I Do Give A Fig!

This post first appeared – with minor modifications and without pictures – as an article “A Fig Tree In Virginia” in the September 8, 2011 issue of the Rappahannock News. It’s a tad late (I know!) since we are at the end of fig season here in the Northern Virginia Piedmont. I originally wrote the article in mid-August but it had to be bumped a few times… Still, there are figs to be harvested at the moment, although the recent massive rains have not done them any good…

Everyone should have a grapevine and a fig tree, said one of my favorite writers, Henry Mitchell. I – and a long list of people, some quite famous – thoroughly agree.  In fact, Mitchell was only repeating a biblical phrase, long used to mean peace and prosperity:  “each man under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).

Figs have a longer history in Virginia than you might have thought. They actually go back, quite a bit in human history – and prehistory: figs may well have been the first cultivated plant. Caches of Neolithic-era fig remnants more than 11,000 years old were found in the Jordan Valley, north of Jericho.

Cato the Elder in his agricultural treatise On Agriculture (160 BC) suggests a number of uses for  fig trees (besides eating the fruit), including making rennet from the sap (for cheese), fe eding the leaves to cattle and reviving bees battered by rainstorms with fig wood ashes. While this last use might raise skeptical eyebrows among modern beekeepers, there is no doubt that the Romans loved their figs. Pliny the Elder (Natural History) described the red fig of Mount Ida, the black Tellunian, the Indian fig, the white aratia, the fig of Alexandria and two dozen more! Some are bigger than pears, he said: Either the Romans had very small pears, or we have lost wondrous fig cultivars! At least here in the US…

It’s amazing that people look dubious when I mention growing figs in Virginia’s Northern Piedmont. Listen: The fig was first reported in Virginia in 1621, at Jamestown, John Smith describing it as prospering “exceedingly.” Bernard McMahon of Philadelphia (yep, that’s … ahem! in the North) lists 14 varieties in the American Gardener Calendar in 1806, devoting several pages to their cultivation.

Thomas Jefferson (you knew I would get to him) planted figs at Monticello as early as 1769. In 1789, he return ed from his embassy post in France with three varieties, which he planted, propagated and gave away to friends. Go to Monticello today and lust after the healthy, lush high-yielding fig trees growing against the south-facing terr aced wall in the South Orchard.

And in that last sentence lies the secret for harvesting figs here.

I know of several productive fig trees in Rappahannock County. I also know of several people lamen ting that their figs don’t ripen before the first frost. Sun is not the problem. Check a world map: We are at the same latitude (meaning we receive as much sun) as Sicily and Greece, where figs grow wild. Summer heat is not an issue; figs revel in it, especially if given supplemental waterings in really dry weather. The issue is winter wet and winds.

Fig tree branches are hardy to about 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 to -12 Celcius). Below that, glacial winds howling down from Old Rag desiccate them, causing branches to die off. The root system must then restart growth in the spring – meaning, no fruit the following summer.

Yet fig trees grow here provided you give them a little care:

A very productive fig tree (not mine) growing in front of the south facing facade of a house in Rappahannock County.

Choose your cultivar carefully for cold resistance and early ripening (try Edible Landscaping in Afton, VA) or beg a local friend with a productive tree for a cutting (best taken in early spring before leaf growth restarts).
— Choose a site that is never waterlogged and very sunny – sunny all day, if possible.
— Plant the fig tree four feet in front of a sunny wall with a southern or southwestern orientation: a barn, a house, a shed, anything that will cut the wind down and radiate extra heat. If a wall is not to be had or built, then you should wrap your tree after Thanksgiving and unwrap it around the spring equinox (use straw, leaves and plastic, burlap or landscape fabric).

A fig tree will also be very happy in a tall, unheated hoophouse – so happy it may take over. Be warned!

Once planted (in the spring or early summer), fig trees require little care. Water for the first few months, as you would any plant. After that, not much watering is necessary, although several weeks without rain can make a tree thirsty, causing some immature figs to drop.

Trees don’t require fertilization, but will gobble any manure, compost or mulch you care to give them. A healthy established tree is greedy: It casts deep shade, its extensive roots suck moisture from the soil. Few plants will grow close, so give it room! As it prefers alkaline soil, it will love ashes from your wood stove (thoroughly cold, please!). Unless you need to prune the tree to restrict its growth to a certain space, limit pruning to dead limbs or crossing branches.

With plenty of sunshine, insects and diseases should not bother fig trees. Your competitors for the fruit are likely to be mostly wasps and ants and, to a lesser extent, birds. Discourage them with whatever remedies you use for other fruit trees. Figs are ripe when they swell, change color, turn soft, and hang down – the drooping stage. A freshly picked perfectly ripe fig is a small bliss.

Pick, eat, say thank you. Repeat.

Once your tree prospers, you can turn your figs into jams and preserves, ice creams, cakes and tarts; dry or freeze them to enjoy them all year long, not just in late summer.

If you are not sure when the figs are ready to pick, check out this very detail photo illustrated post “How to Know When a Fig Is Ripe and Ready to Pick” from Tall Clover Farm. The only thing to remember is that your fig – when ripe – may be a different color than the one illustrated in Tall Clover Farm’s photo essay: greenish, yellow, brown, purple and shades of those – it depends on the cultivar.

Harvest from the garden - unknown fig


4 thoughts on “I Do Give A Fig!”

  • Sylvie, I can see you love figs as much as I do; and here on the west coast we suffer the same fig tree problem, winter die-back. You may wish to try a Desert King fig, it produces in Seattle when nothing else does. Just jarred up a bunch of jam from my neighbor’s tree. My tree is still young, but the negronne and latturula fig did bear nicely this year. I’ve heard of a variety called Chicago Hardy that produces on current years growth. I’ll check that out.

  • Tom – I have Hardy Chicago and a bunch of unknown ones too – most still pots until I decide where to plant them. There is no moving a fig tee once established! Been able to make jam and canned some for fig preserve cake later. I’ll have to check out Desert King. Thanks!

  • Sylvie,

    Great blog post! Henry Mitchell is also one of my favorite writers, and an inspiration when I was a young beginning gardener. Here in the Shenandoah Valley we are successfully growing a Sicilian Honey fig (purchased at a plant fair in PA)and a Brown Turkey type fig (cultivar unknown,a gift from a friend). You are spot- on about protecting the tree from wind in order for it to avoid dying back in winter. Ours are planted againt a brick retaining wall. We did wrap our young trees with Reemay in order to get them though their first winters. We’d like to plant more against our garage and see how they do, and so we laid some branches down and roughed up their bark, pinning them to the ground in order for them to root- and they have! Now to find the time to transplant them……

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