Juicy Facts on Growing Figs
Some of the most luscious fruits that we grow outdoors can be grown more easily in southern European countries and then imported, but for this purpose they must be picked unripe whereas with your own fruit you can wait for the perfect moment, then let it fall into your mouth.
The kind of white-fleshed peaches that we grow in England — `Peregrine’, for instance — are anyway far juicier than the yellow kinds that are almost invariably offered in the shops, excellent though those are in their way. I’m sure the peach-fed pigs that are (said to be) raised in Canada and New England must likewise enjoy the idea of being made tastier by partaking of this ambrosial fare.
Whereas peaches can, in sheltered, warm conditions, be grown as free-standing bushes, an apricot in England really must have a wall. With its great vigour and the fact that it cannot be pruned on the renewal system like peaches and morello cherries (their fruited wood being entirely replaced by young shoots of the current season), the apricot is not so easily trained and needs plenty of space, but what a delectable fruit this is when eaten fresh and naturally ripened. As juicy as a peach too, and more easily eaten because the fruit divides into two so cleanly and the stone drops out.
Nectarines, alas, are tough-skinned outdoors and don’t make much size. Given just the extra protection of cold glass, they will excel themselves but that makes them expensive. Still, at their best they’re more transporting even than peaches or apricots.
Figs are best of all, for those of us who dote on them when they are green. This is an easy outdoor crop if you garden in the south or east. The less you prune them the more they fruit, so a fig needs and deserves space, whether trained to a wall or freestanding in a sunny corner or courtyard. It is also an ornamental plant. Even in winter its stems are a pleasingly pale grey. One reads ad nauseam (it’s the one piece of misinformation that everyone remembers about figs) that their roots must be confined if they are to fruit freely. This is quite unnecessary and likely, on the contrary, to cause unproductive starvation, unless you remember to feed and water generously. Then they’ll make good pot plants. Otherwise, the best policy is to plant where there is space enough for a bush to develop without needing to be butchered and then to let it get on with its job unassisted. Mind you, blackbirds, starlings, earwigs, squirrels and even rats all adore figs, not usually waiting till they’re ripe, so country gardeners have plenty of competition.
To protect figs, I use plasticbags, the kind in which you buy lettuces in shops. They are perforated and so the contents do not become over-humid and rot. If you find this is still happening, snip the lower corners of each bag away before adjusting it and this will drain any rainwater that has seeped in. The shape of a fig seems to be tailor-made for having a bag fixed to it. Nevertheless, having enclosed each individual fruit, avoid placing any weight or strain on it by twisting a wire stem-tie on to the supporting branch.
A routine that I find works well is to combine a bag-fixing with a fruit-picking session every third or fourth day (according to the weather). Put your bags on to fruits that have just started to change colour from green to browny purple. In three or four days’ time they’ll be dead ripe, nearly always splitting their skins longitudinally at this stage. So you can remove a bag and straightway fix it on to another fruit. I have never found that fruits picked prematurely continue ripening off the tree. They should be left till the last possible moment.
There are two schools of thought on how to eat them. I like to peel mine from the stalk end, banana-wise, and eat from the top down towards the bulbous base which is the juiciest part of the fruit. Or, using the stalk as a handle, you can eat from the bulb upwards and not bother too much about the skin, which is quite thin and palatable at the base of the fruit anyway.
Mulberries need picking straight off the tree and eating on the spot. They should be very nearly black before consigning them to your mouth. Although the birds will be at them from late July, the ideal stage is seldom reached before early September. Most people unfamiliar with them get the idea that the mulberry is a horribly sour fruit because they tackle them when merely red. They are always sharp but stimulatingly so at the right moment. The lower branches of a mulberry will hang almost vertically. These are the easiest for us to reach and the most awkward for the birds, so we both get our share.
The mulberry is a beautiful tree and that, on a more manageable scale, is also the medlar’s particular asset. An old medlar is one of the most picturesque features you can have in a garden. The brown fruits, each with an enormous eye, are quaintly attractive too and the foliage turns to glorious shades of yellow and warm orange-brown in the autumn. Watch out for and remove hawthorn suckers that may mysteriously appear from the bottom of your medlar tree. Medlars are commonly grafted on to hawthorn stock and if this is allowed to take over you’ll lose your medlar.