Figs come from warm, Mediterranean climates and 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. 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.
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 cover with a thin layer of well-rotted manure. When the fruit appear, feed weekly with a high-potassium liquid plant food (such as tomato fertiliser).
Figs give the best quality and quantity of fruit when roots are restricted. For this reason they are well suited to container cultivation. Plant in a large, 30-38cm (1ft-15in) pot filled with gritty compost (John Innes No 3 with 20 percent extra grit by volume is ideal).
You can grow figs in a bed, or against a wall, just make sure you restrict the roots. Prepare a bed as follows:
- Dig a 60cm (2ft) square planting pit in the ground
- Line the sides with paving slabs, allowing them to protrude 2.5cm (1in) above the level of the soil
- Line the bottom of the pit with a 20cm (8in) layer of broken bricks or mortar rubble to improve adequate drainage
- Place the fig in the pit and fill the hole with loam-based John Innes No 3 compost
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 ruined during cold weather. Protect figs in winter by covering the bare branches with a few layers of horticultural fleece, or by packing the fan-trained branches with straw. Remove the fleece or packing by the end of May.
In tropical regions (and under glass) figs bear three flushes of fruit, in Mediterranean areas they crop twice, but outdoors in the UK and other cool temperate regions they only usually produce on useable crop a year.
In late spring you will notice embryonic pea-like fruits that will swell over the summer months until 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. Splits appearing near the stalk end or a drop of nectar appearing at the bottom of the fruit are signs that they are ready.
Sometimes, 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. 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 next year.
Fan trained fig at Wisley
Fan trained fig packed with bracken for winter protection
Close up of fig foliage
Pruning and training
Figs can be either grown as standard trees (including those grown in pots) or trained as a fan against a wall.
Open grown 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
- Summer: pinch out the new growth at five or six leaves
- Autumn: remove any large figs that have failed to ripen, but leave the pea-sized embryonic fruit
If you inherit a fig that has not been planted to restrict the roots, the growth may be extremely leggy resulting in poor fruit. Overgrown plants can be rejuvenated by pruning out a number of branches over two or three years (in February), until a satisfactory shape has been achieved.
Always leave 5cm (2in) long stubs when removing any branches.
For pruning advice, see fan-trained trees: initial training and fan-trained trees: pruning established fans.