University City

Oh, to be at peace beneath our fig trees

At the bottom of our driveway there is a fig tree, a present from Ms. Christy, the artist who taught our kids when they were 3-year-olds at Plaza Presbyterian Weekday School.

When artists have to teach nursery school to make ends meet, it's a pretty dismal statement about a city's commitment to the creative arts; but it certainly is good for the kids.

Our kids now are in high school and college, so that fig has been there a while. Figs are one of those gifts that keep on giving. What started as a tiny sprout in a recycled yogurt cup has grown to Biblical proportions, a great wall of green by mid-summer every year, in spite of my Herculean exertions over the years to keep it in bounds.

Even with this tendency to horticultural excess, an edible fig belongs in every University City landscape. Not only are figs indestructible, perfect for suburban brown thumbs yearning for a green success story, they also provide a tasty crop for the gardener (or at least for the birds).

Experienced University City gardeners typically plant figs after the danger of freezing has passed, or in early fall. All you need is a root cutting from a friend, like the one Ms. Christy gave us, or a start from a reliable nursery or the farmers market. But you can put them in any time the weather is consistently warm, as long as you don't let them dry out while they are getting settled.

Fig cuttings want to grow. I've gotten new trees from pruned branches I haphazardly tossed into the compost pile.

Figs aren't terribly fussy about soil, but like most garden plants they do best in an area loosened to a depth of a foot or so in a five- or six-foot circle around the planting site, enriched with two five-gallon buckets of compost worked in well.

Figs are more particular about location. They do best in a sheltered site, a warmer micro-climate reminiscent of their Mediterranean origins. David Goforth, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Agent in Cabarrus County, has a couple of figs at his farm on the northern edge of University City, across the county line. The one out in the apple orchard is small and struggling, the other a few yards away in a warm corner next to the house is gigantic and very productive.

In the American West, edible figs grow as trees. Their mottled bark and architectural branches are very attractive, particularly in the cold season when they drop their leaves.

In University City, this doesn't work so well, requiring way too much futzing around with pruners and saws. Our thunderstorms and summer heat are too stimulating to the tree and too oppressive to the gardener. The best way to manage figs here is to keep them confined as short, multistemmed and easy-to-harvest bushes, or "figgy shrubs," as Ma Seay, my grandmother, called them.

There are dozens of fig varieties, but three stand out for our area. In my opinion, the best is the celeste, a small, round and very tasty fig. Many old-timers like Brown Turkey, which makes a somewhat larger fruit. But maybe the best of all is the "gift" fig, like the one Ms. Christy gave more than a decade ago.

It is most fun to simply get a fig from a friend. That way, every time you see the tree, it whispers memories of earlier times. However, if you're a passionate local foodie, be on the lookout for trees growing in our area with special taste and characteristics you prize, and somehow get ahold of a growing branch or rooted sucker.

Once you've got the figs, what do you do with them? Old-timers talk about three harvests: an early one in early summer, a late one later in the season, and, best of all, the "third harvest" of fig preserves made from the fruit and enjoyed all year.

Of course, you don't have to harvest at all. You can enjoy the birds feasting, and you don't even need to buy birdseed or hang feeders.

The Book of Micah speaks of the time when humankind will sit in peace beneath our fig trees and grapevines. We will study war no more, and beat our spears into pruning hooks. What a wonderful and hopeful image, and yet another good reason for us all to plant a fig.

Of course, at the rate figs grow around here, those pruning hooks are going to come in mighty handy, too.

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