Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Adam Offered a Fig

Saturday, August 05, 2017
Leonard Moorehead, GoLocalProv Gardening Expert

August is the most benign month. Sultry days are less brutal, morning dew lasts longer, outdoors evenings cool and fragrant. Stargazer lilies and nocturnal Datura perfume the warm garden. Beneath mitten size leaves are the first fruits, sublime figs. 

Figs arrived late to my garden but not alone, fig stories are legion. Home gardeners pursue blooms, vegetables, herbs and fruits unavailable in our markets. Taste is supreme, tolerance for unconventional shapes, colors, or flavors opens new horticultural worlds. It was only time before the fig arrived. 

The ad on Craigslist was the bait, the provenance the lure, the picture of a robust shrub in a large pot set the hook. “Grandfather brought a cutting of our fig to Providence from Italy before WWI. We’ve grown it ever since, moving” $20 and a friendly offer to deliver from a nearby neighborhood and the potted fig entered the garden. 

Lots of free advice arrived too. Somehow figs survived New England winters and for some, the pampered life of Riley by way of Sicily. “Don’t feed it or you’ll have lots of foliage and no figs.” I understood, lavender and geraniums thrive in near gravel, falter in compost rich soil. “The old timers dug a hole and buried the tree for the winter” That gave pause, I guide not coddle the garden. “How about covered, like in a cold frame?” “Maybe, some people wrap them in tarpaulin”. The potted fig looked great. “How do you care for it?” “I winter a few pots like this in an unheated garage and put them in the sun each spring”. “Does the fig have a name?” “Yes in Italian, we just call it the Noni’s fig from Sicily”. 

I promptly dug a hole in the sunniest place, think sunny Italy, filled it with supreme compost and bone meal and de-potted the root bound shrub into its new home. It grew 7 feet in every direction over one summer. Not the showy flowers of an apple or quince, more like a sassafras tree with only one shape leaf instead of three.  A friend raised in New Orleans admired the fig. “Why aren’t you picking the figs?” “What figs?” “Your bush is full of them, like this one.” and he promptly ate one. 

I’d never seen a fresh fig. The trick is, like raspberries and grapes, to look upward from under the leaves. I nibbled and understood why an immigrant brought a cutting in a steamship trunk. Fresh figs are divine. “I picked them from the roadside for my mother, she made jams and pies, figs are good with ice cream too. I always ate a lot before I filled her basket.” He grinned. “I paid $5 for 6 at Stop n Shop the other day for some home cooking. Look how many you have.”  We ate as many as we could find too.

The foliage withered in the first frost. I pruned the fig 2/3 back and enclosed the shrub in a cube of old side walk found storm windows, nailed at each corner. I surrounded the northern and eastern sides with large brown paper bags of tightly packed leaves and waited out the winter. The glass window cube was a little odd in the front garden and certainly not fancy. The frugal Yankee thrift in me accepted the shabbiness with ease. “Why not, the windows are still in good shape”.  When asked, “there’s a fig inside”, confusion adds to comment. 

As daffodils emerged, I pulled down the storm window cube, broke a pan or two, split the bagged leaves perfectly preserved and un-decomposed and spread over and around the fig. Like the Little Shoppe of Horrors, the fig came back. In vengeance, twice as large, wider, taller, greener, fewer figs. “Maybe the squirrels” my umbrella nemesis. I dug a planting hole a yard away from the drip line and encountered tangled orange fibrous roots. With a narrow square pruning spade I dug a circle around the fig: enough of the roots spreading into all else.

The next winter I pruned back the much larger fig, had broken windows in the glass cube and covered with more colorful blue; if as stylish tarpaulin.  Fewer bagged leaves as well, the first batch endured far into the summer when all other leaves became rich humus. The fig was delighted and once again soared to titanic dimensions. A circle of new figs emerged from the OTHER side of the root pruning. Where once one, now 7. Blithe to crowds, the fig engorged the front garden bed. 

Strong measures were called for. I lugged the big pot the fig had arrived in and attempted to dig up the fig. Hercules had it easier, instead of many tasks, impenetrable roots. When I managed to dig under the root mass and leverage the tangle up and away the fiberglass shaft of the shovel snapped. The fig refused to budge. The smaller figs were of the same ilk, at last two made it into large tubs. Amid the holes, trampled roses and disturbed spring bulbs, the pioneer squatted. I pruned every stem back beneath the soil level, folded the blue tarpaulin into a large square and covered the plant. I mulched the tarpaulin out of sight. The root mass endured for 2 years, any fig leaf to emerge cut off. Denied light, the roots remained viable until the bitter end. Lugged to the huge annual heap of leaves covered in a layer of soil and planted to mints, the roots sprouted leaves. 

Like a bad habit the fig deserves its place in legend. I haven’t been to Sicily yet. Aside for Mt Etna, I imagine the island as a dense fig forest, kept back only by molten lava. The potted fig and I are garden friends. I wheel it into the garage for the winter, watered once in a forgetful while. Each spring it finds a new sunny home. I don’t bother trimming more than 2/3 of the shrub, and yes, I feed it. A couple times a growing season I mix a tablespoon of Epsom salts into a gallon of water and empty into the pot. I fill the top of the pots with quahog shells. The shells allow a hose to pour fully open onto the pot’s surface without splashes or erosion. Compost disappears into the pot. Robust leaves cover the plant. Cabined, cribbed, confined, the fig thrives and from its pot offers the sweetest most delectable fruits. Look under the leaves for figs, the inner truth is tasty indeed. 

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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