Tag Archives: figs

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.

Out of the ashes

22 Jun

One night when I was a boy I sat at the kitchen window of our apartment in East New York, Brooklyn, and watched a gigantic red-brick warehouse filled with toys and bicycles and other fun stuff go up in flames. In between the fire and our home were several buildings — mostly other houses but also a Catholic elementary school and a convent where the nuns lived — and so it was unlikely that the fire could spread all the way to where I was sitting.

I’m not sure I understood this that night, though. The whole thing was so awful and terrifying. Even today I can remember the flames and the smoke. Sometimes, when the smell of the burning toys seeps into my memory, as it will do, I get a little queasy. More than 40 years later.

It was only recently that I became conscious of an important role the fire has played in my life: It turned me into a fig tree nut. At least I think it did.

See, the neighborhood where I grew up was just lousy with fig trees. They grew in people’s backyards, front yards, side alleys, even surrounded by concrete and tucked into spaces where they probably didn’t belong. As a boy I was completely taken by these trees. They were strong and potent living things that held their ground under all conditions. They were survivors, warriors even. Oh, and the fruit they pushed out was pretty awesome.

While the toy warehouse fire burned I became obsessed with the fig trees that might be in its path. The one closest to me, just outside our kitchen window and in the Casillos’ backyard, was probably safe, I calculated. But what about all the others? I can remember counting all the trees that I knew about, or had enjoyed figs from, within a couple of square blocks of the fire. There were a lot of them. And I fretted for them all.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to make the connection, but I’m now convinced that that fire is the reason I keep so many fig trees, many of which are projects that need nursing back to health. I don’t live in Brooklyn anymore, where fig trees can grow in the ground. I live in Maine, where they must be kept in pots and moved indoors in winter, lest they die. The four trees pictured above aren’t all of my fig trees. A couple more are at cousins John and Susie’s place, waiting for me to pick them up now that the weather has turned warm. Others I’ve recently been told about are likely to wind up with me as well.

And then there’s this guy. My friend Peter Risbara is the capo di tutti capi of nurturing fig trees to life. The guy kicks out fig trees like nobody I’ve ever known. His greenhouses have always got a ton of cuttings in the works, and, well, they’re always looking for somebody to take them home and watch over them. When my trees get sick I bring them to Pete and they get well. Like me, he needs to take care of them.

One day I’ll have to ask him if he ever watched a warehouse go up in flames when he was a boy.

Pasta with fresh fig and pistachio

25 Jul

When life hands you fresh, sweet summer figs …

These are the first of the season, and they came from a fig tree that I have been nursing back to health for more than two years.

I was only cooking for myself last night (Mets and Braves game) and so all I sliced was one of the (very large) figs. The handful of unsalted raw pistachios came from a stash that’s always on hand in the freezer.

First I sauteed the pistachios in a mixture of butter and olive oil, but quickly and only to lightly toast the nuts.

Then the figs went in. (I should probably mention that this concoction was not planned and that the ingredients came together on a whim, and on the fly.)

The figs only cooked for about a minute at medium-high heat.

As soon as the pasta was cooked I tossed it in a bowl with some of the (well-salted) pasta water, more butter and a whole lot of Romano cheese.

Then mixed in the figs and pistachios, and added more cheese and some freshly ground pepper.

A little on the quirky side, but not bad.

And I’m pretty sure it’d have tasted even better had my Mets not gotten clobbered by the Braves whilst I was chewing.

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The garden grows

7 Jul

I don’t know about where you live, but gardening here in Maine last year was pure hell. When it didn’t rain it looked like it would. The ground was so wet, and for so long, that slugs and snails had the run of the place practically all summer long. A lot of people just gave up. Others threatened to, or wished they had.

Mercifully this summer is shaping up to be a good one. I have two plots at an organic community garden, totaling just shy of 300 square feet of growing space. After being away for a few days I discovered a lot going on. Here are some pics.

This is the first artichoke to show up. It’s the crop I’m most excited about. I have nine plants this year, twice as many as last.

Winters are too cold here for fig trees, so I potted one. The plan is to keep the tree small by pruning it heavily each year; and I’ll overwinter it in the garage, which I insulated last summer.

This is a first for me: cardoons. Looks just like an artichoke plant, as they’re closely related in the thistle family, but there’s no fruit here, just edible stalks.

The fava beans are way ahead of last year. Think it’ll be an early crop.

The chickpeas are also a first for me. Very cool-looking pods. Can’t wait to see how they turn out.

That’s it for now. More to come throughout the season, I’m sure.