Figs

Figs (Ficus carica) are large shrubs or small trees grown for their succulent fruit and beautiful architectural foliage. They thrive in the garden, in a container, in glasshouses or trained against a wall.

Fig, Ficus carica

Quick facts

Common name Fig
Botanical name Ficus carica
Group Shrub or tree
Flowering time Flowers within syconium (hollow receptacle) that swells into fruit
Planting time Spring or autumn
Height & spread 3m (10ft) by 4m (13ft)
Aspect South- or west-facing, sheltered
Hardiness Hardy in average winter and sheltered position. May require winter protection in northern parts of the country
Difficulty Moderate

Cultivation notes

Figs come from warm Mediterranean climates and in southern regions will thrive in a sunny and sheltered position with well-drained soil.

Although figs can cope with dry conditions, drought can cause fruit to drop prematurely, especially if the developing fruit suffers from lack of water early in the growing season. Water plants regularly during the summer season, but do not give them too much or water them erratically while the fruit is ripening, as this may cause the fruit to split. Container grown plants are more vulnerable to lack of water.

Feed in early spring by spreading 70g (2oz) of a balanced granular fertiliser (such as Growmore or fish, blood and bone) over the ground, and mulch with a 2.5-5cm (1-2in) of well-rotted manure. When fruits appear, feed weekly with a high-potassium liquid plant food (such as tomato fertiliser). 

Planting figs

You can grow figs in an open bed, or against a wall. Restrict the root run when planting figs. This will help to control the size and improve fruiting, as the fig will put more energy into fruiting instead of growth. Prepare as follows:

  • Dig a 60cm (2ft) square planting pit in the ground. For wall planting aim for the tree to be about 45cm (18ins) from the wall so the tree gets the full benefit of rain
  • Line the sides with paving slabs, allowing them to protrude 2.5-5cm (1-2in) above the level of the soil
  • Line the bottom of the pit with a 20cm (8in) layer of broken bricks, large crocks or rubble to provide good drainage, but discourage large roots growing through
  • Fill the pit with soil you dug out enriched with 10% by volume home-made compost or soil conditioner. Alternatively, refill with loam-based John Innes No 3 compost. Firm and level, make sure you leave 2.5-5cm (1-2in) watering rim.
  • Plant your tree and firm, then water in. Plant no deeper than the plant was in the original pot

Burying a large sturdy container 50-60cm (20in-2ft) wide and deep with drainage holes is also an option. As with the lined planting pit the container should protrude 2.5-5cm (1-2in) above the ground. Fill the bottom of the container with 5-10cm (2-4in) of crocks or rubble. Smaller pots would be prone to drying and too restrictive for reliable cropping.

Containers

Figs are well suited to container cultivation. The container by definition automatically restricts roots.

Plant in a large pot, at least 45cm (18in) diameter, filled with gritty compost (John Innes No 3 with 20 percent extra grit by volume). If starting with a smaller plant pot up gradually, from smaller to larger pot sizes over a number of growing seasons.

Repot about every three to five years when dormant (leafless) in winter. Once the final size of the pot is reached, remove about twenty per cent of the compost and cut away larger roots from the outside of the rootball. Pot up in the same pot filling the gaps with fresh growing medium.

Container grown figs need regular watering and feeding. During spring and summer feed every week. Alternate between a high potassium fertiliser such as tomato food and a general-purpose fertiliser. Water regularly; do not let the compost dry out.

Winter protection

Even though some figs are hardy down to -10°C (14°F), the tips of branches that carry fruit are vulnerable to frost and a potential crop can be lost during cold weather. Protect figs in winter by covering the bare branches with a few layers of horticultural fleece, or by packing fan-trained branches with straw or bracken. Remove the packing by the end April and remove fleece by the end of May.

If possible move container grown figs to a frost free place such as cool garage or unheated greenhouse, otherwise position in a sheltered spot. Keep the compost slightly moist. Cover the outside of the pot with bubble wrap or hessian (indoors only) to protect the roots and cover the top growth as for soil grown figs.

    Fan trained fig at WisleyFan trained fig packed with bracken for winter protectionClose up of fig foliage

    Pollination, fruiting and harvesting

    Pollination

    Fig cultivars grown for fruit in cool temperate regions develop parthenocarpic fruit - i.e. seedless fruit produced without fertilisation, therefore no pollination is necessary. In hot countries figs are pollinated by a tiny wasp (caprification), but neither the wasp nor these figs ('caprifigs') thrive in Britain. The fruiting habit of figs is unusual. The flowers are enclosed within what becomes the fruit therefore they are never visible.

    Cropping

    In Mediterranean areas figs crop twice. Plants cultivated under glass may also produce a second crop in our climate. However, if outdoor grown in the UK and other cool temperate regions they only usually produce one useable crop a year.

    In late spring you will notice embryonic pea-like fruits formed the previous year that will swell over the summer months. They are ripe and ready for picking usually in late summer or early autumn.

    You can tell when figs are ripe and ready for harvesting by giving them a gentle squeeze to see whether they are soft. Fruit colour changes, splits near the stalk end or a drop of nectar appearing at the bottom of the fruit are other signs that they are ready. 

    Often, in late summer, a second crop of embryonic fruit appears. Larger, more developed fruits are unlikely to either ripen this late in the season, or to survive until the following year so can be removed. Even if they survive the winter, they seldom ripen.

    However, if the smaller pea-sized embryonic figs developing in the leaf axils survive the winter (see above for how to protect figs in winter), they will ripen and be ready for cropping that summer.

    Pruning and training

    Figs can be either grown as half-standard or bush trees (including those grown in pots). The initial pruning is similar to training other bush top fruit such as apples and pears.

    They can also be trained as a fan against a wall.

    Bush or half standard figs

    Aim for a balanced open crown that allows light into the centre of the canopy. Prune at three key times of the year:

    • Spring: remove any branches that spoil the shape, or which are crossing or damaged, along with any suckers appearing from the ground. If needed cut back one or two branches that have become too long and bare to a 5cm (2in) stub to stimulate new growth from the base of the branch
    • Early summer: pinch out the new growth at five or six leaves. Pinch or cut the tips of shoots when they have formed five leaves at the end of June. Do not prune later growth
    • Autumn: remove any larger figs that have failed to ripen, but leave the pea-sized embryonic fruit

    Renovation pruning

    On overgrown, neglected figs the growth may be extremely leggy resulting in poor fruiting, with long bare stems and the fruit developing only on younger wood at the end of branches. 

    • Prune out a number of older, bare branches leaving a 5cm (2in) stub
    • If it is necessary to remove more than a quarter of older branches, spread the pruning over two or three years (in February) to avoid stimulating excess growth
    • If replacement growth is required, always leave 5cm (2in) long stubs
    • Renovation pruning will encourage production of vigorous new growth. Select the strongest and well-placed shoots to achieve a balanced shape. Prune out surplus shoots in summer without leaving a stub
    • Figs planted without root restriction will always be large

    Fan-trained figs

    For pruning advice, see initial training of fans and pruning established fans.

    Propagation

    Figs can be propagated by hardwood cuttings from suckers or by layering.

    Cultivar selection

    Gardeners have a number of varieties of fig to choose from. Below are a selection.

    • Ficus carica 'Bourjassotte Grise': large fruits, pale green with purple flush, very good cropper, grow in a greenhouse
    • F. carica ‘Brown Turkey’ AGM: very reliable, well-flavoured, mid-season fruit
    • F. carica ‘Brunswick’: very long lobed leaves, large purple flushed green, pear-shaped fruit, reliable
    • F. carica 'Dalmatie': large green-skinned fruit, deeply lobed leaves, can be grown outdoors in southern parts of the country, otherwise grow in a greenhouse 
    • F. carica ‘Ice Crystal’ AGM: distinctive cultivar with attractive deeply divided foliage that turns golden yellow before leaf fall, small fruit, mostly grown for its ornamental value
    • F. carica 'Rouge de Bordeaux': blue-purple skin, very good flavour, requires a greenhouse or particularly sheltered, warm wall
    • F. carica 'Violette Dauphine': purple fig, requires a warm sheltered spot
    • F. carica ‘White Marseilles’: early, pale green fruit

    Links

    RHS Find a Plant
    AGM plants

    Problems

    Figs are generally trouble-free, but may be affected by cold weather, rotting of the fruits, scale insect  and red spider mite especially if grown under glass. Birds may be a problem.

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