Figs (Ficus carica)
When I moved to central Virginia 8 years ago, I was amazed by what can be grown in this zone. I found eucalyptus by the James River and both Northern and Southern Magnolias side by side in neighbors’ yards. One of my amazing finds was fig trees. I stumbled upon them one autumn at Monticello and, later, at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where, alas, they were removed when the Children’s’ Garden was renovated.
I first heard about the extreme measures northern gardeners take to keep figs trees alive in an issue of Organic Gardening magazine. From pruning and burying the trees to building little structures (fig houses) around the trees in the fall, Northern gardeners must have to love figs to try to grow them. After I got used to looking for the trees, I found one venerable fig tree in northern New Jersey. The elderly Italian gardeners in the house covered the tree each fall with thick layers of old carpeting and rope and each spring it budded anew.
Growing figs is much easier here in central Virginia than points north and the fruit is an excellent reward. I planted 3 Brown Turkey figs 5 years ago and am experimenting with two others, Petite Negri (planted in a large pot), a black fig, and a green honey fig variety. Three of the Brown Turkeys are planted near the house on a southern exposure. This is the best location to provide winter warmth and protection from desiccating breezes. For the first three years, I wrapped the figs in the fall with burlap and filled the burlap with that ubiquitous VA mulching material, pine straw. Other than watering the plants deeply through that first summer, this is all the care they needed. Last year, the figs again produced abundant fruit, but needed some heavy pruning to reduce the height to manageable levels. Figs can be heavily pruned and will come back the following spring, fruiting on new wood.
My figs have not been affected by any pests, other than the occasional bird or squirrel, unlike the organic peaches or apples I struggle to produce each year. Once their roots go deep, figs are sturdy, hardy plants with no particular diseases in this area of VA.
What to do with the all those figs? Well, the ones that are not eaten right off the plant (and one tree grows onto my porch, so I have fulfilled my dream of picking figs from a lawn chair on the front porch) I make into fig preserves and I dry many more in a dehydrator. These dried figs can be used, reconstituted with a bit of warm water, in biscotti, pumpkin bread, zucchini bread…or they can be eaten out of hand. If you pick slightly under ripe figs, let them ripen and darken on the counter overnight. If some white, milky sap gets on the fig when you pick it, make sure to wash this off as it can create a bitter taste in your mouth and a slight allergic reaction (so, never eat figs unripe). Each variety ripens to a different color, green, brown or deep brown/purple.
Figs contain a great deal of calcium, and have phosphorous, potassium, beta-carotene, vitamin C, fiber, flavanoids and polyphenols. They are a nutritional powerhouse!
An excellent source for figs is Edible Landscaping, 361 Spirit Ridge Road, Afton VA, http://www.eat-it.com/ , email@example.com. They have a great collection of figs, including Brown Turkey, Hardy Chicago, Marseilles, Conadria, LSU Purple and others.