A happy fig tree loves to produce fruit, as my little specimen quickly demonstrated. Some bear fruit in spring (called the breba crop) on last season's growth-with a larger main crop being borne in autumn on new growth-while others save all their fruit buds for the later main crop. In cold climates the buds of the breba crop can be damaged by late spring frost, so I'm careful not to put my plant out too early. There are no blossoms to watch for; the tiny flowers of the fig are out of sight, clustered inside the green fruits (technically a syconium). But one morning I discovered miniature figs emerging from leaf axils in a stiff 45-degree angle from the main branch.
This was an impressive display of fertility, and I was delighted to watch the little fruits emerge, swell and colour with passing days. Figs must be allowed to ripen fully on the branch. Mine grew larger and began to droop from their weight, following the old Spanish proverb-a fig is ripe when it has a hangman's neck (droops), a mourner's eye (oozes honeydew from the eye at the fruit's bottom) and a penitent's robe (slight skin tears). The skins were so fragile that I hesitated to pull off the fruit, using instead a pair of garden scissors to cut them from the branch. Figs ripen in sequence so, with careful monitoring, it's possible to pick ripe fruit for each day's breakfast over three to five weeks.
Why is it that gardeners sometimes pin all their hopes on an improbable plant? Perhaps because we want to taste the sweetest fruits in the coldest climate! I celebrated the first crop from my little tree by presenting several fruits to the greengrocer who has so generously shared his tradition with me.
Figs are relatively trouble-free, but there are a few problems you should watch out for.
- Excessive moisture can cause fruit to sour and split on the branches. If this happens, pick remaining immature fruit for use in jams and preserves.
- Prolonged hot, dry weather can cause fruit to toughen and fall prematurely. Supply adequate water and, if in a container, move the tree to a cooler location with some shade.
- Figs need as much sun as they can get, up to eight full hours of direct light each day. Less sun means fewer fruit that won't ripen as quickly.
- Trees grown in the ground can be affected by root nematodes, causing stunted growth of woody branches and galls and knots on roots. Move infected trees to another location in the garden.
- Tree borers seriously damage fruit-producing wood. Prune out infested branches.
- Mealy bugs and scale insects can drain vigour and reduce fruiting. The tree can tolerate small infestations, but spray larger colonies with a pyrethrum-based insecticide.
- Leaf rust is a fungal disease characterized by small yellow-green spots that eventually turn brown; the disease is triggered by excessive wet weather and causes leaves to drop prematurely. Remove all diseased leaves. If weather remains wet and spots persist, spray with a copper-sulfate fungicide such as Bordeaux mixture.
- Mosaic virus causes leaves to become mottled and dwarfed, although the tree will continue to produce fruit. The virus can't be treated but is seldom a reason to discard the tree. It will produce less fruit but still may be worthwhile.