Sunday, June 30, 2013

Getting the Best out of your Fig Tree - Part 1

Richard Kent has devoted most of his garden to the cultivation of fig trees and growing of fig tree cuttings and he sells figs and young fig trees at markets. Some time ago our group visited his garden and we learned a lot from him on the subject. For those who were not there on that day or who like me like to have some of the information documented I went back to Richard and asked him some more specific questions.

What fig tree varieties are there and are some more suitable to Tasmanian conditions than others?

There are several hundred different varieties of edible Ficus carica. The common varieties that grow in Australia are just the tip of the iceberg. Web site is an incredible international resource for all things fig and describes many fig varieties.

The common fig trees that are grown throughout Europe grow well in Tasmania. The varieties I have are White Genoa, Black Genoa, White Adriatic, Brown Turkey and I have just obtained cuttings of St Dominique Violette. Varieties that grow in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia Minor could be problematic in Tasmania.
A Black Genoa fig in Richard's garden

Are some fig varieties better for eating fresh, while others are more for drying or making jam?

The various fig varieties do differ in their sugar content when ripe. When a fig is ripe its sugar content is at its highest. I haven't eaten a fig that's fully ripe and is not sweet, but I have only eaten four varieties. Out of the four varieties I have eaten, Black Genoa would have to be the sweetest.

To make jam you need both slightly green and ripe figs. The green ones have a higher pectin content. My experience in making fig jam, especially using Black Genoa figs, is that you need the same amount of sugar as figs to make it set, irrespective of the type of fig. I also add the juice and the skin of a whole lemon per kilo of figs. The lemon juice and skin help to activate the pectin in the fruit. I believe you can make a fig jam from any type of edible fig. I spend a lot of time and effort growing sweet and juicy ripe figs. I am not into drying, but for convenience and for making certain recipes most figs will dry well.

What are ideal conditions for a fig tree?

In Tasmania to get ripe fruit you need to plant the tree so
  • It gets Northern exposure to the sun, is ideally is in a sun-trap, and is protected from prevailing winds 
  • It will not get wet feet 
  • It gets enough water and fertiliser at particular times of the year 
  • pH of the soil is around 7 and the soil is friable 
  • There is no competition from other trees for sun or root space
Brown Turkey figs ripening
Do fig trees need any maintenance?

You can leave a fig tree alone and it will look after itself. They are pretty hardy once established, but if you want high yearly yields then you will have to look after your fig tree.

Pruning is essential if you want to control the tree and have a shape that gives lots of fruit.

They definitely need to be watered in late spring, summer and autumn if rainfall is low and conditions are dry. If the tree does not get enough water you can end up with dry mealy fruit.

With regard to fertilisers, they love slow-release ones like sheep manure. Put that on in late winter. Figs need blood and bone and I put that on in late winter as well. I have started to use liquid fertiliser in summer and autumn. This helps the fruit to mature and ripen. But don't think 'the more the better'.  Too much fertiliser tends to make fig trees grow too quickly. In Genoa varieties it also tends to result in more leaves than you really need.

When is a fig ripe and do figs ripen once picked?

The colour and texture of the skin changes as the fruit ripens. It's important to be aware of this. It changes from a hard tough green skin to a soft delicate one. When the fig is ripe the skin is edible! It is unpleasant when unripe. Never pinch or squeeze a fig to see if it is ripe. Just gently hold it and feel the texture of the skin. When the fig is ripe or ready to be eaten is is heavier and usually droops on the fruit stalk. The fig swells and becomes bigger or fatter when ripe.

When a fig is almost ripe it can be picked. Kept in a cool room with circulating air and without sunshine it will continue to ripen. A ripe fig will continue to ripen and of course eventually go mouldy and decay.
Some of Richard's ripe Genoa figs

Fig trees are sometimes put in pots to limit their size. Does this work and do fig trees in pots need additional care?

A potted fig will give you ripe fruit sooner than one planted in the ground. As the roots fill the pot the tree becomes stressed and puts out more fruit as a defence. As the potted fig grows you can continue to increase the size of the pot. Eventually you can 'bonsai' the roots as well as the foliage when the tree has reached a size you want to maintain.

Ultimately its better to plant a fig tree in the ground than plant it in a large pot. In the ground the tree is establishing roots and it is easier to keep watered, especially if you mulch it.

If you plan to move, then by all means plant your fig tree in a half wine barrel and cover the soil with plenty of mulch. The tree will continue to grow and establish a root ball. You will get ripe fruit from it within 3 to 4 years if you regularly feed in late winter. Fig trees several years old in large pots need a lot of water in summer and of course don't put a saucer under as they need drainage.

For more info about fig trees click here: Getting the Best out of your Fig Tree - Part 2

More information about figs can also be found at
Thank you, Richard, this is very useful information for anyone who has a fig tree.


  1. I have a black Genoa fig in a pot. It has finished fruiting but the leaves are now going black at the edges. When do I need to prune it..

    1. Apologies for not replying sooner. By now the black Genoa has probably lost its leaves as it is winter. The time to prune fig trees is in winter when it is dormant and has lost its leaves.

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  3. Urgent help!! Richard,
    I'm confused in relation to pruning my Black Genoa. We live in Little Hartley, other wise of the Blue mountains which is not a cold as Tassi however it is a cool climate area. You say prune the ing in winter, but in the Royal Horticultural Society (fruit & veg Gardening in Australia). They say early to mid spring after danger of frosts have passed. We are still getting a bit of frost. When should I prune or is it too late?

  4. Richard's reply is:
    I live in Tasmania and prune my fig trees in late winter. All the leaves are off and all the little figs are removed. July or August. The tree is dormant. My experience is frosts wont affect the cut branches or the trees.
    Black Genoa grows leaves later than say Brown Turkish. At the moment there are no leaf buds on my Black Genoa trees. There is no reason why you can't prune a Black Genoa in early spring as the tree appears not to have become active.
    The Royal Agricultural Society appears to suggest that frosts affect pruned fig trees in winter. I don't agree with this.
    I do agree with the statement that you can prune a Black Genoa fig tree in early spring. I would add that it is normal to prune it in late winter.
    Another observation I have made is that the later I prune a fruit tree, the more that tree puts energy into growing wood.