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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Fruit & Nut Trees

Fabulous Figs (page 4 of 5)

by Robert Kourik


Most figs can produce fruit on both the previous season's growth (1-year-old wood) and the growth of the current season. The crop from last year's growth matures in summer; the crop from the current season matures in fall.

What this means to the pruner is simple: 1) Prune in late fall or winter (spring in cold-winter regions) and you'll just get the fall crop; 2) never prune and you'll harvest two crops; and 3) judicious pruning in both winter and summer will allow some of both crops -- summer and fall.

Most often prune by making "thinning" cuts, not "heading" cuts. Thinning means cutting stems or shoots completely to their bases; heading cuts leave some portion of the stem or shoot. Prune by thinning to whatever shape you desire and some fruit will follow.

Old, mature fig trees can grow at least 40 feet tall in favorable climates. Many yards can't accommodate such large trees. To control the tree for a harvest without a ladder, simply cut back--to two or three buds on last year's growth--all shoots you want to save. Growers of figs for fresh fruit in the central valley of California routinely cut back fig trees to several buds. The trees can be decades old and yet are still below 10 feet tall and easily harvested without cumbersome ladders.

In zone 7 to 8, it's convenient to maintain a fig in a bush rather than tree form. Cut out entire stems to the ground after they've grown more than 10 feet tall and 2 to 3 inches thick. Keep fig bushes open so summer light can ripen the crop, and in fall, prune to three older, grayer, hardier stems.

Fig trees ooze a white latex sap from pruning cuts. This sap contains an irritant called ficin that can cause dermatitis. Wear gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, full-length pants, a hat, and full-coverage eye goggles (not just glasses) when pruning fig trees, then wash thoroughly afterward.

Which Fig?

The following section lists the 28 varieties of figs most commonly available in local nurseries or by mail. But be prepared to sort through the confusion of names. I attribute the abundance of names for the same variety in part to the tree's antiquity and in part to the ease with which it propagates: Foreign figs are introduced, forgotten, rediscovered, and renamed. So is it 'Celeste', 'Tennessee Mountain', or 'Sugar Fig'? Is 'Black Jack' the same as 'Petite Negri' or not? In many cases, no one knows for sure, even though some growers and fig lovers have very strong opinions.

I've also sought to standardize the words used to describe the fruit. In the following descriptions "strawberry" is the same as "rose" or "red" that you'll see in some catalogs. Likewise, I've used "brown" for varieties others describe as "bronze" or "mahogany," and "amber" for flesh color that some describe as "peach," "translucent," "white," or "honey."

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