Fascination of Figs

figs_16_300x201The allure of fig growing goes beyond the sweet reward of the sun-ripened fruit. For many, figs evoke a powerful connection to the past, and the challenges of growing them are outweighed by the joy they bring. The fig has always been a revered fruit to Italian Americans. It adapts and thrives in a land not its own, much like the immigrants themselves. Growing them when they arrived in the US was a way to have a small piece of the Old World in the New.  Many of their American born children and grandchildren now proudly associate the fig with their immigrant heritage.

Figs seem to fascinate people, even those without family memories associated with them. Maybe it has something to do with the fig being such an old fruit, one of the first known to humankind. Whatever it is, I know that when I bring a small potted fig tree to a talk I give or an event hosted by the Project, inevitably people see it and say, “Oh, I have a fig tree” or “I used to have a fig tree” or “I wish I had a fig tree.” But my favorite response is when they spot the tree and a smile comes over their face and say, “Oh! Fig trees remind me of my grandfather or grandmother or my mom or my dad” and they tell a story related to that memory. It brings up positive feelings of someone very special to them.

Figs can be grown in the ground or in containers. Which you choose depends on the time and energy you’d like to devote to your figs, and the labor involved depends upon the part of the country where you live.  In southern regions where there is no danger of freezing, fig trees can be planted directly in the ground without protection. All northern grown trees require protection from the cold during winter months and there is a variety of ingenious ways to do that.

For a tree that is planted in the ground, a common method of overwintering is wrapping the trees with layers of material such as stIMG_6257_wrapped_fig_adj_225x300raw and blankets and a final protective layer of plastic to keep moisture out. It’s important that the plastic not touch the tree branches themselves though. On the right is one of Tommaso and Tommasina Floro’s trees wrapped for the winter.

Another method is burying the tree. Yes, that’s right, actually digging a hole, uprooting part of the tree and laying it down. The hole is then covered with plywood with dirt on top, or filled with dirt and mounding it so that it ends up looking like someone was buried in your backyard.

 

outhouse-fig_adj_crop_300x225My grandfather usually built little sheds, similar to the ones in the photo, to protect his trees through the winter. I have to admit that as a teenager I wasn’t too proud of the little outhouse-looking structures that dotted our backyard.

Figs can also be planted in large pots and moved into a sheltered, but cool area, like an unheated garage during the winter months.

My friend Michele Vaccaro stopped by earlier this week (March 25) to tell me it’s time to begin to let my tree breathe. He helps me bury it every year, always leaving a small opening to allow air to circulate in the hole.  During the coldest part of winter, the opening is covered with dirt and leaves. It is uncovered again as the air warms so that the tree can acclimate to the cool spring temperatures before unearthing the whole tree and standing it upright.fig man

Timing the full unearthing is always tricky. Wait too long and the tree will begin to leaf out underground and become soggy and moldy from the warmth and wet of spring. Waiting too long also shortens the season for fruit to ripen. Unearth too early, and a late frost may damage this season’s crop. Nicola Colicchio of Cleveland is seen here inspecting the damage to his tree from an unexpected late spring frost. This was a rare and disappointing experience for this lifelong fig grower.

When I was visiting gardens in Brooklyn last summer, I was surprised to see the number of fig trees growing in backyards there. I was told that most of them haven’t been protected through the winter. Having been planted decades ago, maybe the well-established roots and recent mild winters have made this possible.

 

big fig tree

In the video below, Michele talks about growing, pruning and starting trees. He also talks about how his family gathered and dried figs to make crocetta. We’ll have lots more information through the season about figs and in the fall, Michele will give more detailed instructions for preparing the trees for winter.

Learn more about our gardeners Tommaso and Tommasina FloroNicola Colicchio and Michele Vaccaro by clicking on their names here.

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Comments

Margie Smith

I am so excited to see your new website!!! Thank you for carrying on these old Italian traditions.

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Lucille Kenworthy

I love the Italian Garden Project and it’s mission!
As someone who has planted a cutting of a fig tree my Grandmother brought from Italy everyplace I have lived, and have given cuttings to many people in Colorado, Washington DC and here in Pittsburgh, I was especially interested to see the excellent article by Mary in this edition of the Newsletter about figs. My fig tree today looks pretty much like the one wrapped in blue plastic, and today I am going to cut a hole in the wrapping to let it breathe. Thank you for the instruction..
Please keep me on the mailing list. I have sent in a donation because I appreciate the project.

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Mary Menniti

Your ongoing support of The Italian Garden Project means the world to us! Your encouragement and financial support have helped make this website possible. Mille grazie!

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Deanna

Mary,

I love the new website and happy that you are continuing The Italian Garden Project! I look forward to learning more about the gardens and the methods used. I have often thought about growing a fig tree and was wondering if your Italian gardeners would be willing to sell me a fig shoot or two and when the best time to harvest and transplant the shoots would be.

Deanna

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Mary Menniti

You’ll love fig growing! We are researching the possibility of having fig trees available for purchase through the site. We’ll keep you posted.
I often dig shoots for transplanting in the late spring when they are just beginning to leaf out, but they can also be dug in the fall after they have lost their leaves. In the spring, be sure to keep them watered well at least for the first month.

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Sally Fester

Took me back to when my grandfather grew fig trees in Brooklyn, NY.. such great memories.. I just bought my first fig tree.. I have it in a container inside my family room and doing great.. it in it’s first year of growing and has produced a fig…. Hopefully will be able to have a few to eat this summer. Thank you for sharing..

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Mary Menniti

Congratulations on your first fig tree… and your first fig! How wonderful that you’re carrying on the tradition!
We’ll soon be adding to the website our “”Italian Garden Project Hall of Fame”” where you’ll have the opportunity to recognize and honor your grandfather. The Hall of Fame will be a place where we will honor those individuals who have inspired us in some way to have an appreciation for the basic tenets of food, family and the earth. It’s a place where our supporters can commemorate a special gardener with a public tribute in recognition of how they have influenced them in carrying on the best parts of their traditions and lifestyles.
We’ll let you know when this new section is added.

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Mirella Vercillo

Mary i love your new Web Site …great job..it will defenatly be a success.

Anche, e’ molto bello vedere persone che conosco.
It’s wonderfull to see persons that i know…..
Ciao Mirella

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Orlando Villella

I started a fig tree in a container and moved it inside for the winter. I don’t think it is doing so well. Where can I get another fig tree and what do I need to do to keep it healthy in a container?
Thanks.
Orlando

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Mary Menniti

Don’t feel badly if your tree doesn’t make it, Orlando. You wouldn’t be the first well-meaning fig grower to lose a tree. It’s happened to me more than once. You might want to try allowing your potted fig to go dormant next winter by keeping it in an unheated, but protected space like a detached garage. You would need to provide some protection by wrapping it with a blanket and keeping it from sitting directly on the cold concrete floor, preferably on a heavy piece of wood. When a potted fig is young without a well-established root system, it should be planted in store-bought potting soil. Once the roots are established and it needs a larger pot, the soil can be a mix of potting soil and good garden soil. Container grown fig trees will benefit from a few inches of compost each spring. In ground trees need no fertilization.
I hope this helps. You might want to consider taking one of our fig growing classes. They will be held each month throughout the summer and fall. The schedule will soon be posted on the website under Programs and Events. You will also be notified by email when they are posted.

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Eva Vaccaro

Thank you so much for sharing our family traditions! It means so much to me that my dad and grandparents have the opportunity to share their knowledge of something that to some is a hobby, but to them, it’s a way of life and means of sustaining life. I hope many enjoy reading and viewing all that you have put into this website and the project.

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Mary Menniti

It is an honor and a privilege to know your family. Their wisdom and traditions have nurtured and guided this project from the start. I am deeply indebted to them. It’s wonderful that you recognize the value of their amazing lifestyle.

Eva is the daughter of Michele Vaccaro and granddaughter of Giovanni and Maria Macchione.

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Sharon Jung

You have a terrific website. I live in the Cleveland, Ohio area. What would be the best kind of fig tree for me to grow in a container (self-pollinating and bifura). I would like a fast growing, fruit-bearing kind that can withstand this climate. Thank you for all the help. I am new to this and am not sure which fig tree would be best. Also, I heard that a fig tree can be grown from seed from a piece of fruit purchased at the grocery store–is that true? Thank you!!

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Mary Menniti

In your climate you will need to store a container-grown fig tree inside an unheated shed or garage. Just be sure to wrap it and keep it in a dark area. Because it will be protected, you can choose just about any variety because it won’t have to withstand the severe cold.

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