While you can buy dried figs all year round, they are a very different proposition to fresh figs, particularly those that you have grown yourself. While dried figs have a uniform texture and a necessarily dry (although still flavorful) taste, fresh figs have a bit more going on to intrigue the palate. The skin is smooth, but then gives way to chewy, sweet flesh, with the crunchy seeds giving a final surprise in the middle. Not only that, fresh figs are also nutritious, giving you a good dose of fiber, potassium and calcium. The other good news when it comes to cultivating your own figs on your permaculture plot is that the leaves of the plants can also be used in the kitchen, which makes the fig tree very amenable to the permaculture principle of maximizing yield from the elements of a site.
Some gardeners can be put off cultivating their own fig trees, as they fear they may lack the warm temperatures that help to ensure a bountiful harvest. But as permaculturists we can manipulate the microclimate around the fig tree to help ensure a good setting of fruit. And in fact, figs will grow in most locations – in garden beds and in containers – as long as they are protected from strong, cold winds and too much direct winter sunlight (although they need direct summer sunlight), which can cause them to grow before spring and potentially suffer damage when a winter frost or snowfall settles.
There are lots of different varieties of fig that the permaculture gardener could choose to cultivate, and their choice will typically hinge on the sort of climate that the plot experiences. For example, the Brown Turkey variety is a good all-rounder, capable of being grown in beds or in containers, and renowned for producing heavy crops of fruit. The Osbourne Prolific variety, as evidenced by its name, shares this tendency for profusion, but is more suited to warmer temperate and even tropical climates. In contrast, the Hardwick is a hardy variety and can be grown in most locations as long as it’s protected from early winter frosts.
Place your figs trees in a location that gets full summer sunlight. Planting beside a fence or wall, or even close to a line of taller trees, that allow this access to summer heat will also serve to shade the figs from the winter sunlight that is not required and can potentially inhibit growth. Such a structure should also protect the trees from damage by wind. If growing in containers, you can move the trees around to take advantage of the sun’s position during summer, and can relocate them to a greenhouse or conservatory in winter to protect them.
Figs need soil that drains well. While they can be thirsty, they do not thrive if the soil becomes waterlogged. Adding organic matter to the soil will help improve the drainage and also add nutrients that they fig will use to grow. However, avoid having too much nitrogen in the soil as this can inhibit growth. The ideal pH of the soil for growing figs is between 6 and 6.5.
Being deciduous, figs are best planted in the garden in winter. Typically you will plant juvenile trees that are sourced from an organic supplier. If growing from seed, start the seeds off in pots in a greenhouse or conservatory over the summer and fall before planting out in the garden. Fig trees can grow up to 3 meters tall and develop a broad canopy, so give them plenty of room. You can prune your figs to restrict their growth and fit them into a smaller space. Figs can also be trained to grow on trellises if you are short on space. If left unencumbered, figs will develop extensive root systems. This can mean competition with other plants species for soil moisture and nutrients, and mean that energy is diverted from fruit production to root growth, giving you a leaner harvest. When planting your fig trees, line the sides of the hole with recycled concrete slabs to encourage deep rather than broad root development.
Water the figs well during the summer months, preferably with harvested rainwater. You don’t need to water so much during winter, and can set straw or woodchip mulch around the trees to preserve soil moisture and protect from ground freeze. Remove the mulch in the spring when the chance of frost has receded and fertilize with organic matter to give new growth a kick-start.
Once established and mature, most fig varieties produce two crops. The first develops on the previous year’s growth of wood and ripens in the summer. The second crop sets on new branches and ripens in the fall. Figs stop ripening once they are picked from the tree, so you want to ensure that they are ready to eat before harvesting. The fruit should feel soft and the skin seem almost at the point of bursting. You want to pick fruit before the skin actually does split, as this will cause the flesh to take on a sour taste. Harvest early in the morning by pulling gently at the stem end.
Once picked figs are best used immediately, but you can store fresh figs for a few days in the refrigerator if you are not ready to use them straight away. Place the fruit in a single layer in the coldest part of the fridge. Do not store them in proximity to vegetables as, like many fruit species, after harvesting figs release ethylene gas which can cause vegetables to spoil, so perhaps use the crisper drawer at the base of the fridge for your figs – this also protects them from fluctuations in temperature caused by the refrigerator door opening and closing.
If you have one or more fig trees that have provided you with a plentiful harvest of tasty fruit, you may wish to propagate those trees. Figs are relatively easy to propagate from cuttings taken from successful mature specimens. You want to take a hardwood cutting of around thirty to forty centimeters in length. Plant, with about half the cutting in the soil, using the same criteria of position and soil as above, in winter, remembering to leave enough space for the mature tree to grow into.