Fig fanatics overwinter trees for backyard bounty
Pat Morgan uses a small, stainless-steel knife to cut fresh figs into quarters. She holds them in one hand and uses her thumb to push the knife though the soft fruit, revealing reddish purple flesh that glistens in the afternoon sun. Her hands are calloused and weathered from years in the garden.
The figs are added to a caprese salad made of arugula, heirloom tomatoes — both from the garden — along with avocados and cheese.
“You've got to use good olive oil,” she says, while drizzling the deep green dressing over the fresh ingredients. Morgan then pours a little balsamic fig glaze over the salad. The mixture is heavenly; the spicy bite of the wild arugula is tempered by the sweet figs.
Morgan's love of figs began 20 years ago. Over that time, she's been learning different techniques to make the plants happy until spring. It takes special care to overwinter fig trees.
“I tasted my first fresh fig and I was ecstatic,” she says. Two seasons ago, she picked nearly 3,000 from three trees in her Braddock backyard.
“That was phenomenal,” she says with a smile. “It was like Italy.”
She made lots of her famous honey bourbon fig preserve. But the next year, she managed only 38 and, so far, she's picked more than 300 this fall.
The trees were killed to the ground over the past two brutal winters but sprouted from the roots. One tree actually stayed dormant for an entire year and then returned this spring.
“I was devastated. I just kind of prided myself in having the figs and a lot of people were counting on me,” says Morgan, who loves to share figs with friends and family.
Morgan has five trees in the ground and nine in pots. The container plants will come inside after they lose their leaves and will be kept in a cold place for the winter while they are dormant.
Instead of letting her outdoor trees get too big, she wants to grow them more like shrubs. Although one tree has reached 12 feet already, she's considering pruning it to a more manageable size.
For the outside plants, she first ties the supple branches close to the trunk with bungee cords after a hard frost and wraps them in burlap and then a tarp to keep them dry. The ground is mulched thickly with straw, too.
Morgan is playing with the idea of using some foam insulation used for plumbing on some of the taller trees.
The 65-year-old Penn State master gardener loves all the personal connections the figs create. She even traded some for a decorative bowl, which sits on her kitchen counter. Her favorite variety is ‘Brown Turkey,' but she also grows ‘Chicago Hardy,' ‘Celeste,' ‘Italian White' and ‘Violet de Bordeaux.'
Morgan, a semi-retried professional church organist, grows “just about everything” in the back of the two city lots she owns. “I wish I grew up on a farm,” she says with a laugh. “I don't make very much money, but I feel absolutely blessed and so rich with what I have here.”
Everything in her garden is grown without the use of chemicals. “I give the earth the kind of amendments it wants and do everything organically, and it gives back to me,” she says. “I wish we could all live that way.”
Her mother passed away two years ago, and that's one thing that has made her look at what's really important in life. Sitting outside looking at her garden, most of the caprese salad gone now, she reflects on what growing figs and other things means to her.
“When I'm out here in the yard, I just get the whole connection with the earth, because you're seeing life and death every day,” she says. “You're seeing something die, something come up, the rejuvenation. The garden is my spirituality.”
The fig expert
Since he was a teenager, 44-year-old Steven Biggs has had a fig tree and is considered a fig expert since writing “Grow Figs Where You Think you Can't.”
The Toronto-based writer and garden speaker talks fondly of the first year he winterized his precious tree.
“The very first year, I buried it probably 3 feet deep, which was overkill. It was a huge job, and I was thinking to myself, this is crazy,” he says.
Since then he's learned that trees can just be leaned over and covered with 6 inches or more of mulch. Some growers will put a board over the tree after leaning it over and then add the mulch. It helps protect the plant when unearthing it in the spring.
Biggs has a great way to keep his 50 or so trees living for the winter. He grows them in 14-inch pots, allowing the trees to get 6 feet tall and, when they go dormant, brings them all into the garage. Most would consider his wife, Shelley, a saint after he announced his plan.
“I made it really clear that there was little likelihood that cars would ever go in the garage again,” he says laughing. Not only are there all those figs, but he overwinters olive and lemon trees, too.
Biggs has a few other ideas for keeping the plants protected over the winter if left in the ground. Biggs has seen growers build a temporary hoop house covered in clear plastic. Surrounding the plant with an insulated frame is a good idea, he says. Even the hardy varieties need some kind of protection if left outside.
For gardeners interested in putting figs into dormancy like he does, just bring them into an unheated garage or basement after a hard frost. He does add supplemental heat if things get extremely cold during the winter.
In the spring, if the trees are still dormant, they can be brought out in early May. If they break dormancy before that, they can't be exposed to frost as all the fresh top growth will be killed by the cold. There is an advantage to getting them out early though, he says. “The season is always too short to ripen all the figs on the plant. The longer the season you can create for it, the better,” he says.
It must be quite a scene when Biggs realizes a frost is looming in the spring. “Shelley calls it the dance of the figs because I'm out there lugging all my figs into the garage,” he says with a laugh.
One might wonder why Biggs and others go to such lengths in growing these plants.
“The payoff is fresh figs,” he says.
Commercial figs are picked early so they can be shipped. “That's never as good as you get in the backyard. It's almost jamlike, it's that soft and tender. It's absolutely delicious,” he says of the fully ripe figs.
Since he's become the fig guru, people send him incredible varieties to try. ‘Black Greek' hasn't fruited for him yet, but ‘Melanzana' (Italian for eggplant) has. “This particular one is a really, really big fig, sort of an elongated shape, not unlike an eggplant,” he says. “It's kind of like a conversation piece.”
One of the most important things to know about figs is that they can have two seasons. Some will harvest figs from last year's growth; this is call the breva crop, usually ready around July. “‘Desert King' is the gold standard for a breva crop,” he says.
The main crop is harvested at the end of the season.
Because figs are from a Mediterranean climate, gardeners think they don't have to irrigate them. That's a mistake, Biggs says.
“When a plant is under water stress,” he says, “the first thing it does is drop things. And in the case of your fig, it's going to be all those little baby figs you're eagerly waiting for.”
Sometimes, he'll water daily in the heat of the summer. To help alleviate that problem, he sinks his pots in the ground and has experimented successfully with creating a fig hedge, covering the sunken pots with a thick layer of mulch.
“They'll send their roots out of that pot into the surrounding soil,” he says. That keeps them happy and stops them from tipping over in a storm.”
One of this season's delights for Biggs is seeing his three kids each adopt a fig tree. After a recent camping trip, the first thing his children did upon returning was run out to the backyard to check on their plants.
“They came in with handfuls of figs,” he said proudly. “That was incredibly rewarding for me, to see them excited about growing something and getting so much pleasure and, of course, that they share that interest with me, too.”
Copies of “Grow Figs Where You Think you Can't” can be purchased through Biggs' website, grow-figs.com.