Tom Karwin, on gardening | Future Fig Treats – Santa Cruz Sentinel

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Take care of your garden

Figs rank among the most popular fruit trees for home gardens in the Monterey Bay area.

The common fig tree (Ficus carica), native to the Mediterranean region, grows easily in local gardens, which are comfortably in our Mediterranean climate.

Gardeners who grow fig trees in colder climates should overwinter their plants, using a variety of strategies, the most elaborate of which is literally burying the tree in a trench during the colder months. The temperate climate of Monterey Bay has many advantages, including the ability to enjoy attractive fig trees year round.

These trees are deciduous, so they are leafless for a few months, starting in December, but we appreciate their foliage in March, heralding the new season.

Another good reason to have a fig tree in your garden is that many common varieties are self-pollinating: a single tree grows well, without the need for both male and female trees, and without relying on pollinating insects.

This quality of the common fig carries the botanical term of parthenocarpy. It can be the first word of the day for botanical nerds. (More to come.)

This quality is added to the ease of cultivation of the common fig, called the “gardener’s fig”. The parthenocarpic variety of Ficus carica, which is a mutation of the wild variety, was cultivated at least 6,500 years ago in the Near East, long before the domestication of other fruit crops like grapes, olives and dates.

The wild variety of Ficus carica has both male and female plants, with the quality of being gynodioecious. It requires pollination by a tiny wasp (Blastophaga psenes). This variety of fig is widely cultivated commercially in California for its appealing nutty taste, and is primarily used for dried figs, confectionery, and baking (e.g. Fig Newtons). This is the fig variety Calimyrna, whose name associates California (where it was developed) with its homeland near the ancient Turkish city of Smyrna.

The third important reason for growing figs is their unique taste and texture, which most people find enjoyable, but different from other popular fruits. Growers have developed many cultivars of the common variety of Ficus carica, with subtle variations in taste and some differences in growth.

A very familiar and popular variety in California is the Black Mission Fig, which was introduced in 1769 when Franciscan missionaries planted it in the San Diego area. Like most common figs, the Black Mission has two harvests each year.

The first crop develops from mature branches, forming small figs in the fall or fall and remaining dormant during the winter months. These fruits ripen in early to mid-summer, providing the “breba” crop.

The second crop, considered the main crop of the year, develops from the growth of the shoots of the current year, ripening in late summer until fall or fall, depending on the cultivar, providing the “higos” crop.

I have not learned the derivation of the terms “breba” and “higos”. They could come from the Turkish language.

My garden has a Black Mission Fig, which was well established when I first saw it in 1978. It grows vigorously and carelessly to at least 25 feet in height, which brings up much of the fruit too high for the gardener, but easy access for birds inside.

Longtime readers of this column will have followed my efforts to manage this tree, first by pruning it into an espalier adjacent to the garden fence. This method involved tying horizontal branches to poles on either side of the tree and removing branches that grew far or into the fence. This annual approach was successful in making the fruit more accessible but did not reduce the height of the tree.

The next strategy was to remove the upward growing branches and provide accessible fruit. Not wanting to threaten the health of the tree, I learned from knowledgeable members of the local California Rare Fruit Growers that the tree would respond to such size with new growth. We performed this drastic pruning during the tree’s dormancy at the end of December 2019.

The tree is doing well. It produced buds on schedule in March 2020 and has grown vigorously since then, but produced only small amounts of bland tasting fruit compared to its production before hard pruning.

I am very happy to report that this tree appears to have fully recovered. The attached photos show the normal amount of developing fruit at this time and expected fruit ripening at the end of October.

Development of figs. (Tom Karwin – Contribution)
Ripe black mission figs are expected by the end of October. (Tom Karwin – Contribution)

An important characteristic of the common fig is that its fruit stops growing when it is removed from the tree and enters its senescence phase. This process brings us to another term for botanical nerds: the climacteric quality of the fruit. The fig should be harvested when it has reached full maturity, that is, when it has reached the peak of edible maturity, with the best taste and texture for consumption. This harvest time for figs is when they are soft to the touch, falling off their stems and often showing a split in the skin. After this ideal harvest period, the fruit becomes susceptible to fungal invasion and begins to degrade through cell death. Not good.

Due to this quality, fresh figs are rarely and briefly found in grocery stores. Those who enjoy figs can maximize their rewards by growing their own fig tree. More enthusiastic home growers will have several small plants of “garden fig” cultivars growing in containers. This practice offers a range of taste experiences with small amounts of fruit, hopefully with different ripening programs.

Improve your gardening knowledge

A search on YouTube for “fig propagation” will uncover a wealth of information on the propagation of figs from cuttings and the growing and harvesting of these plants.

Here are the upcoming webinars to expand your knowledge and ideas.

American Iris Society will present two webinars in September:

“An Introduction to Pacific Coast Iris Cultivation” at 5:30 pm September 1. The presenter will be Bob Sussman.

“The Beauty of the Past, Saved for the Future,” 5:30 pm Sept. 8, presented by Wendy Scott.

For more information and to register for these webinars, send an email to [email protected]

Recordings from several previous webinars are available at youtube.com/c/TheAmericanIrisSociety/videos.

The Cactus and Succulent Society will present the “The New Information Age on Lithops” webinar at 10:00 am on September 4th. The presenter will be Dr Roy Earle, focusing on the important work the Lithops Foundation has done and is doing. This work resulted in a new book, as well as conservation projects aimed at preserving and restoring the Lithops colonies in Namibia and South Africa. Lithops, called “living stones”. Are small succulents popular with collectors.

For more information and to register for this free event, visit cactusandsucculentsociety.org/.

Enrich your gardening days

Consider adding a gardener’s fig tree to your garden. Cuttings are available via YouTube, as noted above, from a gardening friend or the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers Annual Scion Exchange, usually in January.

Enjoy your garden!

Tom Karwin is Past President of Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and Monterey Bay Iris Society, and UC Lifetime Master Gardener (Certified 1999-2009). He is now a board member and garden coach for the Santa Cruz Hostel Society. To view photos of his garden daily, https://www.facebook.com/ongardeningcom-566511763375123/. To find an archive of previous gardening columns, visit http://ongardening.com.


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