Urban gardener, Cleve West: Who gives a fig?

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Figs (Ficus carica) are keeping us regular this summer. By that I don't mean you should ponder the healthy workings of my digestive tract as you tuck in to breakfast this morning, it's just that the fresh figs at our allotment have been something of a saviour, enticing us down there during what's been, let's face it, a lacklustre season. Our Indian holiday meant we missed the June washout, but the effects were plain to see when we got back. Onions, garlic and gooseberries had given in to mould; parsnips, carrots and even main-crop potatoes (facing the biggest army of slugs ever mustered in the history of allotments) couldn't grow more than a centimetre before being grazed back to stubs; and our nursery leeks barely had the girth of a cocktail stick, let alone a pencil.

Help was at hand to keep the weeds away during our absence, but since we've been back, the continued unsettled weather has meant their pace has outstripped our ability to keep up - and there have been moments recently where "giving up" has been mentioned. But figs came to the rescue. We'd planted one tree next to one of our sheds two years ago with the idea of training it around the structure in a loving (or strangling, depending on your point of view) embrace. Last year, it yielded three plump fruits that were ceremoniously divided in half and cooed over as we marvelled at its exotic texture and substance. You don't have to have a fruit fetish to see that figs are tantalisingly sexy.

Figs are quite obliging when it comes to ripening. From early summer, the fruits swell in unison to a medium size before pausing, as if to catch their breath before the final push to maturity. They then take it in turns to bloat and colour, giving a constant supply of ripe fruit, thus avoiding any danger of them all having to be eaten at the same time. If, however, you are lucky enough to have more figs than you can eat in one go and are loath to share them, then you can dry them in an airing cupboard - so long as you remember to turn them regularly.

The ripening process is largely governed by how much sun gets to the leaves so, considering the absence of sustained good weather this year, we're feeling quite fortunate to have had them every day for breakfast over the past few weeks. An Indian summer may keep them going a bit longer but they'll be running out of steam any day now. When the leaves drop there will be a number of juvenile fruits that never got past puberty. A few will go mouldy and drop off naturally, but the medium-sized fruit might make you think that they have a great head start for next year. Don't be fooled. Pick all but the smallest this month and discard. Anything larger than a pea will contain too much moisture to survive a winter.

Our fig tree, a present from a friend, is of unknown origin, but the most popular varieties sold today are either 'Brown Turkey', bearing fruit for much of August, or the later cropping 'Brunswick'. Figs left unchecked will produce foliage at the expense of fruit, so they will crop better if their roots are restricted. We planted ours in the textbook concrete box fashioned from 60cm x 60cm concrete slabs with a layer of rubble at the base for drainage. We made the mistake, however, of planting it too close to the shed, under an overhanging roof, so it now relies heavily on us to water it. A tree will always be much happier where it can source its moisture naturally but, provided they get the care they need in terms of sun, shelter, watering and feeding, figs can also be grown in pots (in a soil-based compost), and are very useful in an urban space. Over years, careful pruning can bestow an interesting sculptural effect on their framework. The stubby, almost elephantine shape gives noclue as to the erotic sensuousness of its fruit, but it can make quite an impact in a winter garden.

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