Fabulous Figs

by Brandon Williams
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By Stephen Brueggerhoff

CEA-Horticulture, Galveston County AgriLife Extension

I celebrate mid-summer fruit culture with a bounty of figs. Varieties in the demonstration orchard at our Discovery Garden in La Marque are maturing and harvest is in progress. We host several recognized varieties like Brown Turkey and LSU Purple, others offering unique qualities like green skin Lattarula and Italian Honey. I’m proud that Galveston County Master Gardener member Barbara Canetti is lovingly building our fig collection to well over ten varietals for demonstration. Even though each fruit variety is different in taste, I wish to impart basic cultural information that may assist in your pursuit of fig happiness.

With a little preparation and planning figs can be grown quite successfully in the home landscape. Figs are adaptable to differing soil types, especially soils with higher salt content and are a good fruit tree for home landscapes located close to the coast. The trees should be planted in well-drained soil and spaced 15 feet apart from any other tree or landscape feature. They can get quite large at 20-feet tall and wide, and are often grown as a spreading, multi-trunk specimen. If your tree is newly planted or less than three years old, I encourage you to prune your tree and control lateral growth and height to a manageable harvesting stature. Fig trees have fibrous, shallow root systems and must be protected from water loss, winter temperature fluctuation and soil compaction with an adequate mulch layer. Remember that fig trees are generally not cold tolerant, limited to regions with mild winters well above minimum 10-degree temperatures. Mulching is also good practice to minimize weed growth and aids in keeping the orchard floor clean. Most varieties produce once a year in mid to late summer on new annual growth and are often pruned in late winter. A few varieties like Celeste and Alma have two crops, producing additionally in spring from previous year’s wood and referred to as a breba crop. Varieties with a breba crop should be pruned less vigorously to induce spring fruiting.

One question that pops up every year is how to keep varmints out of the orchard. Squirrels and birds notoriously use the fruit of our labor for sustenance, and baffles placed around the trunk to exclude squirrels is impractical with a multi-trunk tree. If practical and directly related to your pruning regime, you can try a temporary shroud of fine mesh netting to exclude these critters. Another potential that will take a bit of time and is used in small orchard fruit production are fruit bags, gauze or thin paper bags that are lovingly wrapped around individual fruits. Clemson Cooperative Extension offers a version for sale, or you can search online for alternative companies. One resource recommended constructing your own out of small gift bags made of organza fabric. Let your imagination lead you on this effort. Eating figs is more pleasurable than picking them, and summer harvest encourages early work in the day to avoid heat stress. Protective gear like gloves and long sleeves should be worn to lessen contact dermatitis from the fine, short, and coarse hair-like bristles on the leaves, and possibly eye wear to avoid exposure to fig latex, a milky, mildly toxic sap expressed from cut branches and fruit stems. Fruit production may begin when an established tree reaches two years old. Figs must be harvested when ripe and will not continue to ripen once picked, prompting preservation via canning, or drying with a bountiful harvest.

Figs are truly a part of our coastal culinary culture, a fruit high in natural sugars, minerals, and soluble fiber. Information about fruits and vegetables supports the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service initiative Path to Plate, a research-based education program that helps consumers understand how food choices impact their health. Fig out, my friends and I’ll see you in the garden.

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