The fuss about figs

Why are figs good for you, and how can you grow your own? Horticulturalist, gardening writer and television presenter Melissa King unearths the answers.

The Fuss About Figs

There’s something incredibly sensual about figs, with their lovely delicate skin and mouth-watering flesh. It’s no wonder that they are associated with delectable desserts. Figs have old-fashioned charm and are often grown in gardens for their attractive shady canopy as well as their edible fruit. 

Nutrition 
Figs are said to have antibacterial, anti-parasitic, anti-ulcer and laxative properties. Rubbing the cut side of a fig against your teeth is also thought to be an effective way to reduce decay-causing bacteria. 

Grow your own 
Figs prefer full sun, although they will cope with some morning shade and they certainly don’t need to be lavished with attention. In fact, a rich fertile soil and excess nitrogen can encourage leafy growth and no fruit. All they need is a light application of all-purpose flower and fruit fertiliser in spring. They are, however, fussy about drainage and may need to be planted on a mound. Figs prefer soils with a pH around 6-6.5, but will grow successfully in a broader range. They like a consistent supply of water during the growing season as fluctuating soil moisture when growing can cause the fruit to split. 

In most gardens, space dictates the need for pruning. At the very least, each year remove a few old, long branches that are largely unproductive to make way for new growth. Figs also benefit from a restricted root run which helps maintain a more manageable size for easy harvesting. 

Figs are fabulous in small gardens and can be trained flat against a courtyard wall. The wall provides both protection and additional warmth for the developing fruit. First, fix horizontal wires to the wall using metal eyes. Then use soft but strong twine to secure the branches to the wires. Your fig can be trained as an espalier (with horizontal arms) or as a fan shape. 

Harvest 
You’ll know figs are ready to harvest when the fruit is hanging down and soft to touch. To pick, hold the stalk firmly and twist it away from the branch. Be aware that for some people the sap from the broken stem may be an irritant to the skin. Pick gently to avoid bruising the delicate skin. Fresh figs don’t store particularly well and the fruit is best eaten straight from the tree or dried. 

Kitchen 
Figs are truly exquisite fruit, gathered for their sweet flesh and unique texture. They have equal appeal in both sweet and savoury dishes. I greedily consume figs straight from the tree, leaving nothing but the hard stalk end of the fruit. Others break them open and devour the succulent flesh. They are also a real treat baked for dessert, and you can turn excess fruit into delicious fig jam. 

Melissa’s favourite varieties 
Brown Turkey is an old favourite, with large brown-skinned fruit late in the season. The second crop of fruit is generally the main crop. When you cut it open the flesh is pink and has a rich, sweet flavour. It is lovely honey-roasted with mascarpone, pistachios and orange, dried, or made into tasty jam. This variety is adaptable and easy to grow. 

White Genoa is a great one for cooler districts. The ripe fruit has pale green skin and amber-pink flesh, which is deliciously sweet. It is superb straight from the tree and one of the best for jam. It produces a light crop in December, with a second crop in February/March. 

Black Genoa is one of the best old cultivars available and a prolific fruiter from December to February. The pear-shaped fruit has green-purple skin and wonderfully textured light red flesh. It’s a great for eating variety but not good for drying. It makes a lovely dish wrapped in prosciutto and served with fetta. 

White Adriatic is an attractively spreading fig tree, which bears large yellow-green skinned fruit with pink flesh and a strong flavour. It needs a hot summer to ripen the fruit and produces one crop which matures around February. It is best peeled and devoured fresh, dried or made into jam. 

This is an extract from Melissa King’s Garden Feast. ABC Books RRP $39.95.