Sweet, succulent figs may sound like exotic treats for warmer climes, but if you choose the right variety, you can enjoy freshly picked home-grown figs in the UK, in a mild, sunny site. In cooler locations, figs can be grown in containers and brought indoors over winter to protect the developing fruitlets, or outdoor plants can be wrapped in fleece. And with our warming climate, the range of suitable outdoor growing sites is continually expanding.
Twice-yearly pruning also keeps these vigorous plants at a manageable size and improves fruiting. Fan-trained figs can be restricted to 1.8m (6ft) tall and 3.5m (11½ft ) wide if necessary, but will happily grow to twice that width if you have the space.
In the UK's cool temperate climate, figs develop seedless fruit without fertilisation (parthenocarpic fruit), so
Figs crop well in containers, either trained as a fan or as a small free-standing bush or tree, so can be grown in even the tiniest garden in a warm, sunny spot. Keeping them in a pot is also useful in cooler regions, so they can be moved indoors over winter. A free-standing fig in a container can be pruned to keep it about 1.5m (5ft) tall and 90cm (3ft) wide if necessary, but can grow larger if you have more space.
In cool climates such as the UK, figs usually produce two crops a year, but only the first of these usually ripens:
The first crop is produced from embryonic figs that start to form in late summer at the branch tips. They stay as pea-sizefruitlets until spring, when they start into growth, and will have enough time to ripen over summer. As the tiny fruitlets form at the shoot tips, they are prone to frost damage, so winter protection is beneficial
The second crop forms on the current season’s growth later in spring and early summer. These figs rarely have time to ripen outdoors. They can grow to a reasonable size, but will remain hard and green. They may survive the winter, but will fail to grow and ripen the following year. They are best removed in autumn
Fig trees can also be grown in a greenhouse all year round, where they may possibly ripen both crops in a good summer.
Month by Month
There are several varieties of fig suitable for cropping in the UK, offering variations in hardiness and fruit size, flavour and sweetness. The best known is ‘Brown Turkey’, which is hardy and should fruit well outdoors in most of the UK. It is widely available and has an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which shows it performs well.
You can see many fruit trees, including figs, in the fruit and veg plots in the RHS gardens, so do visit to see how they are grown, compare varieties and pick up useful tips.
What and where to buy
Figs are sold as young potted plants in spring and summer. They are available in many garden centres, but for the widest choice of varieties go to specialist fruit nurseries and online fruit tree suppliers.
Before buying any tree, check out our guide to trees and the law and our guide to trees near buildings.
Preparing the Ground
Figs need a warm, sheltered spot, ideally against a sunny wall. It’s best to restrict their roots, which encourages fruiting, by either lining the planting hole with paving slabs or by planting in a container.
So to prepare for planting in the ground, dig a large hole, 60cm (2ft) deep and wide, at least 20cm (8in) away from the base of the wall or fence. Then line the sides with vertical paving slabs. These should ideally form a rim 2.5cm (1in) higher than the surrounding soil, to stop any roots escaping over the top.
Leave the base of the hole unlined, but add a 10–20cm (4–8in) layer of rubble or stones to prevent the roots going downwards while ensuring good drainage. Then refill the hole with soil.
Alternatively, you can plant into a large container – you can sink this into the ground if you wish, or leave it free-standing.
Spring is the ideal time to plant, so your new fig will have a full growing season to get established.
When planting in the ground, choose a warm, sheltered spot with free-draining soil, against a south- or south-west-facing wall or fence, where the branches can be trained into a fan shape. Allow plenty of room on either side – a fan-trained fig will reach at least 1.8m (6ft) tall and about 3.5m (12ft) wide, or more if you have the space. Prepare the planting hole as explained above.
You will also need to attach horizontal wires or trellis to the wall or fence, so you can attach the branches of the fan. See our guide to fan training.
Planting in containers
Initially, plant in a pot 30cm (1ft) wide. Fill it with free-draining potting compost, such as John Innes No. 3. The surface of the compost should be at least 2.5 cm (1in) below the rim of the pot, to allow for watering.
Position the container in a warm, sunny spot, ideally against a south-facing wall. You can sink it into the ground if you wish or keep it free-standing. Containers restrict the roots in a similar way to using paving slabs (see above), which encourages fruiting.
Figs need regular watering, especially when growing in a container or with restricted roots, and should be protected over winter so the small fruitlets don’t get damaged by frost.
Fig trees like plenty of water throughout spring and summer, especially if their roots are restricted. They may shed their leaves and/or their fruits if they dry out too much.
Newly planted fig trees must be watered regularly for their first growing season
Established fig trees may also need ongoing watering, especially in hot weather. Those growing at the base of a wall or fence may be sheltered from the rain, so give them additional water whenever the soil is dry. Fig trees with their roots restricted, either within vertical paving slabs or a container sunk into the ground, can’t extend their roots in search of moisture, so may need watering in dry spells too
Figs in containers must be watered frequently through the growing season, as the relatively small amount of potting compost will dry out quickly in summer. Just make sure they are never left sitting in waterlogged compost, especially in winter. Ensure the pot has plenty of drainage holes and raise it up on bricks to keep them clear
Apply a thick layer of mulch, such as well-rotted manure or garden compost, around figs growing in the ground, to help hold moisture in the soil. Take care to leave a small gap around the base of the trunk.
In early spring, feed with a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4 or blood, fish and bone. Scatter one handful per square metre/yard around the base.
To boost fruiting, apply liquid tomato fertiliser every two to three weeks throughout the growing season, until the figs start to ripen in late summer.
Looking after fruits
Fig trees produce fruitlets twice a year, in late summer and late spring:
Late-summer fruitlets (pea-size embryos) form on the branch tips. They will stay on the leafless tree over winter and start growing in spring, so should have time to ripen over the summer. So don’t remove these by pruning the branches back in spring. The branch tips carrying the tiny fruitlets can be prone to frost damage and will benefit from winter protection
Late-spring fruitlets, which form on the current season’s growth, don’t generally have time to ripen in the UK outdoors. Our summers are usually too short and cool. So by the end of summer, remove any fruits that are larger than pea-sized, as they will only shrivel and rot. Even if they overwinter intact, they won’t continue growing next year. However, they may ripen on plants grown under cover all year round
When your figs start to ripen in summer, protect them from birds and squirrels by covering the tree with netting, held away from the fruits with canes.
Extra care for plants in containers
Re-pot containerised figs every couple of years in March, moving them into a pot that’s about 5cm (2in) larger each time. Use John Innes No. 3 compost. Figs fruit best when their roots are restricted, so avoid moving plants into a much larger container.
Once you reach a pot size of 45cm (18in) wide, there’s no need to increase the size further. Instead, every few years, take the plant out of its pot, remove as much old compost as possible from among the roots, then re-pot it back into the same container using fresh compost. Alternatively, just scrape off the top 2.5cm (1in) of old compost every spring and replace with new.
In all but the warmest sites, it’s best to protect fig trees over winter, so the tiny fruitlets that form in late summer don’t get damaged by frost, which would ruin the following year’s crop:
Fan-trained figs – once the leaves fall in autumn, pack straw or bracken around the branches, then secure with netting or cover with horticultural fleece or hessian. Remove the insulation gradually in spring once growth starts
Free-standing fig trees in containers – in autumn, move plants into an unheated greenhouse, shed or porch until after the last frost in late spring. Alternatively, wrap as described above
Pruning and Training
To get the best crop, fig trees should be trained flat against a warm sunny wall to help the fruit ripen, and should be pruned twice a year to control the plant’s size and encourage fruiting.
Figs are usually trained as fans, which are ornamental, space-saving and productive. To support the fan of branches, attach trellis or horizontal wires, spaced 30cm (1ft) apart, to the wall or fence. Fan-trained figs can be kept to about 1.8m (6ft) tall and 3.5m (11½ft) wide, or allowed to grow wider if you have more space. In colder locations, figs can be fan trained inside a greenhouse to horizontal wires hung 30cm (1ft) away from the glass.
Untrained fig trees may still produce fruit, but they can grow very large, fruiting may not be as successful, and the crop will be less easy to protect and harvest.
When pruning figs, bear in mind that the sap is an irritant, so wear protective gloves and start pruning from the base of the plant and work upwards, to avoid any drips.
For detailed advice on fan and bush training see our pruning guide below.
Fan-trained figs should be pruned twice year:
In spring – reduce the number of young shoots (that grew the previous season) by about a third, leaving a 2.5cm (1in) stub, to encourage replacement shoots to grow. Aim to space them out as evenly as possible. Prioritise removing lanky shoots without developing fruitlets at the tip. On mature fans, remove one or two older, overly long, bare branches, pruning to 5–8cm (2–3in) stubs to encourage growth of new replacement shoots. Prune outward-growing shoots hard back and remove those growing inwards towards the wall or fence. Tie in new shoots to the wires, spreading them out in a fan shape
In June – remove the tip of every other young shoot on the main framework once they’ve developed five leaves, to encourage lower, bushier growth. Stop doing this by mid-summer, as the resulting new growth may not have time to form tiny fruitlets by the end of the growing season. As new shoots grow, tie them to the wires
In spring – cut out any dead, crossing or weak branches before growth starts, retaining those with tiny fruitlets at their tip. If the branching is sparse, cut back unbranched shoots to a 2.5cm (1in) stub, to encourage replacement growth. Prune over-long, bare branches or shoots back to 5–8cm (2–3in), to encourage growth of replacement shoots that will carry fruit the following year
In June – pinch back young shoots as soon as they’ve developed five or six leaves. This will encourage branching and the formation of embryonic fruitlets on shoot tips that will become next year’s crop. Stop doing this by mid-summer, as the resulting new growth may not have time to form tiny fruitlets before the end of the growing season
Figs are ready to harvest when their skin is soft and they hang limply from the branch. They may split when gently squeezed. Occasionally they produce a droplet of sugary liquid from the ‘eye’ at the base.
Most fig trees only ripen one crop per year, at the end of summer. However, in very warm sites or in a greenhouse, they may produce two crops over the summer.
Figs are best eaten sun warmed, straight from the tree. Ripe figs will only keep for a few days if necessary. Alternatively, they can be preserved by drying on trays in an airing cupboard, turning them once a day for a week.
Figs are usually hardy, healthy, vigorous plants that are not prone to diseases and grow well in most locations. They may sometimes be affected by scale insects or red spider mites when grown in a greenhouse.
Fruit ripening can be a problem, especially in cooler locations or poor summers. Fig trees need a warm, sheltered, sunny site, ideally against a south-facing wall, and the fruitlets need protection from frost over winter.
As soon as the figs start to ripen, cover the plant with netting, held away from the fruits with canes, to protect them from birds and squirrels.
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