It was a few years ago that I read God’s Secretaries, Adam Nicolson’s excellent book on the making of the King James bible. That a bunch of old scholarly guys got together and, by committee and at the behest of the king, came up with such an elegant contribution to our literature is amazing to me. My experience with committees is that they work more in the denaturing line, and it’s hard to imagine that the behest of the king improves the process.

That beautiful and incisive translation has given us a host of expressions that have become part of our idiom. There’s the eye for the eye, the cup that runneth over, the pearls before the swine, and also some that hit much closer to home. Like biting the dust, and being at your wit’s end, and getting through by the skin of your teeth.

While it doesn’t hold a candle to the King James bible, agriculture has also given us expressions that have entered the language. We all of us, farmers and laity, know what it means to make hay while the sun shines, or what a tough row to hoe is. Kevin and I have personal experience with how ducks take to water, and why it’s unwise to count your chickens before they hatch.

Growing food is so painfully literal. In farming, things like seeding, cultivating, and reaping involve metal tools, internal combustion engines, and back-breaking labor. In, say, marketing, they involve white papers, executive retreats, and Powerpoint presentations.

Sometimes I miss marketing.

Today, one particular word is hitting home, and that word is ‘fruitless.’

I have long experience with figurative fruitlessness, and I know how disheartening it can be. Literal fruitlessness, though, is newer to me, which is perhaps why I feel it so keenly.

I suppose, since I’ve had four years of this already, it isn’t that new. I’ve had blackberry and raspberry that give new meaning to unyielding, and a high-bush blueberry that feeds only birds. I’ve had a peach tree die before it sent out root one, and I’ve come up empty in my search for wild grapes.  I’ve taken it all, if not in good part, at least without despair.

But my figs. My figs are breaking my heart.

Back in July, I was filled with hope. Our fig tree had set at least 150 figs, and it looked as healthy as a tree can look. The leaves were big and undamaged, the trunk stout. The figs, which ranged in size from hazelnut to walnut, were firm and green. Kevin and I wanted to ensure that birds and varmints wouldn’t get them before we did, so we covered the tree with a net.

All of you gardeners out there should know that covering something with a net freezes it in time. From that day to this, there has not been one iota of change. The leaves are still big and undamaged, the trunk still stout. The figs are the same size, the same shape, and the same bright shade of green. “Unripe Fig” would be the name of the color if Benjamin Moore ever got hold of it.

I am convinced that up in some attic somewhere is the Fig Tree of Dorian Gray, with soft, brown, fully ripe fruit.

Now that temperatures are dropping and the days are shortening, I harbor very little hope that my figs will ripen. Kevin still waters it and fertilizes it, and, if fruit can be coaxed out of that tree, he will do it. But, as a hedge against disappointment, I am resigning myself to fruitlessness.

When we went into this we knew that, given our climate, figs would be a tough row to hoe, and even when I saw those little green figs I didn’t count my chickens. Although there’s some hope that, by the skin of our teeth, we’ll eke out a small harvest before winter, it’s much more likely that this year’s crop will bite the dust.

12 people are having a conversation about “Fruitless

  1. What a shame. I was pretty excited when I read about your projected figgy bounty as it gave me hope that I could grow them in my cool temperate climate.
    Could it be that the bird netting is too dense to allow enough sun through? It looks rather like shade cloth in your photo. I use much more widely spaced netting against birds.

  2. Christine — We got about a dozen last year, and they were great. This year was different because there were 2 fruit sets. First, about 20 or so, and they dropped off. Then a big growth spurt, and this crop. Maybe in this climate the first set has to take. But that’s just a guess.

    Fran — I wondered about that, too. But we have a second fig tree, uncovered, with the same problem. We didn’t bother with netting because there are only 2 figs on it. But they’re still there, hard and green. Still, if we get more next year, I’ll wait with the net.

  3. Tassie gardener says:

    You probably didn’t know you had a reader lurking in Tasmania but I really enjoy your blog and share an interest in cool-climate (for Australia) food growing. I have 3 varieties of fig in my quest to find a reliable bearer that ripens fruit in a season – I know they are out there. Last summer I had a large quantity of unripe or semi-ripe fruit by autumn. When I knew they wouldn’t get any bigger, softer or sweeter I picked them all and preserved them. Chopped roughly and poached in water until soft, then added sugar and stewed until they were syrupy and most of the liquid gone – then they are like raisins but with a figgy flavour. I like putting them in a spicy sourdough fruit loaf with a dark poppy seed crust, baked in a wood-fired oven. Not the same as luscious fresh figs but not a total waste either – but then I don’t have pigs to eat them!

  4. back when we were enduring our self-internment in Beaverton, OR, the property behind the townhouse we were renting had a very large and hearty fig tree. Two summers in a row it was COVERED in figs, many of which were hanging over the fence (free range figs?)…and two summers in a row, they never ripened. I think of figs as the ficklest of fruit, and better left to hard-core mediterranean climates.

    would cranberries grow in your climate? currants?

  5. Tassie — All the way from Tasmania! That’s pretty miraculous. And a good idea for the figs, too. I’m going to give them just a little more time and then move on to Plan B.

    Paula — I’m beginning to see it your way. First, raccoons. Now, figs. And, yes, cranberries grow, but they’re weird and they grow in bogs. Lots of people here grow them commercially, and I can get excellent ones. But currants … I’ll have to look into that.

    SBW — I think pickling green fruit is probably a good strategy (works for tomatoes). It’s just that I have so damn many pickled things already, and I really really really want my figs to be sweet. If I see any hint of ripening, though, I may start culling the little ones.

  6. Oh dear. Especially as you so obviously, absolutely give a fig about having figs, it’s heartbreaking not to get any figs.

    The lady I garden for went on an unsupervised pruning frenzy and decided to cut back her newly planted figs, thereby removing all the fruit before it even had a chance to come to fruition. I almost shed a tear.

    I’ve no doubt your other endeavours will bear much-needed fruit for your pantry and your psyche!

  7. You’d think I’d have nothing…fruitful…to say about this topic, given that I live in the cold prairie province of Saskatchewan, and yet – perhaps mother nature wanted to give us a break? – if you have a fig tree indoors, you can get figs year round. I’ve done so, and the tree that I had, I gave to someone with more space when I moved to an apartment still fruits for its new owner.

  8. That is too bad the figs aren’t ripening. I think fig trees are really pretty and have considered planting one just for the beauty of it. If I planted one and I got figs I would feel bad because I don’t like them.

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