Usually in August, I began to harvest my main crop of sweet, voluptuous and totally decadent figs (Ficus carica cvs.). If you’re only familiar with dried, store-bought figs or Fig Newtons — not that there’s anything wrong with that — you are needlessly denying yourself the singular culinary delight that this ancient fruit provides. In order to savour the real McCoy yourself, you simply have to grow your own. Unlike other fruits (tomatoes or apples, for instance), figs stop ripening and their quality begins to deteriorate the moment they’re picked, and perfectly ripened figs are too delicate to transport any distance.
In the spring of 2013, Loblaw Garden Centres featured what they called the PC Hardy Fig, and I quickly snapped up two of them. After a little sleuthing, I discovered that their correct botanical name is F. c. ‘Chicago Hardy’, and like other cold-tolerant cultivars (such as ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Celeste’) their roots are hardy to Zone 4, but the aerial parts of the plant are hardy only to Zone 6. I live in Zone 5, so in order to hedge my bets I planted one in the garden and the other in a container.
Native to the Middle East and western Asia, figs naturally bear two crops: The first (called the “breba” crop) grows on the previous year’s wood, and in spring, tiny pea-sized figs often appear even before the leaves unfurl. The secondary (or main) crop is produced on the current season’s growth. Although I had high hopes for my in-ground specimen, I’ve found that it only fruits successfully after a mild winter — severe cold knocks it down to its roots, so the breba crop is sacrificed and unless the following summer is long and hot, it may not have time to grow new branches and ripen a main crop before autumn frosts knock it back again.
On the other hand, I’ve had great success growing ‘Chicago Hardy’ in a large container. It sits on my south-facing back deck until fall’s first frosts trigger leaf drop, and once the plant is fully dormant, I bring it into my unheated sunroom where winter temperatures rarely drop below the freezing mark (unheated garages, sheds and cellars also work well). Then in spring, when rising temperatures stir the plant back into active growth, it gets fed, watered and pruned, and out it goes again.
When figs are grown in containers, water and nutrient levels must be closely monitored. In the heat of summer, my potted fig requires daily irrigation and I feed it every seven to 10 days with a half-strength solution of all-purpose 20-20-20 fertilizer from late spring to late summer. Fortunately, figs are excellent garden communicators, and their leaves droop the moment they get thirsty, but if plants become too water-stressed they promptly abort their fruit, so it pays to keep an eye on them.
After five years, I repotted my ‘Chicago Hardy’ once, but when I moved it to a slightly larger container, I also root-pruned it (removing 25 per cent of the oldest, woodiest roots) to control its size. I’ve never had any insect or disease problems with my figs although I’ve certainly lost some fruit to cheeky squirrels. In their native climes, figs are pollinated by one-eighth-inch (2-mm)-long wasps (Blastophaga psenes), but “common” cold-hardy figs are self-fruitful and don’t rely on insect pollinators to produce fruit. ‘Chicago Hardy’ bears small- to medium-sized figs that turn from pale green to dark purple when ripe; my largest fig one year was about the size of a ping pong ball and weighed just over one ounce (34 grams to be exact).
When harvesting figs, I’m sometimes tempted to don a toga, and pretend I’m Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), who waxed poetic about figs in his De Agri Cultura (or “On Agriculture”) and had definite “fig-pig” tendencies. In fact, archaeologists believe that figs were probably the first plant to be cultivated by humans around 9300 BC, predating the domestication of barley, wheat and legumes (beans, lentils and peas) by more than 1,000 years. I’m not surprised: A ripe fig fresh off the tree is a gastronomic thrill that will never get old.