The fig trees of autumn

17 Sep


I never should have left Brooklyn.

Jersey was okay. It is the Garden State, after all. And my small plot of Hudson County earth produced respectable amounts of fine vegetables the years that I spent there.

But Maine? Completely different story.

Most irritating to me is the climate’s absolute refusal to accommodate fig trees in their natural habitat—that is, the ground.

Those of us who wish to grow figs here in Plant Hardiness Zone 5, admittedly a very small group, must instead keep our trees confined to pots. These pots may spend the warm-weather months outdoors but if left out in the harsh Maine winter, the trees will freeze solid and most probably die.

Not so in the land where I was raised.

In horticultural terms Brooklyn, New York, is known as Plant Hardiness Zone 7, meaning that its coldest average temperature in winter is 20 degrees warmer than it is here in Southern Maine. Fig trees grow all across Brooklyn, always have and always will. They grow in gardens, alongside front porches, behind wire fences, even out of concrete sidewalks. Sometimes the people who tend to these trees cover them in winter for protection, sometimes they don’t. In my experience, which is meaningful, the results aren’t all that different.

Fig trees are allowed to live freely in the grounds of Kings County.

Here in Maine my fig trees—four of them currently, though once there were as many as eight—spend late October through March in an insulated garage, tucked against one of two motorcycles that also go dormant in winter. In early April I move the trees to a sun-filled window seat in an upstairs bedroom where they can slowly move from dormancy back to life. The trees do not leave the comfort and protection of my home until well after the last threat of frost has passed, mid-June normally.

I don’t dare keep the fig trees on my own property in summer, as the wildlife that roam freely and hungrily all around would strip the trees bare well before their fruit has had a chance to ripen. Instead, my fig trees spend their summers in a fenced-in community garden a few miles from my home, the same garden where I grow tomatoes and garlic and other vegetables, and where unobstructed sunlight is abundant all season long.

I transport the fig trees to and from their summer residence in shifts, as their size prevents them from fitting together in any vehicle that I own currently. Sometimes the trees return to my home in autumn after a good season, but many times, as with this season, they do not.

You many wonder, then, why a person might put himself through all the trouble.

I wonder the same thing myself, more often than is gratifying.


But then there moments like these.


And these.

I am a hopeless sentimentalist. Plain and simple.

10 Responses to “The fig trees of autumn”

  1. Virginia Lang September 17, 2019 at 2:13 pm #

    Love receiving your posts. Gin

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Lee September 17, 2019 at 2:32 pm #

    You think you have problems….I tried in Montreal
    I had no luck….planted by a true Italian too !!!! 😟

  3. Ciaochowlinda September 17, 2019 at 5:14 pm #

    Love your devotion to growing figs. I am trying for too many years, to grow them in the ground in NJ. It’s been a struggle.

  4. Janet Rancan September 18, 2019 at 1:06 am #

    My friends have a gigantic in-ground tree here in NJ. It’s right up against a cement block building wall, and gets full south-west exposure. I guess the heat coming off the wall, insulates the tree. My little tree is in a pot. We drag it inside during the cold weather. It’s got a lot of gigs on it this year, but they are still small & not ripening.
    Last year they grew fast, but I had to compete with the squirrels to get any.

  5. Adrienne Alexander September 18, 2019 at 4:24 pm #

    Thanks for sharing fig wisdom when I cornered you at the community garden. Our Chicago Hardy fig tree froze solid in the garage last year, so I brought it in and put it under a skylight in February. I figured that it had croaked. After it thawed — and to my surprise, no shock — it leafed out. This summer it grew lots of new trunks (well, they more closely resemble stems) but didn’t bud or set fruit. The other figs (a Brown Turkey and five proto-fig-tree seedlings of other varieties) have survived the summer and with MM’s advice will not be permitted to freeze solid this winter. They will luxuriate under skylights after their dormancy, and we’ll hope for figs next fall.

  6. Charlene Ann Baumbich September 19, 2019 at 5:36 pm #

    And it’s why we adore you. I, on the other hand, just gave away my last houseplant.

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