A fig love affair

One of the joys of expat life in Istria are fresh figs. Fig trees are everywhere, so growing one should be a doddle – or so I thought.

Broken open figs showing the shiny red interiorI fell in love with fresh figs at a hill-top monastery in Crete, many years ago. Back in the late 80s, they were an unusual, exotic fruit, which I’d never seen in the flesh before. Our guide offered them to us and, with their bright red, rather slimy-looking interior and lime-green exterior, they didn’t look very appetising. But I took a very tentative nibble, and then a proper mouthful – it was love at first bite (feel free to groan).

Many years later, those Cretan figs just a fond memory, we came house-hunting in Istria. It was early September and it seemed wherever we went, there were fig trees covered in fruit. All the estate agents immediately headed straight over and helped themselves, and gave us some to try. I felt a little guilty, but the trees were covered, so I was sure the owners could spare us a few. They were fantastic and in a small way, helped confirm that Istria was the place I wanted to live.


My fig experiment begins

Fig tree covered in figsHaving a fig tree in my garden went straight to the top of my house-hunting ‘garden’ wish list. Ideally a well-established one, so we’d have a good crop from the year we moved in. Unfortunately, the house we eventually bought came with a barren mud-patch and no fig trees. So with great ceremony, two tiny fig trees were planted in September 2005 in pride of place, at the bottom of the garden. They barely survived their first winter.

While there are fig trees growing all over Istria, one thing I’ve noticed is they’re nearly always found in sheltered positions: next to a wall or tucked beside an out-building. My two were in exposed locations where the winter winds tear through, and our first winter was particularly cold. Of course the trees above ground died, but in the late spring, a few shoots appeared from the roots and, by the following winter, both saplings were back to about half their original size.

Delicious, scrumptious figsThat winter, to protect them from the cold wind, I wrapped the tiny treelets in fleece. But  they were just too small. Only one made a comeback the following spring and, if it was to stand any chance, it had to be moved. So in 2007, I moved my sole surviving figlet to a sheltered south-facing site. That proved the last straw: this time, the winter finished it off.

“That’s it,” I decided. “Fig trees obviously don’t like my garden. I give up.” But the lure of those delicious, sweet, sticky figs was just too strong. By Spring 2010, I was ready to try again and went shopping for fig trees. This time I was determined to plant the hardiest variety I could find.


You can’t kill a fig tree!

No-one could believe I couldn’t grow a fig tree. “They grow everywhere”, they said. “You can’t kill them, even if you want to.” So how did I manage to kill two, quite successfully, I thought wryly. And no-one had a clue about the hardiest varieties – for them fig trees just grew, whether you wanted them to or not.

However, after asking around, I found Istria has several different types of fig which ripen at different times of the summer (from mid June to late September). When ripe, the fruits may vary from green to almost black, but they all taste similar (although some are slightly sweeter).

Dragica and her beautiful baby fig treesI considered buying a large tree, which, I thought, might have a better survival chance and had the added benefit of giving me nearly instant fruit. However, it was an expensive option and, if fig trees really didn’t like my garden, it was a lot of money to waste. So instead, I opted for a much cheaper solution: locally-raised, small saplings from a nursery in the next door village. They had fig trees from their greenhouse growing in their garden – and as it was less than 2 km away, I reasoned they should be able to grow in my garden.

To increase my chances of success, I spread my options and bought three two-year old saplings – two of an early yellow variety and one of the later black variety. I planted the yellow variety near the Little House at the bottom of the garden – one on the south side and one on the north (my theory being, the Little House would shelter them from the wind).

I planted the black variety in a pot, to live on our downstairs terrace. According to Alan Titchmarsh, in his book ‘Kitchen Gardener’, fig trees should be planted in a sunken container, to restrict their roots and ensure they fruit well (his old Kew landlady suggested a Gladstone bag). None of my Istrian friends knew anything about this and thought I was mad – and all their trees fruited fine no matter where they were planted. I guess we’d find out.


Survival chances

Fig tree in pot wrapped in fleece for the winterThe first summer (2010) all three trees flourished, especially the plant in the pot. I wasn’t taking any chances with this lot, so come the winter, they were all wrapped in fleece and the pot was pulled into a sheltered position. Would they survive? It snowed heavily at the start of the winter and the snow stayed on the ground for several days – very rare in Istria. But most of the winter was, in fact, quite mild: I had hopes they’d make it through.

Unwrapping them in late February, things didn’t look too hopeful. The plant in the pot seemed OK, but the other two just looked like dead sticks.

By early March there were tiny buds coming on the potted fig and it soon had its first leaves. The other two remained resolutely stick-like. Then, to my delight, in early May (when established fig trees all around were in full foliage), my little figlets began to bud. First near the ground and then gradually higher and higher up the ‘trunk’ (which was actually thinner than a marker pen). Soon leaves began appearing. When I bought them, I’d been told it was normal to lose the top 5 – 10 cm of the trunk for the first few years, while the trees were establishing themselves. In the end, while I lost about 13 cm from one, the other only lost 5 cm  – not too bad. Little fig tree growing in the garden

Over the long hot summer, they all flourished. No dramatic growth and no fruit yet (that would be expecting a bit much), but at least my baby fig trees made it through their first year. Come late December, before I head to the UK for Christmas, they will again be cocooned for the winter. Keep your fingers crossed for them and for a mild winter. If they survive their second winter, I am optimistic that, in a few years, I can look forward to finally eating the first figs from my own trees.


Also see

  • Until I have figs of my own, I’ve had to make do with scrumping figs from other people’s trees… sometimes with permission, sometimes without.
  • When you have some fresh figs, here are a few fig-licious recipes.


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