The Living Local Harvest Festival: at the Fairgrounds, West Tisbury!
Last week’s long-awaited rain amounted to 0.85” in my rain gauge. Luckily runoff was minimal, as it was delivered softly, without downpour.
My hens are pretty well molted, so I am cleaning the henhouse and composting the litter, preparatory to its mellowing over the winter in the soil of the vegetable garden. The litter has been building since last fall; its high feather content — protein — is a soil asset.
Figs, best savored unadorned
The growing of figs on Martha’s Vineyard seems to have been uncommon until relatively recently. It’s likely that horticulturalists of years back, such as the late John Perkins of Edgartown, tried them, though. Today, with changes in weather patterns — and Sumner Silverman’s indefatigable distribution of propagating material from the prunings of his several pampered fig trees — numerous Island fig trees now exist.
The common fig, Ficus carica, in the Moraceae, has been cultivated since ancient times, and has many mythological and classical connotations. As a garden plant in mild zones (zone 7 and south), the trees with their iconic foliage provide a bold textural contrast, and prefer to be sited “in moist, well-drained soil” (Michael Dirr) but are adaptable.
I accepted three of Sumner’s prunings and rooted them in water over the winter. Only one actually took well enough to pot on, and that is how I got my “Brown Turkey” fig tree, one of the more reliably hardy varieties for our plant zone.
The temptation to grow figs in-ground is great: Schlepping a potted fig in and out, with ever-increasing root-ball and container sizes, requires just the right sort of situation and a strong back or hand truck. The men in my family had, however, unilaterally decided that their projects required a concrete slab on the best spot for my fledgling fig tree.
As we saw, last winter’s weather proved to be a setback for fig trees planted in-ground by risk-taking Islanders. Many were killed down to the ground. Although most regenerated, some did not, and an entire season’s fruit was lost. It is the fruits (and eating them) that are the main point. The vexing concrete apron inadvertently saved my fig tree, most likely.
Culture of figs has been something of an enigma. Their being such newcomers here means there is no long-standing local tradition, unlike growing, say, apples or peaches. Sketchy information that exists suggests they are more suitable for the South or California.
Stories of the elaborate rituals that elderly ethnic gardeners of Watertown, Charlestown, and the North End of Boston have developed to cosset fig trees in their urban backyards have circulated for years. However, without firsthand knowledge of how to do the trick, it seems risky to attempt severing half the roots and bending over the tree (one reported technique) to bury it in a straw-filled pit!
Plus, figs have quirks that mean that by incorrect pruning, one can prune away the entire future crop. I was happy to acquire the following advice from “Gardening at Longmeadow” (BBC Books, Random House, 2012, 351 pgs.), by Monty Don, the respected British garden authority, and from “The Cook and the Gardener” (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1999, 632 pgs.), by the chef Amanda Hesser, whose cookbook is based on the gardening year in Burgundy.
I quote at length from Don’s “September” section of the above book, because it supplies the most complete information I have found on understanding fig habits. (The fig trees Don writes about are planted in-ground, in Britain.)
“Figs can produce three crops simultaneously and invariably have two on the go at any moment. At this time of year there will be large ripening figs, half-sized ones and, if you look closely, tiny pea-sized, even pin-head, fruit tucked into a joint between stem and leaf. These tiny ones are next year’s harvest.
“The in-between ones — essentially any that do not ripen by the middle of October — will never ripen in northern Europe although further south they will produce a delicious harvest from New Year to early spring …” He goes on to describe how they sometimes ripen further, but for various reasons never amount to anything.
“The solution is to wait until you have harvested the last ripe fig at the end of October and then remove every single fig bigger than a fingernail. … The fruit are formed towards the tips of healthy young shoots so for a maximum harvest it is best to roughly fan-train the fig against a wall, removing about a quarter of the oldest stems every year along with any growth that is growing out from the wall or crossing. Do this in April. Then in August, prune away any overly vigorous outward growth that will shade the ripening fruit.
Hesser writes in a similar vein: “In a warm climate, figs enjoy a double season like raspberries, only slightly later. The first season usually occurs about midsummer and a second in the fall. Burgundy is on the fringe of fig-growing latitudes, so only the figs from the first session actually ripen enough for consumption. The second-session figs grow halfway then shrivel up, burdened by the bite of frosts.
“The trees remain in this half-developed state through winter … until the trees are pruned in March.”
After I pruned my tree in early April, I was fortunate to be given a mammoth nursery pot for my “Brown Turkey,” at just the point when it had burst its former container and needed greater root room. I replanted with Fort Vee compost and was rewarded, as the photograph shows, with a nice harvest of fruit.
My collection of cookbooks is quite respectable, yet among the whole there are very, very few recipes for fresh figs. Hesser concludes her section on figs with a recipe for an apparently artless confection. She writes, “This is not a sophisticated recipe, as you can see by its length, but the last fruit I would ever want to torture with overcooking would be the fig.” Which goes to show that if you have fresh figs, the best thing to do is just eat them! Convert the surplus to jam.