Figs are among the oldest cultivated crops, grown by the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. In Italy, it’s a proud landowner who grows fig trees, and that’s why some of the Italian men in my life tend to theirs with such care and pride. Figs are grown on a deciduous tree that typically reach 10-20 feet tall, and may bear anywhere from dozens to hundreds of walnut-size, fleshy fruit per year.
There are a number of varieties, each adapted to growing regions. Typically, figs are semi-tropical trees that do well in zones with longer, warmer seasons. However, for Bostoniani and others living in the Northeast growing zone, growing fig trees is still possible. It just requires a bit more nurturing. Varieties common to the Northeast are: Brown Turkey, Celeste, Dark Portuguese, LSU Gold, Brooklyn White, and Purple Genca. One can buy young trees locally at farmers’ markets or even online from reputable growers who will ship them to your door.
Jamie, Tony, and my dad all keep their fig trees in large base pots, atop wheeled platforms. The trees thrive in the brightest spot in their yards all summer, with regular watering and fertilization. Fruit is usually harvested anywhere between the end of August and the beginning of October for maximum texture and rich, juicy flavor.At the first sign of temperatures dipping below fifty degrees, they roll the trees into their garages, where they remain dormant through the winter. Further care depends on the type and hardiness of the tree and the harshness of the temperatures. My dad insists on wrapping his in burlap, though Jamie does not. Other growers have suggested a newspaper and burlap wrap for added warmth, and even a bucket on top of that layer. Still others have said that they tip the plant on its side and drape an old rug over the branches.
Once Spring arrives, do not rush the plant back into the yard. Radical temperature variations will shock the tree, (the leaves will drop and the crop will become stunted,) or even damage the tree irreparably. It’s better to remove the layers within the shelter of a shed or garage, and then move it outdoors when the warm weather stabilizes. Of course, growing fig trees inside a greenhouse all year long will guarantee its resistance to the elements.
There’s nothing quite like kicking back during the summer and enjoying the beauty and the bounty that fig trees provide. For me, the true enjoyment comes during harvest season. Pluck one right from the tree, sink your teeth into a rosy, plump fruit, and let the juice run down your chin. Gather a few, cut them in half, and sprinkle them with powdered sugar for a fresh, healthy dessert. Tantalize your dinner guests with an appetizer that takes minutes to prepare: cut a bunch of figs in half, top with parmesan shavings, drizzle with balsamic vinegar, and pop them in the broiler for three minutes. Finally, don’t forget the fresh fig cookies that you can make at Christmastime! Recipes abound, and so do the memories, when families share in the joy of homegrown figs.