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Gardening : If Space Is Limited, Fig Tree Is the One to Pick : Many varieties can be grown in Southland, offering harvest of delicious fruit.

June 18, 1989|BILL SIDNAM | Sidnam has written garden columns and features for The Times since 1975

If you could select only one fruit tree for your Southern California yard, the fig tree would be an ideal choice for several reasons: It produces delectable fruit, it is simple to grow, with its large leaves and gnarled branches, it is attractive in most landscapes and it can be pruned radically to accommodate small yards or even large containers.

Late last summer, at the peak of the fig harvest season, I visited with UC Riverside researcher Gray Martin to learn more about one of my favorite fruits, the fig. The Riverside campus has a renowned fig research program begun in the 1960s by William Storey and now under the direction of Mikeal Roose.

According to Martin, most Southlanders grow one of four common varieties, Mission, Brown Turkey, White Genoa or Kadota, all of which are reliable trees and produce good quality fruit.

However, there are a number of rare fig trees that, while little-known, are highly desirable and provide unique flavor adventures. And on the subject of flavor, Martin noted that if you buy figs in the supermarket, you never experience a fig at its peak; commercially-grown figs are harvested when they are solid--they should be picked when soft. "To enjoy the complete flavor of a fig, it should absolutely be eaten with the skin on," Martin said.

Here is a rundown on fig varieties that grow and produce well in many areas of Southern California--beginning with the more common varieties, followed by the more exotic.

Mission (also called Black Mission)--A good choice for most Southland regions. Produces two large crops a year. Tasty fruit having purplish black skin with a red interior.

Brown Turkey--Dark-brown skin with light-red flesh. Sweet, rich flavor. Good producer in most climatic zones. However, the main crop is not as good quality as the spring crop and the fruit often split.

White Geona--Will produce better than other varieties in coastal regions; however, it is also a satisfactory inland variety. Greenish-yellow-skinned fruit of good flavor. Fruit must be eaten soon after picking because it deteriorates rapidly.

Kadota--Greenish-yellow skin with a sweet, rich flavor. Kadota prefers warm regions, but good production has been reported in Malibu.

Panache--Unusual, greenish-yellow fruit with dark green stripes; scrumptious tangy-sweet flavor. Beautiful, strawberry-red flesh. An import from France, it has a small, bush-like tree habit. Unfortunately, Panache has lower fruit production than other figs mentioned here.

Flanders--The fruit have a long neck with purplish-green skin when ripe and amber-colored flesh. Exceptionally sweet, rich, flavor; makes a delicious dried fig. Best grown in warmer areas.

Verte--Small, green fruit with deep-red flesh that has a tart-sweet flavor. Small, compact tree good for small yards or large containers. A good choice for cooler, coastal valleys.

Conadria--Martin's favorite fig. Whitish skin with light to red flesh. Thin-skinned with a smooth, rich fig flavor. Martin noted that Conadria is the earliest tree at the research orchard to set fruit and it produces the largest crop over the longest harvest period. Although it does best in the warmer zones, it also produces well in coastal valleys.

According to Martin, a fig tree is an almost carefree tree. It should be planted in a sunny site and irrigated with regular, but light waterings when young. However, once the tree is established it should be watered deeply every three to four weeks. Container-grown trees require much more frequent irrigation. Apply a light dressing of a nitrogen fertilizer in early spring.

Some varieties mentioned here will produce two crops a year; a light crop in the spring and the main crop in late summer or early fall. With established trees, Martin suggests that you hold back water at the beginning of the summer harvest season and don't resume irrigation until near the end of the harvest period.

This practice prevents fruit splitting and results in sweeter fruit. Note that this watering practice applies only to the summer crop; not the spring crop. Figs should be picked when they start to turn soft and come off the tree easily.

Fig trees may be pruned more radically than almost any other fruit tree. This allows them to fit into most landscaping schemes. However, in addition to landscaping considerations, Martin states that the trees benefit from heavy pruning each winter during their dormant period.

During this period up to 50% of the limbs should be removed. Prune especially to open up the center of the tree. Martin notes that such heavy pruning will reduce the spring crop on such varieties as Mission, Kadota and Brown Turkey, which produce a spring crop. However, such pruning will result in a heavier summer crop.

The more common fig varieties are usually available as container trees in most local nurseries. The more exotic varieties such as Conadria, Panache, Flanders or Verte are usually hard to locate. Your local nursery may be able to order a tree for you from a wholesale grower.

In addition, the following San Diego County nurseries will probably have the trees in stock; better call first: Pacific Tree Farms, 4301 Lynwood Drive, Chula Vista, (619) 422-2400; Exotica Seed Co., 2508-B E. Vista Way, Vista, (619) 724-9093, and Tropic World, 26437 N. Centre City Parkway, Escondido, (619) 746-6108.

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