Friday, 11 November 2016

How much Comfrey can you grow on 13m2 ? - Comfrey Trial Results Year 1

Inspired by the work of Lawrence D Hills (1911–1991) who undertook extensive research on comfrey during his lifetime,  we decided to start some comfrey trials of our own to see just how much biomass these plants can produce for us, how well they fertilise our crops, how attractive they are for garden wildlife and whether they have a beneficial impact on the soil.

We sought to do this by planting out a test bed and measuring the weight of each cut we took. The biomass was then processed to make a liquid concentrate that was applied to our market garden crops. During the season we casually observed invertebrate activity in the patch and also during cutting times and finally each year after the cuts are complete we send a soil sample from the patch off to the lab for analysis of pH N,P and K to compare with a base sample taken before we established the patch.

We also record all inputs of mulch, ash, compost and water applied to the bed.

If you would like to learn more about comfrey and why it's considered such a great plant by many people take a look at our previous post Comfrey - BELIEVE the HYPE!. To find out the results from this year's trials read on.


Comfrey Patch Overview 


The comfrey beds are located in the red box in the above image of our Polyculture Market Garden in Shipka, Bulgaria

Location - Our Market Garden, Shipka, Bulgaria
Climate: Continental Temperate
Latitude: 42°
Elevation: 565 m
Average Annual Rainfall: 588.5 mm
Co-ordinates: 42.71259, 25.32575

Species/Cultivar - Symphytum x uplandicum 'Bocking 14'
Test Bed Area - 13 m2
Bed Dimensions - 10 m x 1.3 m 
Total Plants - 42
Approx. planting spacing - 60-70 cm


Graphical Representation of the Comfrey Trial Patch 

Background 


The patch was prepared in the spring of 2015. Two 13m2 beds were allocated to the comfrey but only 1 bed was used to take records. For instructions how to set up a comfrey patch see our previous article here

Following taking a soil sample from the area we dug over the plot, removing weeds and added 20 L of mature compost per m length of bed (200L) and 70g of wood ash per m length (700g). We planted out the beds using divided crowns of larger plants and left them to grow without disturbance for the entire season. We also broadcast approx. 1.5 g per m2 of Trifolium repens onto the pathways between the beds.


Planting Material - It's easy to plant out with crown divisions or root cuttings in the spring when the soil has warmed. A crown division can be obtained from simply putting a spade through the center of a mature comfrey plant and transplanting the divided sections. For our patch I divided 2 yr old plants into quarters, sometimes sixths, and these established very well in the first year. We did not harvest the leaf biomass in the first year in order to allow a deep root system to develop. However if you use large divisions you can start harvesting in July.

Plants in the 2nd month after planting in 2015
We took a soil sample in the area before preparing the beds in March 2015 the results of which you can find below and a further sample in November of 2016 . Both samples were sent to NAAS of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. It's interesting to see general improvements in the bed soil fertility despite the removal of the biomass from the bed.

Soil Analysis Results from March 2015

Soil Analysis Results from November 2016


Management  


Irrigating - Irrigation was applied to the beds every 10-14 days without rain which this season was from mid June - mid October - almost 15 weeks without a significant rainfall.  We use flood irrigation diverted into the paths from mountain stream. I'd estimate 30 L per m length each week without rainfall would be sufficient.

Kata and Ute cutting the patch
Cutting -  We cut the Comfrey four times this season (see below for dates and weights). The comfrey is cut to approx 5 cm from the ground using a sickle, shaken out so all of the wildlife drops out and weighed immediately.

Kata, Natasha and Ute cutting and weighing 

Mowing -
After the cut the pathways and surrounding paths are mown and the trimmngs are applied more or less evenly to the surface of the bed.

Preparing Liquid Fert - The fresh material is stuffed into a 200 L barrel with stones on the top to compress the material and left to decompose for a few weeks. The result is a black smelly slurry that can be sieved off to leave a quantity of dark brown liquid. The liquid can then be diluted from 1-15 to 1-20 and applied to crops. The largest cut we made from 13m2 bed just about fit into the 200 L barrel.  

Comfrey Patch - before and after cut and path mowing 

Regrowth 23 days after the first cut 

We left the plants to flower for 7 -10 days before each cut, seeing as the bees were so into the flowers. This probably resulted in lower yields and next year we intend to cut before flowering and plant extra plants nearby solely for the bees and other pollinating insects

Comfrey 'Becking 14' before the first cut in April 



Results


From the 13 m2 patch we harvested a total of 96.92 kg of comfrey leaves. This was obtained from four cuts.





Fertility Inputs 


Following the initial input of 20 L of mature compost per m length of bed (200L) and 70g of wood ash per m length (700g) when we estbablished the bed in the spring of 2015,  during 2016 the only fertility inputs were the trimmings from the pathways between and around the beds.  We mowed this section four times (after each cut ) and each time emptied approx four 30 L mower bags of trimmings onto the comfrey bed totaling  480 L of trimmings.
  

Considerations


  • For higher yields the plants should be cut before flowering. We did not carry out this practice as the bees found the flowers so attractive.  
  • I believe we could also increase yields by applying urine fertiliser and we will experiment with this in the future. This would be particularly useful if growing the comfrey for animal fodder or mulch for perennial plants. 
Carpenter Bees one of many species of solitary bees that feed from the Comfrey flowers as well as Honey bees.

  • We used most of the comfrey for making a liquid fertilsier for our market garden crops. We produced 47 L of concentrate that can be mixed 1-15 with water . We applied the dilute at a rate of 500ml per plant  to tomato plants when setting fruit. The last batch we used for mulch and covered an area of 4 m2 with approx 11.5 kg of material. Comfrey can also be used to feed animals. Our rabbits and pigs both enjoy the fresh material and we use plants growing in our garden around the animal housing for this.  

Our pigs enjoying the Comfrey leaves


Joining the Trials 


If you would like to join the comfrey trials fill in your details below and we'll email you our record keeping templates. It will be great to have records from all over the world and see how well these plants grow in different climates.




Buying Comfrey


 Root cuttings and crowns come from our bio nursery and are  100% biologically grown - Click here for crowns and here for cuttings. 


20 Root Cuttings - €25.50 
50 Root Cuttings - €60 
100 Root Cuttings - €120 
500 Root Cuttings - €535 
1000 Root Cuttings - €950 

Price includes delivery via international courier service, recorded and tracked. Estimated delivery time is 5-9 days

Comfrey Crowns -  €3 per crown + delivery 



Crowns emerging in early spring 

Send an email to  balkanecologyproject@gmail.com with your order and we will get back to you the same day.



If you would like to get involved in our Polyculture studies and trials, registration for our market garden study 2017 is now open. click below for more info.

Permaculture Research 

For more on polyculture and permaculture research take a look at the good work being carried out by the  Permaculture International Research Network and for monthy news see  Permaculture Research Digest.

Upcoming Courses


We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens, farms and orchards.


Forest Garden Plant Nursery - Permaculture Plant Nursery


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Polyculture Trials 2016 - Home Garden Records

For the previous three years we have been testing the practice of growing vegetables and herbs in polycultures (or what is known as guilds within permaculture circles). We have been using our home garden for these tests and recording the inputs and outputs from the growing seasons. Our aim is to discover whether or not growing in polycultures offers benefits over conventional methods of growing, and to see to what degree we can obtain good yields of nutrient dense food whilst providing habitat for garden wildlife.

Garden produce and wildlife 

What follows is a description of the garden layout and planting scheme, an overview of our cultivation practices, the results from year three of the study, our record keeping methods, and some notes and observations from this year.

If you would like to see the results from previous years click below:

Last year we started a scaled up version of this study looking at polyculture growing for a market garden. The results from year 2  will be coming soon. You can read more about that study here

The Polyculture Market Garden

Garden Overview   


Climate: Continental Temperate
Latitude: 42°
Elevation: 580 m
Average Annual Rainfall: 588.5 mm
Co-ordinates:42°42′N 25°23′E

The Polyculture beds on a mid spring morning

Garden Layout 


Garden area: 66.5m2
Cultivated beds area: 36m2
Paths: 30.5m2

 Path and Bed Layout 

The Polyculture Planting Scheme 


Below is a typical representation of the polyculture planting scheme within a bed.

Vegetable Guild/Polyculture


In 2016 the following plants were grown in the 6 beds (36m2)

11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Black Krim'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Tigerealla'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Mixed Saved Seed'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Rozova Magia'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Anna Russian'
11 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Ukranian Purple'
66 x Basil - Ocimum basilcium 'Sweet Genovese'
27 x French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris 'Cobra'
27 x French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris 'Local'
2 x Courgette - Cucurbita pepo 'Black Beauty'
4 x Yellow Bush Scallops - Cucurbita pepo
6 x Butternut Squash - Cucurbita pepo 'Waltham Butternut'
4 x Swiss Chard - Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla ' Rainbow Chard '
4 x Sunflower - Helianthus annuus
12 x African Marigold - Tagetes erecta
12 x French Marigold - Tagetes patula
6 x Pot Marigold - Calendula officinalis

Polyculture Produce

The table below shows the floral species composition of each bed including the different cultivars and the dates that the plants were sown or planted. Beans, courgettes and winter squash were sown directly into the beds, tomatoes, basil, chard and marigolds were grown from seed indoors reared to approx 15 cm tall and  planted outside around mid spring. Sunflowers and pot marigolds are self seeded.

Other plants such as volunteer nasturtiums were also growing within the beds. The yield of these plants are not considered in these records. Also not included are the native wild plants that are encouraged to grow around the perimeter of each bed. Many of these plants provide excellent fodder for our chickens and rabbits as well as mulch material when chopped and dropped on the beds.





Polyculture Cultivation Practices 


In the early spring when the temperatures are warm enough for the chickens to be outside during the night, we place a 1 m x 3 m bottomless chicken coop with 8 - 10 hens inside onto one half of a bed. The chickens will live there for 3 or 4 days and each day we throw them in kitchen scraps, grain and weeds. The chickens relentlessly scratch among the soil and mulch picking off the eggs of slugs and larvae as well as pupae of various arthropods. They also forage for seeds in the soil and thereby reduce the emergence of undesirable plants in the bed. The chicken's scratching mixes up the organic matter we throw in daily and the birds contribute a valuable supply of droppings as they go.


The chicken run 1.3 x 3 m light frame bottomless coop 
After 3 or 4 days we move the chickens onto the next half of the bed and the process repeats. The area the chickens have just moved from is forked over, soaked well (or we wait for a rain) and usually 20 L of compost per 1.5 m length are applied i.e 80 L per bed). A 20 cm layer of Straw mulch (approx 3/4 of a bale) is then laid to cover the surface. The mulch provides good habitat for toads and lizards (in the spring, summer and autumn) which are well positioned to pick off any slugs that venture in for the young seedlings.

Common Toad clearing out the slugs before the plants go in

Once mulched the stakes for tomatoes and beans are put into position. Large reliable germinating seeds such as beans and squash are sown directly into the beds by pulling back the mulch, making a small nest adding 3 handfuls for potting mix (50% compost 50% river sand) and sowing the seeds directly into the mix. All other plants are reared in pots and planted into the beds when approx 15 cm tall and when the weather is suitable. Any weed plants that grow around the edge of the beds are cut back before they set seed and used as additional mulch throughout the year. Weeds growing within the bed are treated the same way. Note that weeds are not uprooted only cut to ground level. The roots are allowed to decay in the ground or left to regrow until they are again ready to "chop and drop".

Around July the vegetable and herb plants are all well established with little room for weeds to establish. The attention the beds require after July is mainly irrigating and harvesting until October.

The polyculture in the summer 

When the last of the harvest is out of the beds, the stakes are removed and if warm enough the chickens are brought in for another 3 or 4 days to pick through the vegetation. None of the plant material is removed from the beds.  What the chickens leave behind is cut into small pieces and applied to the surface as an overwinter mulch. In November garlic is planted in some of the beds. November sown garlic will normally mature in June, however we use the small bulbs that are not worth planting as main crop garlic and harvest them in March like spring onions before the chickens go on, providing a deliciously fresh treat in early spring.

Inferior Garlic bulbs planted 10 cm apart 5 rows per bed for a spring harvest 


Soil Analysis

 

Each spring and autumn we obtain a soil sample and send it to NAAS of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. We can see from the samples rising levels of essential plant nutrients and check our pH levels are within the optimal range for vegetable production.

Mineral Analysis from 01.04.2016  





Mineral Analysis from 01.11.2016 





Year 3 Results in Summary


This year we harvested 168 kg of vegetables including tomatoes, basil, beans, garlic, winter & summer squash, chard and sunflower heads, a 51 kg decrease on last year's total.

The time spent on this garden, including propagating all the plants from seed, preparing the beds, tending the plants, irrigating and harvesting amounted to 57 hrs and 20 mins from March - October. We used 480 L less compost this season than last season.


Results: Inputs and Outputs  

Table summarizing input and outputs from October 31st 2015 - October 31st 2016



Garden Produce



All produce was weighed directly after harvest and unless otherwise stated, all of the produce recorded was in excellent condition and fit for market. Produce not fit for market was composted or fed to our animals and is not included in these records.

Record Keeping Methods 


The tasks were predominantly carried out by one person, either myself, my partner Sophie or one of our boys Dylan and Archie.  A timer is started just before the task starts and stopped when the task is complete. On a few occasions two people were working on tasks at the same time, namely erecting the stakes and planting the garlic. These occasions are recorded in the management sheet of the record keeping spreadsheet 2015 (in the "Notes" row).

In 2015 we established base times for garden tasks that are carried out each year and we extrapolate from this results for future records. Some tasks differ in quantity each year such as irrigation, mowing and harvesting and we account for these separately.

Irrigation 

Our irrigation system is unique to our garden in that we flood irrigate using a mountain stream, however I estimate the irrigation needs of the polyculture to be 20 L per m² i,e 120 L per bed or 720 L for the entire garden applied once a week in the absence of rain (normally July- September). The time taken to apply 120 L per bed is estimated at 10 minutes so that's 60 mins per irrigation session. This year we experienced a very dry summer with a period of 13 weeks without significant rain. During this period, irrigation was practiced once per week.


Mowing

The time for mowing is estimated to be 10 minutes. During dry seasons less mowing is required whereas during wet seasons more mowing is required. This year we mowed the pathways seven times.


Harvesting  

Harvesting times are recorded along with other garden tasks such as tying tomatoes and weeding. so we don't have a base for this task. For this year's results we used last year's figures, but it would actually be less as the total produced harvested is 51 kg less this year. A harvest base time is required for future records.

Notes and Observations from 2016 


  • Farm Ducks were free ranging in the garden from July - mid October and often foraging in the straw. This breed of duck (some type of mallard breed) caused little notable damage in the garden but probably made it less likely for toads and lizards to hunt in the straw. 
Ducks in the beds
  • The decrease in production this year may be attributed to the below: 
  1. We did not add the usual 480 L of compost this year as the soil results showed ample nutrients for vegetable production. 
  2. A cold and wet April and May meant that many squash and beans did not germinate. This resulted in less production from beans and squash than would be expected. Next year we will be growing these plants in starter trays and planting out when the weather conditions are favorable.  
  • The market value of the produce is estimated based on average market prices from the food coop Trustika.  It is not what we actually sold the food for, as much of the food from this garden was consumed by us or preserved. 
  • Our low expenses are attributable to the fact we grow our own plants from seed, make composts and sowing mediums, grow summer and autumn mulch and save seeds from plants that do not readily crossbreed such as tomatoes, basil, marigolds and beans. We also provide our own support materials (tomato stakes and bean poles). Time taken to make composts and harvest support stakes are not included in the records. 


Improvements for Future Studies 


Biodiversity Study 

It's our goal to build productive ecosystems that provide for a large diversity of organisms as well as us. We believe our gardens achieve this but currently have no way of quantifying/qualifying this. We'd like to develop a method of biodiversity measurement that can be used and believe that invertebrate diversity would be a great place to start. The Plants for Bugs experiment carried out by a team of entomologists at RHS Wisley would work well. During this study invertebrate samples were taken on five occasions throughout the year and recorded.  The samples are gathered using pitfall and baited refuge traps for ground fauna, and direct observation of flying insect visitors and those settled on the plants.

Our goal is to create garden ecosystems that are productive for man and for nature.
Photographs taken from the garden.by Paul Alfrey and Peter Alfrey.


We are currently seeking collaboration with entomologists that could assist us with this part of the study. If you or someone you know is interested in this please do get in touch.

Sharing, Feedback and Collaboration 


We have our record keeping spreadsheets on Google Drive. These spreadsheets include all of the data entries and task descriptions. You can find the spreadsheet here. (note there are multiple sheets that can be accessed from the blue tabs running along the top of the sheet). 

You are welcome to a copy of the spreadsheet format that you can use for your own purposes. Just drop us an email or leave a comment below with your contact details and we will send it over to you. 

If you would like to get involved in our Polyculture studies, registration for our market garden study 2017 is now open. click below for more info.

Permaculture Research 

For more on polyculture and permaculture research take a look at the good work being carried out by the  Permaculture International Research Network and for monthy news see  Permaculture Research Digest.


We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens, farms and orchards.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Thank you to everyone that participated in 2016 Polyculture Market Garden Study

It's the end of the second year of our Polyculture Market Garden Study marked by the end of season soil sampling, picking green tomatoes, mulching the crop residues and packing the tomato and bean supports away (leaving some for the birds to perch on over the coming winter). Once we get the soil samples back from the lab. and finish writing it up we'll be posting the results here on the blog.

To take a look at previous years results see here.

Packing away supports and last harvests

We'd like to say a huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped with the study this year.

Peter Alfrey, Natasha Barbier, Jack Carlowe, Alexandre Duclouet, Susan Eggers, Johannes Heuschkel, Sandra Koljackova and her 2 beautiful daughters,  Biljana Kostovska,  Pauline Lousteau, Tadeo Melvin, Ala Pekalska, Kata Prodanov, Jan and Keith Roberts, Dimo Stefanov from Wasteno Farm,  Ute Villavicencio, Marika Wanklyn and Charlotte Wrist Kirk.  

Polyculture Study Crew 2016

Looking forward to next year already! Registration for 2017 is now open. If you'd like to join us you can find out more here.




Courses and Events @ Balkan Ecology Project for 2017





We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens, farms and orchards. 


Forest Garden Plant Nursery - Permaculture Plant Nursery

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Dig the Fig - The essential guide to all you need to know about figs - Ficus carica

Originally from Asia Minor, the fig is probably the oldest cultivated fruit in the world. There is evidence to suggest that some 10,000 years ago some of us were planting figs directly outside our caves presumably to be able to slip out for a figgy delight without worrying too much about getting torn to shreds by a Saber-toothed Tiger :)




Man and fig have come a long way since then but have remained very much good friends, travelling and setting up home together all over the world where summers are warm and dry and winters are cool.

During this article we'll be focusing on the common fig - Ficus carica. We'll look at fig types, hardy figs, fig cultivation, fig reproduction, fig propagation,  good companions plants for figs, and growing figs commercially.

Overview


Latin name - Ficus carica
Common name - Common Fig - Adriatic Fig - Symrna Fig
Family- Moraceae (same family as Mulberry)

Native Range -  A temperate species native to southwest Asia and the Mediterranean region (from Afghanistan to Portugal)

Description -  A tall deciduous shrub or small tree reaching a height of about 10 m. Single or multi stemmed 

Uses - The fruit is eaten fresh, dried in confectionery, brewed as an alcoholic beverage or used as a laxative. The fruit is a source of calcium, sugar, iron, copper, carbohydrates, potassium, and vitamin A. The leaves are used as potherbs or fed to livestock and dried can be used for tea. The tree is also grown for shade and has value in the ornamental garden. 

Growing period - The fruiting cycle is 120-150 days. Some varieties produce one crop per year, others two. Trees have been known to live as long as 200 years.

Growing conditions - Fig thrives best in areas of moderate relative humidity and can be grown at higher elevations in areas of low rainfall. Fig requires some dry months particularly at the flowering and fruiting periods and some sources state that they require some winter chilling. They are light demanding plants and will grow best with 8 hours or more of direct sunlight. Fig can grow in virtually any soil type but prefer a sandy-clay loam within a pH range of 6.0 to 8.0 tolerating soils with high lime content. A soil depth of 1 - 1.5 m is sufficient for growth. Figs can also grow in rocky areas from sea level to 1,700 meters.

Growing behaviour - Figs are a shallow fibrous rooted species, although depending on location, the roots may spread laterally and vertically. Figs may have single stemmed tree like growth or multi-stemmed shrub like growth and often send up suckers from the base of the tree and spreading branches that are low to the ground. Fig wood is weak and decays rapidly. The leaves emerge in late spring and in our climate drop shortly after the first frost in late autumn. Fig fruit is borne on the new spring new growth although some plants produce two crops known as the breba crop. The breba fruit develop at the nodes or leaf axils of last year's wood.



Leaves fully emeraged and ripening fruit borne on this years growth.


Fruit - Fruits generally ripen from August - October depending on cultivar and climate. Some trees produce what is called a breba which are fig fruits that develop during the spring on the previous year's shoot growth, followed by the main fig crop that develops on the new shoot growth and ripens in late summer or fall. In cold climates the breba crop is often destroyed by spring frosts. 
.
Ecology - Fig fruit is an important food source for much of the fauna in some areas, and the tree owes its expansion to those that feed on its fruit. Seed is dispersed by birds and mammals that scatter the seeds in droppings. We often find various  bees and wasps feeding on openings in the fruit made by birds. We'll leave some of the fruit on the tree for other organisms and always have plenty of figs.

Fig Types 


Figs can be divided into four distinct categories 
  • Common: do not require pollination for fruit set 
  • San Pedro: requires no pollination for the first crop (called the breba crop) but requires pollination of the second crop 
  • Caduceus/Smyrna : requires pollination in order to set fruit 
  • Capri or Male: usually non-edible figs in which the pollinator lives 

Within these categories one can find over 750 cultivars!! The fig contains more naturally occurring varieties than any other tree crop.


Fig Cultivars/Varieties - Fig cultivars have many unique characteristics such as compact to spreading growth habits, fruit colour, shape, taste and size, plant hardiness etc. 

Cold Hardy Fig Cultivars - Although often considered a Mediterranean plant there are many figs that have been cultivated to withstand cold climates in some cases withstanding winter lows of -20 C.

Young figs are more sensitive to cold winters than larger figs so it's best to over winter young plants perhaps even grow on in a pot until a good root system has established especially if you are growing Fig on the limits of the climatic conditions they are accustomed to. 

According to some sources figs less than two to five years old are likely to die back to the ground during very cold winters. Very wet winter soils make a fig more likely to perish. Good site selection and soil preparation along with a generous winter mulch can go along way to prevent this.

It's possible that one of the hardiest figs on the planet was developed here in Bulgaria. A cultivar named 'Michurinska 10' is commonly grown here at altitudes above 1000 m elevation in areas that receive extreme winters lows of below -20.

The fruits are small but numerous and sweet when ripe which can be from early as late August through to early October. In a hot dry summer like we have had this year, the fruits can be left on the tree to dry and keep well into the winter. Picking them ripe ,splitting them in two and leaving in the car parked in the sun for a few days is also very effective.

Ripe fruit of  'Michurinska 10' 

The hot long summers here ensure a good reliable crop from these plants each year. From time to time when we have very cold winter the top growth dies back but in the spring new growth arises from the base of the plant and can produce a good crop of figs that same summer. 30-50 stems may come up in the spring and we found it good practice to remove at least 50% of the new growth before fruit sets and then thin down to no more than 8-10 of the best stems in the autumn after a harvest.

 We're also growing 'Izmir' a Turkish cultivar.

Frost crack on our fig tree caused by a sudden drop in temperature. The top growth died off that year but new spring growth quickly replaced it and we received a good crop of fruit that same summer.

We grow a range of hardy fig cultivars from our bionursery. You can find more info on our hardy cultivars below.

Hardy fig cultivars from Balkan Ecology Project Plant Nursery

For a list of other cultivars suitable for growing in temperate climates with cold winters  see here.

Fig Cultivation - How to grow Fig


Where to Plant your Fig -  Figs require full sun all day to ripen palatable fruits. Some cultivars can become enormous, and will shade out plants growing beneath so select a site that the tree can grow into. Trying to reduce size by pruning the branch length causes loss of crop. 
Figs can be successfully grown in pots and this will moderate the plant size.  For container grown plants, replace most of the soil in the tub every three years and keep the sides of the tub shaded to prevent overheating in sunlight.
In areas with short (less than 120 days between frosts), cool summers, espalier trees against a south-facing, light-colored wall to take advantage of the reflected heat. In coastal climates, grow in the warmest location, against a sunny wall or in a heat trap.

Fig Root Invasiveness -  Fig tree roots generally are very invasive, although much depends on the cultivar, its planting location, and the overall soil quality. Most fig trees, if they are planted in optimal conditions, spread their roots far and wide and sometime the roots can choke out other plants and can damage sidewalks, driveways and other objects in their paths. Fig trees usually do best on the outskirts of a garden or surrounded by plenty of open space. In order to minimize root invasion some growers will plant trees in pots or build underground retaining walls to keep the roots structured.

Celeste or Malta fig trees typically keep their root systems more or less contained, larger trees such as the brown turkey fig trees have more of a tendency to dominate a space.

Fig Pruning - Pruning is recommended only during the initial years when trees should be trained according to use of fruit, such as a low crown for fresh-market figs. When growing a breba crop, since the crop is borne in the leaf axils of the previous year's wood, winter pruning will result in the loss of the following year's crop. If a mature tree dies back during a cold winter the following spring will bring many new shoots from the buried wood just below ground level. In such instances we have found it good practice to thin these out to all but 10 - 12 stems. Further thinning (of the now bush like plant) will help improve access within the crown for picking fruit, improve air circulation and will result in fewer but higher quality fruits. We remove any mature stems that are touching each other or appear crowded.

Fig branches and leaves contain a milky sap that is irritating to human skin so when pruning and harvesting it's good to wear gloves.  

Irrigation requirements - In most Mediterranean countries figs are grown as rain-fed but the most critical period of irrigation is early spring before rapid shoot and fruit development. 750 mm of annual rainfall is considered sufficient to produce a good crop. Rain or heavy irrigation during fruit development and ripening can cause the fruits to split.

Harvesting Figs - Figs must be allowed to ripen fully on the tree before they are picked. They will not ripen if picked when immature. A ripe fruit will be slightly soft and starting to bend at the neck. Harvest the fruit gently to avoid bruising. Fresh figs do not keep well and can be stored in the refrigerator for only 2 - 3 days. Some fig cultivars are delicious when dried. They take 4 - 5 days to dry in the sun and 10 -12 hours in a dehydrator and around 2 -3 days on top of the car dash board(parked in a sunny spot). Dried figs can be stored for six to eight months.

'Michurinska 10'  and grape harvest from our forest garden
Care and Maintenance - We have found our figs to require very little care. In the past we have added 20 L of mature compost to the base the trees and mulched with a bale of straw before winter. Our trees are located next to the veggie garden and another next to a chicken run so I assume they forage for the nutrients they need from those spaces.

Pests and Diseases Problems :  Problems are mainly encountered when trees are under stress and good practices will prevent most problems. We have never experienced any disease or pest but do lose some of the crop to birds.

 In some cases, a young, healthy fig tree undergoes proper pollination and fruit set, then drops all its fruit suddenly. This phenomenon is usually caused by overfeeding. It may take three to four years for the fig to recover from over-fertilisation and produce a crop that ripens and stays on the tree. Avoid using shop bought liquid feeds  instead use good compost fed at the base of the plant (20 L in the spring)  and you should not experience this. 

Fig Propagation 


Figs are generally propagated by cuttings and for commercial plantations by tissue culture. We have had success with hard wood cuttings taken in late autumn/ early winter planted inside and outside into a free draining medium (50% river sand 50% sieved compost). We've also had good results from division (digging out sections of the root system that has sent out new shoots) and layering. The key to success is to water the cuttings well during dry periods. Another good method that can be practiced at anytime of year is taking 15 cm cuttings of 2nd yr growth and placing then in 10 cm of water. Clean the water when it starts going green (every 5-7 days) and plant out when a good root system starts to form. 


Hard wood cuttings of  'Michurinska 10' possibly the hardiest fig on the planet  


Fig Reproduction 


Fig pollination is fascinating but not great news for fig loving vegetarians :)

What we call the fig fruit is actually a flower or to be more precise an inflorescence - a cluster of many flowers and seeds contained inside a bulbous stem. Because of this unusual arrangement, the seeds—technically the ovaries of the fig—require a specialized pollinator that is adapted to navigate within the fruit and here begins the story of the relationship between figs and fig wasps. 

The queen of the fig wasp is almost the perfect size for the job and enters through a tight opening in the fig called the ostiole.


Life Cycle of Fig pollination with wasps


Once inside, the queen travels within the chamber, depositing her eggs and simultaneously shedding the pollen she carried with her from another fig. This last task, while not the queen’s primary goal, is an important one: she is fertilizing the fig’s ovaries. After the queen has laid her eggs, she dies. Once the queen’s eggs hatch, male and female wasps assume very different roles. They first mate with each other and then the females collect pollen while the wingless males begin carving a path to the fig’s exterior. This activity is not for their own escape but rather to create an opening for the females to exit. The females will pollinate another fig as queens. The males will spend their entire life cycle within a single fruit.


Bad news for vegetarians thus being when you eat fig you probably eat wasp however, common fig types have all female flowers that do not need pollination for fruiting as the fruit can develop through parthenocarpic means. Black Mission, Brown Turkey, Brunswick, and Celeste are some representative cultivars.



Companion Plants for Figs - Fig Polycultures


The fig tree, having an extensive shallow root system and in maturity casting a heavy shade, generally inhibits the growth of plants directly growing under the crown. Over the years, however, I have observed the below list of plants growing along with the fig, some of which we planted others naturally occurring.

I leave our fig trees to branch low to the ground for ease of picking the fruits. This results in a very deep shade cast under the plant and as a result the Comfrey and Artichoke produce little biomass in the summer. Under plantings do grow well before the fig leaves emerge in late spring, Tuberous Comfrey in particular forms a dense mat and flowers profusely before dying back during the summer when the fig is in full leaf.

When companion planting with fig, it is best to select early flowering plants that yield before May and can tolerate deep shade during the summer months. We have experimented with bulbs (included below) that utilize nutrients during the dormant season, provide early nectar and pollen to bees and other pollinators, and provide beauty contrasted against the grey frame of the winter fig.



Growing Figs commercially 


We are not growing figs commercially and have no experience of this. The below info is largely taken from online resources.

  
Orchard Establishment: Figs are planted in winter and early spring. Spacing depends on the variety chosen. The average planting density is 3 x 4 m or 833 trees per hectare.  In Valinhos recent experiments placed 2,666 trees on a hectare.

Figs respond well to organic matter and in most countries well rotted farmyard manure is dug into pits before planting. At least 20 L are added per tree. 

Caprification: In orchards requiring Caprification the male trees are grown in an area separate from the orchard. One male tree is required for every 50 female trees. The male figs are hung in stretch poly bags in trees in the orchard when figs reach button size. 

Irrigation: Depending on soil types and farmers’ preferences, sprinklers and drip are used. The equivalent of 750 mm annual rainfall is sufficient to produce a good crop.

Drying Figs: Dried figs are allowed to ripen on the tree and then dried for between 3 to 4 days depending on the area. Figs can actually dry on the tree as is the case in Turkey, Iran, Greece and the U.S.A. where after they fall to the ground and are then vacuumed up. 

Pests and Diseases: Fig stem borer, mealy bugs, fruit fly, aphids and scale are all insects which can affect the health of a tree and rust, mosaic virus and endosepsis are the main diseases seen in figs. These problems are mainly encountered when trees are under stress and good orchard maintenance will prevent most problems.

Soil Cultivation: Although figs tolerate different soil types they are more productive in soils with a sandy-clay loam profile. A depth of 1,5 m is sufficient for root development but water logging will adversely affect growth and productivity. The ideal pH range is between 6 and 8. When planting many figs testing should be done for root nematodes that are known to affect figs. 

Fertilisation: Figs can perform well under soil conditions unsuitable for other crops but recent studies prove that nutrients exert an effect on yield and quality. Nutrient requirements differ according to variety but leaf analysis will indicate fertilizer requirements. Drying varieties are more sensitive to nitrogen and adversely affect fruit size and colour. Too much nitrogen also affects the bribe crop adversely. A good application of compost (20 -40 L under a mature tree 10 - 20 for young trees) along with regular comfrey mulching should be sufficient fertiliser for your fig trees    

Pruning: Along with fertilization this has become one of the most important tools in the modern orchard. In Japan most orchards are trained for 2 metres, 400 mm from the ground. New shoots train onto a trellis of 2 metres in height which allows for easier picking. To provide for more early or breba crops summer tip pruning is done. Timing of pruning can play an important role in determining later picking/ripening of fruit.


Harvest: Figs are harvested when ripe as ripening does not advance after picking. Depending on the area, summer fruits will start ripening towards the end of August and depending on the cultivar will
continue for between 4 to 8 weeks until the end of October. At the start of ripening fruit is picked every 3 days increasing in frequency to every day when the harvest is at its peak and reducing to every 3rd day as the harvest tails off. Harvesters can usually pick about 100 fruit per hour.
Figs for shipping are collected daily just before they reach the fully ripe stage, but yield to a soft pressure, usually indicated by small cracks in the skin. They should be immediately refrigerated. For 
commerce, choose a cultivar that parts readily from the branch and does not tear the neck.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions or something to add. 

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References 

Thank you to the knowledgable people on the www.ourfigs.com forum for your review of the post and suggestions for improvement.
  • http://www.citrogold.co.za/Figs%20An%20Overview%20Citrogold%202011.pdf
  • http://www.adrianosfigtrees.com/varieties.html
  • http://www.esa.org/esablog/research/the-story-of-the-fig-and-its-wasp/
  • http://ecocrop.fao.org/ecocrop/srv/en/cropView?id=1071
  • https://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/fig.html


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