Friday, March 17, 2017

Getting the Best out of your Fig Tree - Part 2

Food Garden Group member Richard Kent is an experienced fresh fig and fig tree grower who has grown figs for over a decade. In this blog post he shares what he has learnt over the last few years.

The Common Fig (Ficus carica), depending on the variety, can produce three crops a year.

The Breba crop grows first. It grows below the leaf stem and at or near the junction of new growth where the branch was pruned last year (see photo below).  There is a common fallacy that Breba figs are the small left over figs from last autumn that never ripened. In the last four years I have removed from my trees all the withered, mouldy and discoloured figs that by June haven't ripened and every year Breba fruit starts growing in September (Brown Turkey) or later (Black Genoa).

Black Genoa Breba fig growing near the pruning point
These figs tend to be large, juicy and often have a mild flavour (reference: NSW Dept. of Ag - Fig Growing in NSW).  

As the Breba crop mature (usually in December/January/February - depending on the spring/summer weather and fig variety) you can see the Summer crop appearing.  In Tasmania these will ripen, depending on variety and the season, from January or February.

This year my Summer Black Genoa figs won't ripen until April.  The tree will continue to produce ripe figs for several weeks. The Summer Figs grow just above the leaf stem or more accurately in the axils of leaves on the current season's wood (see photo below), have a high sugar content and have the full flavour of the particular variety. Most varieties of the Summer figs are the best eating crop. 

Breba fig on the left, two Summer figs on the right
The Autumn crop appears as the Summer figs are ripening. These figs are often smaller than the Summer figs and have a strong fig flavour. Black Genoa trees produce edible figs in all three crops. The flesh color changes with the crop, Breba, pale pink, Summer, bright pink, and Autumn, claret.

Tray with this season's Breba Black Genoa figs
I generally pick Black Genoa Autumn figs in May and the last ripe ones in the first week of June. 

The Brown Turkey fig variety often has in-edible Breba and Autumn figs but makes up for this by its large and flavoursome Summer figs. 

Tray with this season's Breba Brown Turkey figs - they were not good eating
To give you an idea of the variation of when figs are ripe, one year I had no Summer figs till the first week of May. The Autumn figs started to ripen in the middle of May and finished by the end of May. 


In March 2014 I wrote for this blog a post with the title Fig Tree Summer Maintenance (this post has now been removed as it was replaced by this one). That summer had been cool following a cold and wet spring. A reader asked 'what can be done to ensure my figs ripen?' 

I suggested to remove extra figs or very small figs from branches in the hope that the trees will put more energy towards ripening of the larger figs.

I also suggested to remove some leaves and smaller branches to ensure sunlight and air can circulate throughout the interior of the tree.

That advice was based on observing an old Italian lady and how she managed her trees, but since then I have changed my mind on both these issues and I like to share this knowledge.

What I found, after removing lots of very small figs was that they, especially those on the tips of the new growth branches, simply regrew!

A stone fruit tree grows fruit from a blossom and once that fruit is removed it does not regrow, but a fig tree does not fruit in the same way. 

Fig fruit is a capsule that contains tiny flowers and seeds. In the Black Genoa, Brown Turkey, White Adriatic and White Genoa varieties the syconia (fig capsule) holds both male and female tissue allowing the fig to be self fertile. I have found new figs will regrow on or near the spot where a fig was removed, so there is no point in removing the smaller figs!

I have no idea why a fig tree can replace a removed fig. It is something I need to research. I would love to hear from any readers who would like to comment. Will some of the Autumn figs grow in the same place where the Summer figs grew? I expect so but I will monitor several branches and photograph the results. 

Will Autumn figs grow in the same spot as where these Summer figs are?
Some varieties of fig trees ( St Dominique Violette, White Adriatic and especially Black Genoa) have quite dense foliage. In the past I tended to prune away some of these leaves, and remove smaller branches that had no fruit in summer to allow more sunlight in and improve air circulation. I have changed my opinion on this issue as well.

I have come to the conclusion that, with extreme weather events on the increase, it may be wise to leave the tree to its own defenses because the leaves protect the fruit from the sun and wind that can burn the skin of the fruit. 

This ‘shield’ also offers some protection against birds. Sunlight and air circulating throughout the interior of a fig tree may be beneficial (less chance of rust forming, access for birds to eat insects), but it is not sunshine that ripens fruit, but warm air.

Last year (summer of 2015/2016 and autumn 2016) gave me the biggest quantity of ripe figs I have had in over 10 years of growing figs. Usually at the end of the season in June I remove hundreds of small figs that didn’t ripen, but there were only a couple of buckets of unripe figs. Phenomenal! Not because of anything special I did, but because of the milder spring and warm summer. 

Some ripe Black Genoa figs
There are several other factors apart from the weather that can impinge on figs ripening or forming. Over-watering, excess of nitrogen in added fertiliser or manure, and the position of the tree facing south or exposed to westerlies, are all factors that will have a negative impact on figs forming and ripening. 

The Common Fig is drought tolerant. Fig trees do not like wet feet. In fact continuous wet feet can kill a fig tree. Fig trees need to have good drainage. If you want juicy and not mealy fruit, water regularly, but allow soil to dry out between watering.

Excess of nitrogen will cause excess limb growth and leaf growth. This can become stressful for to the tree and it will not form fruit or allow fruit to ripen (this can happen when a fig tree finds a sewage line or is planted in a position where it is continuously fed by a fertilized outflow). 

Addition of phosphorus can balance excess of nitrogen. Check the NPK levels in your fertilizer and change if necessary. ‘Power feed’ ratio is N 12, P 1.4, K 7 which is quite high in Nitrogen but works well on my trees with the proviso that you follow the instructions and don’t over feed. That’s the bind: fig trees need fertilizer to promote fruit growth but too much will lead to less fruit but you certainly will see growth in your tree.

Planting a fig tree where it is exposed to high winds or doesn’t have all day sun is a recipe for no ripe figs. Under these conditions the tree may grow and produce some figs, but usually they don’t ripen here in cool temperate Tasmania.

Hope your figs ripen this season,

Richard

For more info about fig trees click here: Getting the Best out of your Fig Tree - Part 1





3 comments:

  1. On advice rom other sits I've been removing at least half of the figs that grow, that is removing the small growing figs. I have noticed that the tree keeps producing new ones, but I think this still favours the ones that are not removed. I also do a second thinning to deal with this. This means removing at least 200 small figlets from the tree.

    We tend to get dryish figs but I think this is to do with water. Last year's crop was good and that was because of the heavy Autumn rains. It seems necessary tow water well in the month preceding the fruit getting ripe.

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  2. Thanks for your comments Chris. I know of one website that advises to remove small figs to encourage larger ones to grow. It doesn't mention that the small figs removed will regrow. If you remove the little Summer figs you will be removing figs that might have matured as Autumn figs. That is if you have a Black Genoa tree. Some varieties don't have good eating Autumn figs and some varieties don't have an Autumn crop, so then it doesn't matter. The little figs when they regrow will just turn into figs of lesser quality if they mature. Better to maximise the Summer crop which is what you are doing and keep on removing the little figs as they regrow.

    I agree with what you say about watering. Keep water up to the tree but allow the soil to dry between watering. You haven't said where you live or what variety fig tree you have but if you live in Eastern Tasmania you are in a rain shadow and usually need to water fig trees in summer and often in autumn to have juicy ripe figs. If you over water the fig skins can split which is different to when a fig is fully ripe the skin starts to split which means time to pick it and eat it!
    Richard Kent

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  3. Hi Richard,

    I am in Richmond, Tas. Have an acre I'm looking to grow a few bits and pieces for ourselves and extended family, friends. Am very keen to get a dozen or so fig trees in there. I am very much a novice gardener and would love to be able to view your trees and ask a few questions about how to get started. More than happy to pay for your time. If this is something that you would be willing to accomodate I'd love to hear from you. Thanks, Mike. tobey13@hotmail.com

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