A GARDENER’ DIARY: Growing figs in Vernon

Treat as a house plant for the first two winters when the roots are small and weak

This week’s column has been written by Bill Hickey (extreme fig enthusiast).

Ripe high-quality figs have a rich exotic tropical flavour. Local gardeners Bill Doak, Jocelyne Sewell, Hagen Tanner and some members of the Okanagan Garden and Roses Club have already begun to grow figs in Vernon. I have sampled five varieties of fresh local figs so far this summer: Italian Honey, Black Spanish, Negronne, Serbian Black and English Brown Turkey. From my yard I will also enjoy LSU Gold, Atreano, Hardy Chicago, Black Marseilles, Italian Purple and Celeste later in the season.

The ones that will do well in the Okanagan must enjoy very hot summers and also withstand quite cold Okanagan winters. In addition to winter hardiness we need early ripening, richly flavoured fruit and highly productive varieties.

Pruning “pinching” for fruit production is essential in our short fig season to get early fruit, and it works like magic. It’s like pruning tomatoes to control vegetative growth and to encourage flowering. On a new green fig twig as soon as you can see five small leaves, pinch off the pointy top bud. The fig bush will quickly produce double buds at the base of each leaf. At pea size you can tell which bud is a fruit and which is a new leaf bud. Remove the new leaf bud unless you want to keep it for a new branch for your bush. From this stage to ripe fruit is about 70 to 80 days. Truly ripe figs are soft, drooping and starting to wrinkle. Feed with rose food or tomato food until Aug. 1 to allow hardening off by winter.

Treat as a house plant for the first two winters when the roots are small and weak. Bring them into the house to a cool place after a mild frost when the leaves have dropped. If they refuse to go to sleep or wake up early, go back to pinching at five leaves. They will be fine when they get outside.

After its second winter indoors, plant the fig bush out in spring. Be prepared to give it the same care as a prized young rose bush. For wintering outside use a deep mulch of dry leaves and keep the rain off with plastic. To protect them from rodents use mothballs or mouse bait but be aware they can be of danger to your pets and small children. A 100-watt piece of plumber’s heating tape draped over the bush at the start of winter can be plugged in during cold snaps below minus 10 C.

Below are my fig recommendations for the North Okanagan.

From brugmansia-quebec.com: Marseilles Black, Ronde de Bordeaux, Sultane, LSU Gold and Italian Honey.

From figsforlife.ca): Hardy Chicago, English Brown Turkey, Melanzana, Atreano and Verte.

Websites with more detailed descriptions and pictures: figs4fun.com with the biggest American commercial fig collection, fig discussion forum, variety descriptions and lots of photos; adrianosfigtrees.com has the largest private Canadian fig collection with descriptions and photos.

For more information: 250-558-4556 or plantlady1@shaw.ca