see figs appear on the tree start to apply a liquid tomato feed every two weeks until you notice the figs start to ripen. The reason we recommend tomato feed is that it is high in potassium which is what is needed to help form better fruit. You should also be watering regularly at least every two weeks at the same time or more if grown in pots or in periods of dry weather, especially when the fruit is forming.
Protecting over winter
If you can bring your containers indoors for the winter, do so. You can also move them inside a greenhouse or into a shed that is unheated in the Autumn. If you have an outdoor plant that you cannot move, you need to protect it over winter by packing straw inside rap or cover with a couple of layers of horticultural fleece to protect the young small fruit from the current year which won’t have had a change to ripen. From May onward you can remove this insulation.
When you are pruning your fig trees you want to wear gloves because the sap can irritate your skin. You can limit the exposure to the sap by always starting from the bottom of your tree and pruning upward. The pruning should be done more often when the plant is young so that you can help it to establish the necessary frame and shape. When it gets older you will have to prune branches that are dead or diseased and any crossing branches or simply prune to keep the desired shape in early spring.
You can prune every year at any time of the year but do so in the early spring and beginning of summer, the only thing to bear in mind is you should not prune after June, this encourages better and large fruit but pruning too late with removing the fruiting growth as they fruit off the previous years growth. To prune you need to take pruning secateurs that have been properly sanitised and cut away all but four to six main shoots and the aim is to create an open canopy to just leave the what will be the fruiting wood, the rest of the branches should be removed. Pruning is more essential with trees grown in the ground and helps promote better and large fruit.
When it comes time to harvest your fruit you will know because the skin will be soft to the touch and if you squeeze them gently they will split. Occasionally your figs might have a small tear from which a sugary liquid is secreted right at the base of the Fig also indicative of a time to harvest. You can eat them when they are warmed directly by the sun right after you pick them or you can preserve them by drying them. With most figs grown outdoors in the Uk, you will get one crop each season but if you grow them in an unheated greenhouse you might get two crops per season. At the end of the season, any large figs that have not ripened should be pruned off but do not remove the small pea-sized embryonic fruit as they will grow and ripen the following year.
Growing fig outdoors
When growing outdoors in the UK, fig-trees do best if they are allowed to grow inside a greenhouse or grow up against the wall which will provide shelter. They can be trained much the same as a vining plant or a climber. They do best if you give them the appropriate structural framework by way of early pruning in spring and then train the remaining branches up a set of horizontal wires or against a wall. Much the same as pruning you should wear gloves when you are training just to make sure you don’t get any of the sap on your hands. With newer plants, you can pinch the tips of every other young shoot that spans from the main framework, every year before June. Doing this will help you to get a lot of lower growth from your fig tree instead of it growing far too tall and spreading outward from the top only. As the new shoots start to develop you can train them up a wall, around a trellis, or directly into the horizontal wires you set up.
They can also be grown as a standard shrub with the aim to have 4 to 6 main stems and an open canopy.
Fig Trees can be effectively grown indoors. Just because you don’t have space outside doesn’t mean you have to go without your favourite fruit. In fact, fig trees do not respond well to seriously cold temperatures as they are most effectively grown in the Mediterranean so, fig-trees grown in the UK do better in pots that can be moved indoors for the winter or even grown as a house plant in a sunny position. When growing indoors in containers it is important to not only select a container that is the appropriate size for how large your variety will be at maturity, but equally important to select self-pollinating plants if you want to collect fruit from your fig tree. In order to encourage a large production of fruits, you can use fertiliser in the spring. Regular potting soil is perfectly suitable to fig trees grown inside so long as it is well-drained soil. Much the same as a regular fig tree, you can prune to help maintain a strong frame. When grown indoors it is particularly important to prune younger trees lightly, keeping a strong framework or structure to support the remaining growth.
Watering and feeding
Trees need regular watering and feeding. They should be given a feed high in potassium such as tomato feed from spring and while the fig fruits are forming and thorough watering every two weeks from the beginning of their growth cycle through the end of August. Beyond that, you want to make sure that they are properly watered and never allowed to dry out entirely. The key with figs is consistent watering but not too often. Inconsistent watering can cause the fruit to begin to split.
The biggest problem you will face is birds. Birds will eat the young growth, the buds, and the fruit so you may need to protect your tree by covering it with netting or fleece birds are a partictular issue.
As the fruit ripens, wasps will be attracted to the high sugar content and can damage your fruit so it may be worth putting a few wasp traps up.
Another issue with which you may contend is Glasshouse red spiders or spotted mites. If you see the leaves are pale, covered in webbing on which small mites can be seen, you need to rectify the problem by misting your plant regularly. These spiders and mites thrive in very hot and dry conditions which is why they can become an issue when grown in a greenhouse.
Our favourite varieties for the UK
Ficus Brown Turkey
Brown turkey is a classic fig tree to grow in the UK and is the ultimate choice for most people. It produces a lot of tasty fruit and we’ll thrive outside in the ground or in large containers.
Ficus Osborne prolific
If you want to grow in a greenhouse then another popular variety is the Osborne prolific variety which produces dark purple fruit.
If you’re growing outside a strong and sturdy option with large fruit is the Brunswick variety.
Ficus Rouge de Bordeaux
If you are growing inside in containers you could try the Rouge de Bordeaux variety which offers the finest of taste but requires a warm indoor area to grow well.