Summers on the fire escape, winters in the closet…and still an autumn crop of that sweet, storied fruit
by JOHN EMMANUEL illustration by ANTHONY SIDWELL
WHAT DESERT FRUIT IS MORE RELISHED than the fig?
As a kid I ate more Fig Newtons than cream-filled cookies. Not that I didn’t like cream-filled—but Fig Newtons had that bonus selling point of good nutrition. Years later, after I’d begun a career in gardening, I learned more good news about this biblical fruit: the edible fig (Ficus carica) is as easy to grow in a container as it is in the ground. For years I grew one in a 15-inch clay pot on the fire escape of our New York City apartment. It was a bare-root cutting, one of several taken from a fig at Wave Hill, the public garden where I work. I’ve found that with at least a half a day of good sunlight during the growing season and a cool place to reside in a dormant state during winters, the deciduous fig will bear at least a single crop of delectable fruit.
Like the plumber who never has the time to stay the leaks in his or her own home, I was a careless tender of my fig, watering it irregularly and repotting it only when the leaves drooped or dropped regularly. At one point I realized I couldn’t pot it up any further, so I teased off the soil, cut back roots and an equal amount of stems, and repotted the fig in the same pot. Despite the lack of consistent attention it nevertheless provided us with a small crop in late August, which my daughter enjoyed picking and eating since it was growing outside her window. As soon as the fig lost its leaves in autumn, generally assisted by light frosts, we lugged the big clay pot in through the window, tied the still limber branches and twigs together, and stored it in my daughter’s closet, which remained somewhat cool through the winter because it possessed a northwest exterior wall.
At least twice a month we checked the soil to see how dry it was. It needed to be dry, but only dry enough to inhibit premature growth. When it was to our satisfaction we watered it. Water ran through the pot, filled the catch plate at the bottom, and was gradually absorbed by the soil. By midwinter the growing tips would burst from the buds. I didn’t encourage them, but I didn’t cut them back, either. As soon as the temperature had reached a dependable 35°F outside, the fig was retrieved from its winter darkness and untied. At this point we cut the whole plant back, thereby removing the new stems and few pale leaves and the rudimentary figs growing out of the axils of the leaves. Once outside the fig was watered. On equal ground with the rest of nature, as the days grew warm it slowly began the process of growth again, eventually bearing the fruit we ate in late summer and early fall.
I mention all this because there is no more adverse environment for overwintering dormant plants than in a closet in a dry, hot apartment in Manhattan. Yet our fig grew. It was four feet from the bottom of the pot to the tip of the tree at the end of each season.
A hard winter killed off the top of the parent fig at Wave Hill not long after I had taken my cutting. Rather than resuscitating the older fig through its still vibrant roots, we decided to select and pot on one of the other cuttings. So a clone of my fire-escape fig grew in a container in the Wave Hill herb garden. Later it was joined by other figs garnered from friends and nurseries: green ones, white ones—the selection available these days from mail-order catalogs is, if not quite the world of hostas and daylilies, plentiful. The Wave Hill figs are tied up at the onset of winter, just like the one at the apartment. They spend their winters in a cool dark space in the garage, where the temperature hovers around 32°F for most of the season, rising and falling ever so slowly—no dramatic drops.
AN AUTUMN HARVEST
The fig is not a “normal” fruit—the florets and their ensuing seed are growing inside a fleshy cover, at the end of which is a small hole. There are four types of figs, some of which require pollination of the interior flowers by a certain kind of small wasp—the wasp enters through this hole. This is the concern of commercial growers, though; cultivars for gardeners are of the “common” type that does not require such visits (see “The Gardener’s Fig,” below).
Growing outdoors in milder climates, the trees can produce two crops a year. The first crop grows on the first new wood of the year; the second crop appears later in the season, growing on younger wood of the same year. The first crop is what’s called “hasty fruit” by Isaiah in the King James Bible. Just as the first olives of the season—the ones pressed for extra-virgin olive oil—possess the strongest flavor, so does the hasty fruit.
But it is the second crop that we who grow our figs in pots covet. When we pull the trees out of storage in early spring, they are often carrying the hasty fruit on pale new stems, right where the new leaves are attached to the branch at the pedicle. These have a hard time maturing, because they don’t have the energy they would derive in a longer season. Even if the branches aren’t pruned back, the fruits often dry up and fall off anyway. At Wave Hill, it is just as well we can’t indulge our appetites in early summer; the gathering of figs in late August creates a rivalrous atmosphere among the gardeners, with each of us furtively checking the fruits to see if they are ripe. Even the birds are competition. Ripe means soft and squeezable and just about ready to fall from the stems. A ripe fruit splits open easily to reveal a luscious red interior of flesh in which the familiar seed is embedded. (Store-bought figs are often dried and lack this intense color and taste.) But even hypervigilance does not safeguard our fruit. Knowing of the limited crop and not having the biblical power of converting the limited number to feed a multitude, we find ourselves snatching the figs before they are ready, for tear of missing out altogether! H