Figs are easy to grow in many parts of New Zealand. Although we think of them as a Mediterranean trees, they are actually native to Western Asia.

Figs are deciduous and grow to become very large trees - making them completely unsuitable for most suburban gardens - but an ideal niche crop on a lifestyle property looking to supply an urban market.

Figs are grown commercially in California, Argentina, Australia and the Mediterranean. Whilst there are some orchards in New Zealand it does seem they are few and far between, especially when there could be market potential in this versatile fruit.

There are many varieties of fig but the Common and San Pedro are the only ones grown in NZ at this stage. There are several cultivars of both varieties available. They are easy to grow from cuttings or can be purchased in commercial quantities if ordered ahead of time. Whilst research is underway to find the best varieties for NZ conditions I recommend trying the fruit and working out which ones you like. I have 4 trees in my home orchard; unfortunately, I only recorded the names of 2 of them, Mrs Williams and Black Beauty. The Black Beauty is by far the more vigorous grower and produces the most fruit. The flesh is a rich dark colour and the fruit is juicy and tasty.

Figs are odd trees - they don't produce flowers - the blossom is inside the fruit, and it's these blossoms with their little seeds that produce the crunchy texture. The fruit is rich in complex carbohydrates, fibre and minerals: including potassium, copper, magnesium and calcium. I have read one report that said half a cup of figs has the equivalent amount of calcium as half a cup of milk.

A seemingly unstoppable tree, if you are growing in them to sell you will have to consider some of their requirements:

  • They need a sheltered, north-facing position which catches the sun all day. Put them in shade and will they use all their energy finding sun and none producing fruit.
  • They should be planted on flat or gently sloping ground so they are easy to pick and tend.
  • The soil must be light and deep with a PH of 6.0 - 6.5. If your soil PH is lower than this, add lime.
  • The soil must be free draining. Figs will not cope with being waterlogged, if there is any danger of this subsoil drainage will be necessary.
  • Whilst the trees are relatively drought resistant, the fruit will not ripen to its prime if the trees aren't watered. If your area dries out, it is advisable to invest in an irrigation system which will supply water during the growing season. This will ensure your fruit is juicy and grows to optimum size.
  • They will need some protection from birds who will damage the fruit on the trees.

Once they are growing, trees should produce fruit in 2 years. They will reach good harvest volumes in 5-7 years. Trees should go on producing for years to come. Some plantings in California are 100 years old and still produce excellent volumes of fruit.

The fig tree is fast growing and requires pruning to keep it at a manageable height. Pruning also helps to limit the shading of the fruit, which will delay ripening. I have seen an orchard which espaliered the trees, set up like a vineyard with wires strung between posts. This would be costlier to set up but would help ensure the fruit was always at an accessible height, making picking less labour-intensive in the long run.

Figs aren't as prone to disease as some other fruit crops making them a good candidate for organic growers. They do however get fig rust which can be easily treated with fungicides and I understand there are organic alternatives.

Fruit ripens in February and March, although this will vary by region and variety - here in Northland one of my trees (Black Beauty) begins ripening in early January. Fruit will need picking daily to ensure top quality and to minimise spoilage.

The fruit is delicate and needs to be handled carefully. A Whangarei orchard packages its fruit in little tissue-lined cardboard boxes and sells at the gate as well as at the local farmers market.

Once you are producing fruit you can either market it as fresh fruit or process it. Processing can add value to your crop - the alternatives are as vast as your imagination: turn it into jam, pickles or exotic preserves, fig puree, dried figs, fig jam, wine or liqueur.