La Dolce Vita: The Sweet Life with Figs

979894597Growing up, I can remember going to my great-grandmother’s house each summer to harvest figs. My great-grandparents, being Sicilian immigrants, proudly kept their landscape much the way they would have in the old country—an orchard of fig trees mixed with lemon trees, orange trees, and banana shrubs, while on nearby arbors and trellises muscadine vines and bougainvilleas wildly climbed for attention. Their vegetable garden, overgrown with some of the juiciest tomatoes, peppers, and cuccuzzi (Italian squash) I have ever seen was their other pride and joy—fusions of rosemary, basil, and oregano powerfully filled the air outdoors, while homemade bread and fresh red gravy (packed with garlic, of course) consumed the entirety of their house.

My brothers and sister and I, together with some of our cousins, would start picking figs from early Sunday morning, well into the middle of the day, not stopping until we were called in for dinner. Each of us equipped with our own stepladders and having been appointed select trees to harvest, competed to see who could pick the most and biggest fruit. I seldom won, since I was often guilty of eating much of the fruit I had picked. Nevertheless, we enjoyed each other’s company as we worked under the hot July sun, our shirts stained with champagne colored pulp and our fingers sticky from the fresh sugar and sap.

Figs have always been an integral part of Sicilian culture; I can’t think of a single Christmas when we didn’t bake fig cookies to share with our family and neighbors. It has been years since my great-grandparents last walked through their orchard of figs, but their memory still grows strong; the tradition of harvesting, and more importantly family, is rooted firmly within each of their great-grandchildren. I have no doubt that when each of us has a backyard of our own, we will plant at least one fig tree in honor of the past.

A Historical Dig

The common fig tree (Ficus carica) originated in southern Europe, Asia, and Africa, and has now become a highly prized fruit in the southern United States. Figs are among the earliest fruits cultivated by man, while the trees were believed to be sacred by some ancient civilizations. Fig trees were introduced to the Americas by the Spanish Franciscans in the early 1500s when they settled in California to establish Catholic missions. With their ease of cultivation and overly abundant yields, it is no surprise that fig trees grew in popularity along the South, and more specifically in Louisiana.

Fig trees are without a doubt one of the easiest fruit trees to grow in backyard orchards, since with virtually little care they faithfully yield bounties of tender sweet figs year after year. Their multi-trunk habits and broad spreading branches stretch 15 feet tall and hang the same width across, allowing plentiful space for harvesting figs. Make sure before purchasing fig trees that you allow space in your garden for mature height and spread—fig trees should be spaced at about 25-foot centers to ensure comfortable room for harvesting, mulching, and pruning around the trees. Remember also that for optimum production, fig trees thrive in full sunlight and fertile well-drained soil; if your yard is replete with hard clay dirt like many Louisiana yards, break up the soil before planting and incorporate fresh organic compost so as to loosen the area.

On the whole, fig trees do not produce substantial crops until the third or fourth year after planting. Trees do try to produce fruit during their first few years, but the figs often fail to ripen and prematurely drop off. ‘LSU Purple’ however, is an exception since it successfully bears crops after the first year of planting. Encourage heavy fruit production on any fig variety by fertilizing each February with a complete fertilizer such as 13-13-13. The recommended rate is one pound per year of age of the tree, up to 10 years old; a maximum of 10 pounds should be used for trees 10 or more years old.

Make the Cut

Train your fig to grow as a large, multi-trunk bush, or give it a more refined single stalked look. No matter how you cut it, keep in mind that you will need to maintain its shape. Little pruning is required the first few years after planting, but more established trees call for selective pruning annually. Fig trees bear their main crops on new growth produced during the spring and summer, so the best time to prune is mid to late February (usually when you fertilize). Annual pruning helps to maintain vigorous shoots, while at the same time it allows you to create the desired shape of the tree and ultimately control its colossal size. Remember that it is better to moderately prune each year than to prolong the task and possibly damage the tree by removing excessive amounts at once.

Water

Because figs are shallow-rooted, they are easily stressed during periods of dry weather. As with any fruit tree, water is one of the most essential elements to the production of figs. Since Louisiana summers often vary from periods of dry weather to spells of rain, you will probably have to hand water your trees to ensure adequate nourishment. Fig trees often drop fruit if they are drought stressed, and once the crop is damaged, supplemental watering will not amend the loss. Water newly planted trees weekly by letting the hose run at the base of the trunk for 20 to 30 minutes. Established trees should be watered for 45 minutes by having a sprinkler cover the entire area under the canopy. A two-inch layer of pine straw or other mulch of your choice proves beneficial during the summer as well, since it aids in keeping the roots moist.

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