June 14, 2020

Fresh Figs

Many years ago, when I noticed that Walmart was selling oodles of fig trees, I thought I must have missed the boat. Was everybody growing and eating fresh figs? I had never tasted a fresh fig, but I had fond memories of Fig Newtons from my childhood.

Before you bring a fruit tree home, it's best to have a plan for where you wish to plant it. Fig trees require lots of sun in order to produce a reasonable amount of fruit. Although fig trees can grow quite large, those with expertise assured me they would be easy to keep small enough so that I could reach all the fruit without a ladder. I had recently taken down an immense Cuban laurel and covered a large area about a foot deep in wood chips. I planted my first fig tree next to what was left of the ground-up stump of the Cuban laurel.

The fig seemed happy enough in its new home and was producing fruit within a couple of years. The first thing to note is that fresh figs taste nothing like Fig Newtons. A fresh fig does not have the extreme sweetness, the chewiness, or the noticeable seeds of a dried fig. I'm not sure that I would have liked them as a child. When you turn them inside out, they look a bit like worms. It turns out that what I had thought was one fruit actually contains many fruits that grew from flowers inside, which presents an unusual pollination scheme for those figs that are not self-pollinating. The flesh is a juicy mass of seeds. That explains their soft, delicate texture. Only after I stopped expecting a dried fig, did I appreciate the more gentle qualities of a fresh fig.

Inside a Green Ischia fig
There is no need to peel a fig. The flavor is sweet and mild. Think of them as a perfect addition to strongly flavored foods. Add them to a fruit salad and they smooth things over between the pineapple and the mango. Or stuff them with bleu cheese and you have an awesome combo. They calm down a salad with strong flavored greens. I presented some fresh figs to a chef at a new restaurant that opened down the road from me, and he desperately wanted them for a special fig jam to pair with pork. Not my cup of tea, but I loved his enthusiasm. As a pizza topping, they add a lovely hint of sweetness. But most importantly, figs are perfect to eat out of hand.

Within a few years, I had more figs than I could use. Many chefs were thrilled to get their hands on fresh figs, so there were always takers. A challenge with figs is to pick them at the right point and then to use them as soon as possible.

At peak harvest time, I have to pick the tree at least once a day! As figs get overripe, they may ooze a sweet, and often fermented, syrup from their bottom end. Insects find this to be some sort of delicacy. And in short order, they fall off the tree and turn into so much insect-covered mush. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if they aren't quite ripe, figs have little flavor. They do not continue to ripen once they are picked. Figs are the Goldilocks of fruit; you want to pick them when they are just right. And there is a learning curve associated with knowing when figs are just ripe. Also, be aware that many people find their skin to be sensitive to frequent exposure to the milky sap that oozes from stems and leaves. I am one of those unfortunate ones, so I wear gloves and a long sleeve shirt when I pick.
Ripe and unripe Brown Turkey figs

And you can't just pick figs and put them in any old bowl in the refrigerator. They are susceptible to mold, so they need airflow. I generally put them in a colander, stacking the figs two deep at the most. I may leave them out on the counter in one flat layer, if I know I will use them in a day or two. Beyond that, they really only have a fighting chance in the fridge. If you find that you have more than you can use or share, don't despair. You can freeze them without even cutting them up. A frozen fig makes for a flavorful ice-cube substitute in a smoothie. And a frozen fermented fig adds that much more flavor.

The obvious storage choice for figs is to dry them. If you believe the supermarket shelf, that's what people do in fig-growing areas around the globe. We have not perfected this with our home dehydrator, so I don't have any tips. I will note that in many parts of the world where figs are common, such as Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, figs probably start drying on the tree. These are dry climates that don't get much summer rain. With our humidity and dramatic summer downpours, the fruit rarely dries on the tree. And if we experience a couple of weeks of daily rain, the fruit may just close up shop for the season.

All in all, even if you decide to harvest occasionally and only eat a portion of your crop, there really isn't much of a downside. Just realize that you will be providing food for many voracious insects and increasing your soil fertility for future use. If you never learn how to detect when the figs are ripe, you can just chuck the ones that don't taste so good and enjoy the rest. Even if the figs you put in the refrigerator start to rot before you are ready to eat them, you can probably just go outside and pick some more. There is really no downside to being a lackadaisical fig harvester; just set your expectations accordingly.
Vegetables growing under Celeste fig, concept

The fig tree in my yard provides more than just figs. In the sunny areas of my yard, I may attempt winter vegetable production for four months from December through March. But under the fig tree, I harvest vegetables for half the year, from November through May or June. The fig tree is a nurse plant for my winter annuals. How awesome is that? I can't tell you how many sources say that figs generally inhibit the growth of plants under the tree. Perhaps that is true elsewhere, but in my yard it is actually quite the opposite. In fact, if the fig tree only produced a few figs each year, I would not cut it down, because it is so supportive of winter and spring vegetables.

Many times I have difficulty making sense of the advice plant experts give, because they give advice for regions that experience frozen winters and relatively mild summers. The fig is a prime example. Most sources say that the common fig bears two crops, bearing fruit from August through early October. None of that is true in my yard. Here's how it actually works for me. My fig trees bear one crop, usually around June. After they begin a second crop in July/August, the tree is besieged by fig rust, and eventually all of the leaves succumb to rust and fall off, leaving a few immature fruit and lots of bare branches.

Fig leaf with fig rust
During my first few years of growing figs, I felt that fig rust was cheating me of a second crop of figs each year. Since I don't use toxic chemicals on my plants, I would not consider applying a chemical spray to inhibit the rust. With that in mind, I have undergone a 180° attitude adjustment, and I am now thrilled with the fig rust leaf drop. I have a drip irrigation line around the drip line of my Celeste fig. I realized that after the rust hits, the tree is pretty much dormant and doesn't need the water. So, I decided to plant some winter vegetables under the fig to take advantage of the drip line. Winter vegetables in Florida are the ones you find at the supermarket - lettuce, spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, radishes, fennel, etc. As the weather cools, the fig leaves fall off due to rust, letting more sunshine through for the newly planted vegetables. In the spring, as the weather warms up and the vegetables struggle with the heat, the fig tree leafs out providing awesome heat protection for the established vegetables. The vegetables usually produce into May with minimal water. This year I continued harvesting kale into June.

I have spoken with a number of gardeners in Florida who have not had luck getting their figs to produce much fruit. I hear things like they have an eight year old tree that produces fifteen figs a year. I have a couple of theories as to why my figs produce reasonably well. I mentioned that I planted my first fig tree next to the stump of a Cuban laurel. It turns out that the Cuban laurel (Ficus microcarpa) and the Celeste fig (Ficus carica) are both types of Ficus. Perhaps the Cuban laurel colonized the soil with microbes that the Celeste fig was able to make use of, thus making it more productive. I did plant a second fig tree, a Green Ischia fig, in another part of the yard. It is also successfully producing, but not nearly as well as the Celeste. A second theory is that both trees might be responding well to deep wood chip mulch. Or maybe it's just dumb luck.

For my friends in colder regions: Just how much cold temperature can a fig tree take? I have seen reports that you can cultivate cold hardy fig trees in areas where the minimum winter temperatures do not drop below 5° F. If winter is too much of a worry, figs do grow in containers, which you can move indoors as needed. Or you can refrain from growing figs entirely, sit by the fire, and ponder the role of figs in spiritual matters. The Buddha found enlightenment under a fig tree; it is the first fruit tree mentioned in the Bible; and some believe it was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

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