Summer figs are worth the wait
By Urban Harvest

The fig is a delicious fruit that is extraordinarily easy to grow in backyards, and because it is fairly attractive, works well in the front landscape. The fig’s fruit are extraordinarily difficult to store or ship, so they are difficult for farmers and agribusiness to market profitably. Accordingly, homegrown fruit is much higher quality than in the stores, where it costs a fortune and quickly spoils. Thus you need to grow figs or you will miss one of Gulf Coast life’s summer pleasures.

The three-fig variety contains 25 percent of the daily-recommended allowance of weight-reducing and cancer-preventing fiber. Figs are also high in several minerals. A serving of three fruit contain useful amounts of potassium, calcium, magnesium and iron.

Figs are productive, tasty, require little care and are long-lived. They are easy to plant, need moderate drainage and after the first year rarely need watering. This is especially true if they are mulched well with leaves or pulled weeds. South of FM 1960, most kinds of figs are completely freeze-hardy. Above FM 1960, all kinds are hardy in most years, with some that are freeze hardy in all years. Even if frozen back, they recover quickly from their roots and are certain to live a very long life. Figs also have no significant pests other than birds. They need no pruning unless they are spreading too much or are in the way. After the first three years or so, figs produce a large crop every year.

Fig Varieties
The late J. Stewart Nagle did research to show that figs being marketed in the Greater Houston area are often mislabeled, so no two “Celeste” figs purchased around town are necessarily the same ones. Dr. Nagle did a meticulous botanical study of more than 40 varieties of fig scattered at sites from Magnolia to Pearland. The only sure way to get a good fig tree is to buy one from a nursery that is known to carry fruit trees from knowledgeable growers or grow your own tree from your cuttings from a known good tasting fig tree.

Figs differ in color of skin and flesh, in size, in sweetness and quality of after-taste, in frost resistance, in month of bearing, in productivity month by month, and many botanical characteristics such as the shape of the leaf indentation at the stem or the shape of the fruit. Skin colors include red-purple, bronze, yellow and green, with intermediates as well. Main flesh colors include white/cream, amber/honey, and strawberry/rose.

It is possible to have figs over many months. Most figs bear here in late June/early July or in August, but a few ripen later. I have picked fair tasting figs both in November and in February. There are lots of very tasty fig varieties, including Dr. Nagle’s favorites: Galbun, and a couple other late ones like Trojano and Genoa White, with other favorites being: Royal Vineyard, BA-1, Deanna, Mission, Green Ischia, and Hardy Chicago.

My top rated early fig is a greenish yellow fig with honey amber interior named banana. My favorite late season fig is a green skinned “mystery” fig with strawberry flesh that Dr. Nagle found in a old orchard row and called myssteak. I prefer to call it Nagle. I also rank as top tasting figs the following: Celeste (Sugar Fig), LSU Purple, and Celeste Malta.

Many of these varieties will be offered at the Urban Harvest Annual Fruit Tree Sale on Jan. 18, 2014 Urban Harvest website

Fig Care
Figs will produce much faster if they are watered and fertilized heavily until May of the first year and watered heavily all summer. Probably no fruit responds better to heavy mulch, and figs may even require it. Several inches of leaves every fall help a lot. After the tree is of adequate size, it rarely needs fertilizer. Unless the fig gets too tall to pick, or has broken or dead branches, there is no need to prune. However, in time, root suckers will come up and create a very wide plant with many trunks that cannot be mowed around. This can lead to weed trees growing between the trunks. Soon it will be difficult to pick the figs, and the figs will be less plentiful. Thus, keep the weeds down and keep the number of fig trunks to a handful.

Birds love figs, so grow lots of figs so you share some with the birds. By harvesting early in the day, you can beat the birds. You can also pin up some fiberglass window screening on your more prized figs. Cut the screening into approximately 6 by 24 inch pieces and fold the 24 inches in half and then in half again. Then staple the sides of the screening so as to make a 6 x 6 pocket 2 layers thick open at one end. Put this over the fig before it turns and the birds get it.

This column is produced by Urban Harvest, Inc. Learn about farmers markets, community gardens and gardening classes for youth and adults at www.urbanharvest.org or phone 713-880-5540. The article was written by Bob Randall, Ph.D., former Executive Director of Urban Harvest. He is the author of Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro-Houston. You may contact him at yearoundgardening@comcast.nett