The fig tree at three

Whoever coined the phrase, “I don’t give a fig,” wasn’t from around here.

I’m thinking it was someone from Greece, or maybe Provence. Someplace where figs grow in abundance, and the language spoken is mellifluous enough to make “I don’t give a fig” sound much better than it does in English.

If you ever hear me say, “I don’t give a fig,” it’s because I think whatever the issue is at hand may be very important indeed, but still not up to the level at which I would give a fig.

Three years ago, in an uncharacteristic willingness to delay gratification, I planted a fig tree. Actually, Kevin and I planted the fig tree together, but the willingness to delay gratification is uncharacteristic only in me. Kevin is a very patient man.

It’s a brown turkey fig, and I’m still not sure whether it’s named that because it bears a resemblance to a brown turkey or because it’s a brown version of some other fig that comes from Turkey. If you know, please tell me.

Anyway, brown turkey figs are a hardy variety, and they are reputed to grow as far north as Agricultural Zone 5. I’ve never been sure whether we’re in Zone 7A, which the official USDA map seems to indicate, or in Zone 6B, which some experienced local gardeners contend, but I figured either of those is warmer than Zone 5, so we could grow this fig tree.

When we brought it home, it didn’t look promising. It was two sticks, each about three feet tall, with a few buds on it. It was nothing like the fig tree of my imagination, laden with figs the size of golf balls and leaves the like the ones in those classical paintings depicting the moment Adam and Eve decided they needed underpants after all.  But we watered it regularly, wrapped it up in winter in a snowsuit of burlap and straw, and it grew and thrived.

Last year, we harvested about a dozen figs, and I thought it was a bumper crop. This year, when the leaves first started to come out, the tree got about twenty little figs on it, and I was very excited. We might even double last year’s harvest! Then, one by one, the little green figs shriveled and fell off the tree. I was heartbroken.

But then a funny thing happened. The tree started throwing branches and leaves out every which way. In a matter of just a few weeks, it practically doubled in size. And then it set a second crop of figs. There’s one in almost every junction where leaf meets branch – 150, at least. Maybe more.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about growing food, it’s not to count on a harvest until it’s safe and sound in the kitchen. We all know the story of the perfect tomato/strawberry/pepper/apple crop that looked beautiful up until the day before, and then was completely consumed by some varmint/insect/livestock/neighbor literally overnight.

We’re taking no chances. Today we put up a bamboo scaffold and encased the tree in clam netting. Clam netting is a lot like bird netting (except that it’s not to keep the clams out), and we hope it will deter not just wild birds, but also chipmunks, squirrels, and marauding chickens. I know it won’t keep out a raccoon or opossum, but I’m hoping raccoons and opossums from Zone 7 (or 6B) are unfamiliar with figs and don’t know to try to break in.

I’m figuring we’re a week or two away from First Fig, and I’ll be keeping careful watch. If I get a decent crop, I will hoard them jealously and barter only for something very, very good. And I’ll never use that stupid expression again. Unless I go to Provence, and can say it in French.

30 people are having a conversation about “The fig tree at three

  1. Yummy. Figs have 2 crops. One in the spring off of last years growth and the main crop in the summer. As for the name check this out:

    The Brown Turkey Fig Tree inherited its name because turkeys like to eat the figs.  It grows 10-30 ft. tall and the fig leaves are bright green, single, alternate and large.  These trees are fast growing trees and are capable of producing figs each year.  Flowers are out of sight, clustered inside the green “fruits”.  This tree grows best in full sun and in the warmest location, against sunny wall or in a heat trap.  For container grown plants, replace most of the soil every three years and keep side of the tub shaded to prevent overheating in sunlight.  Fig trees are productive with or without pruning.  Climate zones 7-11.  Young fig trees should be watered regularly until fully established.  Water established trees at least every 1-2 weeks.

    • How ’bout that! I suppose I could have looked all that up myself now, couldn’t I? Somehow, it’s more fun to just ask the question and wait for some astute commenter to come up with the answer.

      I’m not sure about the explanation for “brown turkey,” though. That sounds suspiciously like a wive’s tale. Pretty much everything likes figs, and why would you pick something relatively obscure, like a turkey, rather than something relatively common. The brown squirrel fig, the brown chicken fig, the brown chipmunk fig, the brown thieving varmint raccoon fig …

      The whole zone 7-11 thing is a little scary, though. We just barely make it.

  2. We have two fig trees next to the house, and buffeted by a brick garage, protecting them from the north winds. We have wasps that love the figs. So be careful to pick them before the wasps find them. I did read that figs will not ripen off the vine, another problem. So it is a balancing act of picking them after they ripen and before the wasps find them. Good luck and enjoy every fig you get.

  3. My husband purchased a fig tree for me this year for valentines day. Here in the high desert we are zone 11, I know they can grow here. Not only have I seen two very large trees growing in the back yard of a home we looked at, but the two most well established nurseries (that apparently only carry things that grow up here) have them. I potted it and because it was small put it in our window. It is outside now, but has to be up against a wall (like Rick says), it doesn’t like the wind.

    But I still don’t have a fig to give, dammit.
    And I would keep every damn one as well.

  4. We had a fig tree (a Mission, I think)(or maybe it was a Kadota- I forget) growing against the utility room wall when I was growing up. Mom wanted it to shade the wall from the western sun and keep her utility room cool in the summer, but allow sun to hit it in the winter. Which was a great idea up until the day she discovered the its roots breaking up the foundation of said wall. Then she couldn’t get it out of the ground fast enough.

    There was a fig tree in the yard behind us in Beaverton, so I know they grow here in the Willamette Valley, but the two summers we were there the figs never ripened.

    We’re having another weirdly cool summer again this year; today’s high is supposed to be 71- it’s currently 61 and drizzling. It may not ripen bramble fruits and tomatoes, but at least I don’t have to water today.

    I probably won’t plant a fig tree.

  5. Don’t know how true this is with other kinds of figs, but after turkey figs ripen they only have a shelf life of maybe 3 days until they get really mushy, but you can stretch it out to 5 days if you refrigerate them right away. This is fine if they come in dribs and drabs, but on a big productive tree with dozens and dozens ripe every day at peak of season you can get sort of figged out unless you are willing to make preserves every other day for a week to 10 days – but I guess that’s the sort of problem someone WANTS to have.

  6. i don’t know what zone i’m in, but it’s temperate, sunny, windy california…either way, we’ve had figs for years, and they def have 2 crops. normally, the first crop isn’t great–dry and not super sweet, a lot of them just fall off and there isn’t enough water and heat to keep them growing well. second crop is always better-sweeter and juicier, and actually, we often get a small third one too because it stays warm here well into fall.

    btw, love the blog and the way you write.

  7. Diana — Are those fig wasps, by any chance? They’re interesting and weird:

    Brooke — I imagine Zone 11 is much more hospitable for figs than Zone Whatever We’re In, so be patient. And report back when you have figs, please.

    Paula — I know you may not be in your house long enough to enjoy the fruits of your fig tree, but if you like figs, perhaps the next house? I’ve seen lovely, healthy fig trees in your part of the world — and you don’t have to wrap them in winter. Meantime, I wish you sunshine.

    Chris — If I ever start complaining about too many figs that have to be used within 3 days, please slap some sense into me. The first year, I imagine I’ll just stand by the tree, eating.

    Grace — If you’re interested, you can find your zone at the link in the post. But if you already have figs, who cares? Just keep growing them! I envy you your three crops, and thank you for your kind words.

  8. Rick had the answer to Chris’ question – if they get out of hand, turkeys love turkey figs! But enjoy your fill first. It is great to hear how well they are doing this year.

    • Karl, while I appreciate your creative comment integration, it’ll be a cold day in hell when I deliberately feed figs to livestock.

      • Lisa Petrie says:

        I imagine your fig crop will come in before your pig crop comes in, but if you happen to have some bacon on hand, you could wrap it around figs stuffed with a small chunk of parm and pop them into the oven. Makes a lovely little “amuse bouche”. And perhaps you could even serve them on a plate lined with one of those beautiful fig leaves!

  9. Oh snap! I just planted a fig today at work (after a morning spent excavating out a stubborn and vigorous Jasminum to be replaced by said fig). The lady of the manor wanted it in a small corner – perhaps not the best place for a fig, especially as she wouldn’t let me line the hole with slabs to contain the roots and its hardy nature. As I put it in, I prayed I would have a job in another garden before the thing becomes a Triffid and takes over. I give it 3 years – me and the fig.

    And no one in the house harvests the figs anyway! Enjoy your harvest. Warm figs topped with brown sugar and put under the broiler, served with vanilla ice cream – you can’t beat it.

    • If the fig tree fruits only after you’ve moved on to greener pastures, I recommend a nighttime raid. I’ll say you were with me.

  10. Accidental Mick says:

    Probably a bit late to tell you now but in Greece they say that to get a healthy fig tree you must bury a dead donkey under it.

  11. This is off-topic, but I have a technical question about the Varmint Cam. There must be an awful lot of dead footage to sort through. How do you find the money shots, like the raccoon at 2 AM?

    • Nah, it’s easy. The camera has a motion sensor, so it only takes pictures when something’s happening (3 pictures, 15 seconds apart, each time). If it’s windy, or there are a lot of chickens around, I have to sort through a lot, but even then it’s manageable.

  12. At the risk of having something thrown at me by the people who have to go to great lengths to grow figs, here we get volunteers that are a blinkin’ nuisance. The birds spread the seeds far and wide. Right now I have a young tree that is growing next to my garage, and I am just waiting for it to fruit to see if it is anything worth keeping. Then I can decide when I tear it out whether I want to save cuttings or not. Most likely it is just another Mission, and those are not just a dime a dozen around here, but also not the best figs, IMO.

    When I was growing up we had the best Kadota tree. The figs were the size of baseballs! Of course, that tree had to be at least 20 years old, so it was in its prime.

    On the dead donkey thing, burying fish carcasses around the tree works just as well with a lot less unpleasantness.

  13. Susan Bruce says:

    Tamar, I think je m’en fiche or je m’en fous would work in Provence. As neighbors, way up the Cape in Wellfleet, I follow your adventures with fascination. I was told we couldn’t grow figs here, but we drive through Barnstable from time to time and it can’t be that far, as figs go. Though perhaps you have soil rather than sand. As a newcomer here, who didn’t know a striper from a bluefish, I’m impressed by all you’ve done. Fishing. Turkeys. Gutting raccoons. Pigs! Thanks for your stories.

    • Susan — Big newcomer points to anyone who can help me say stuff in French. Pretty much the only thing I can say with confidence is “je ne comprends pas.”

      I can assure you that my sand is no better than your sand. We dug a big pit, filled it with soil we bought with hard cold cash, and plopped the tree in. If I can do it, you can do it.

      Kevin and I love Wellfleet (we thought seriously about a house on Lieutenant Island), so please give it our regards.

  14. Tamar–Even though I am from California, I enjoyed your post about growing figs on the Cape and the various reader comments subsequent to that post. I am Susan Bruce’s brother (one of those who commented from Wellfleet), and also an owner of a black mission fig tree.

    From my point of view, the problem with figs is their abundance only during the two, brief harvest seasons. It is too much of a good thing for too short of a time. Other than eating them fresh off of the tree, it has been hard to figure out what to do with them. Up until recently, our best use has been watching our yellow lab Iris bob for them off of the tree. She is addicted and funny to watch.

    Last year, however, I discovered the merits of making fig jam. That way, the joy of having a fig tree can be prolonged throughout the year. My recipe doesn’t involve peeling them–that is too much work. I just cut them up and cook them with sugar and pectin until everything melds together. I plan on making the jam again in a few weeks when the figs ripen. Susan will be happy, but Iris will be disappointed.

    • Hi,

      I recently found your blog and i love it. I visit every day! I am a fig fanatic. I’m sure I could easily eat every fresh fig on a tree and not get tired of them. That said, most people are not like me and need some way to use up an abundant harvest. A quick google search for “fig recipes” turned up many sights with some really great recipes that might convince me to put some effort into cooking with them rather than just stand under the tree eating for three days, as Tamar said. Here’s one of the links I found:

      By the way, that bacon wrapped, cheese stuffed fig sounds amazing! I have a favorite and similar date recipe that I make for parties. People beg me to make it! I use medjool dates, stuffed with 6 month aged manchego or asiago, sprinkled with smoked paprika and wrapped with bacon. I am definitely going to try this with fresh figs!

      • Stephanie – Thanks for being a fan, and for the link to the fig recipes. I’ve had versions of the bacon/cheese/fig thing, and it is indeed strangely addictive. My personal favorite is poaching in Sambuca and serving over ice cream.

        Kent — Could you give Iris one last chance to bob for figs, so you can video it? I’d love to see that.

        The problem with eating things you grow/fish/hunt/forage is that you never, ever have a sensible amount of them. It’s always none at all, or much too much. If I get a decent fig crop, and I do get tired of just eating them out of hand, jam it will be.

        And, just as an aside, I will say that your decision to make your sister happy at the expense of your dog is probably a good one.

  15. Oh, I am SO excited to find someone “North” who is also growing a Brown Turkey Fig. I live in exact Central Ohio and also thought I would never grow figs…until I found this hardy type near the cash register at my local nursery (the equivalent of the candy rack at the grocery checkout line). This spring of 2012 is when I planted it. I have watched and watered it, but just dont see much progress. However, its not dying either. How many seasons did you have yours before you saw progress or fruit? Love your blog! – thanks for the sharing and laughter.

Converstion is closed.