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Growing Figs in Vermont: Spring Fever

By Barbara Ganley, May 10, 2011 - 7:09pm

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We've reached the turning point--the fields and woods have shrugged off their winter torpor and are decking themselves out in glorious shades of green. The female coyote who hunts in our back field is clearly a nursing mother; the birdboxes all have residents; the turtles are digging holes to lay eggs near the pond. Everybody is busy out on the land.

That means I'm hard at work in the gardens and orchard whenever possible, planting seeds, transplanting the hardier sorts into the open ground after they've been hardened off, and the heat-lovers beneath tunnels. The gardens begin to look like themselves again, their garden selves.

I'm almost ready to harvest radishes, spinach, radicchio, endive, arugula and lettuces for our first-of-the-season salads. Nothiing better. No more buying greens trucked in from somewhere else until December. Today I'll pick birch and currant leaves for spring infusions and to dry for winter tisanes. I've been picking mint, chives, sorrel, thyme and sage for a few weeks now, and tonight some of them will end up in an herb pasta. Everything is tender and hopeful and new.

Even the plants I bring indoors for the winter are putting on their best show: the rosemary is lush with new growth; the bay tree (a slow grower) is awake and setting leaves, and the two fig trees? Well, they are a riot of fruit and brilliant green leaves. In a few weeks, I'll be grilling figs, slicing them into salads and pastas, making Eating Well's luscious fig desserts, eating them right from the tree.

Picking figs from my own trees in Vermont (without having a greenhouse) is one of the great surprising success stories of this Northern garden. Five years ago, after seeing a fantastic fig tree growing on a friend's deck, I went out and bought two small (6-inch tall) trees and kept them on our warm stone patio all summer. They doubled in size that first year, and so I repotted them when I brought them inside for the winter. When they promptly dropped all their leaves, I thought I had killed them, but a little research told me that they do indeed drop their leaves and sprout new ones in the spring--they're deciduous! And sure enough, they leafed out beautifully in February when the sun started to strengthen.

The first few years they didn't produce fruit, but I was ready for that. Last year I picked our first figs, and I have never tasted any better--fresh-picked have a sweet intensity of flavor and a melt-in-yout-mouth consistency. Sublime. Now the trees are six feet tall, multi-limbed, fully fruited. They're filling the window in my bedroom (Looking out at the garden--ha!), and we're not sure how we're going to get them downstairs and outside this year. I'm thinking of placing them on the small deck off the bedroom and letting them be permanent residents of the upstairs. Oh, for a greenhouse...

Of course I fret about the apricot blossoms and the lack of bees buzzing about them; I worry about possible frosts nipping young fruit; I wonder if we'll have too much/too little rain too much/too little heat. But when I look at those improbable figs--a Zone 8 plant in a Zone 4 world--and the artichokes that wintered over in the garden, I am reminded of the resilience of my garden inhabitants, of their will to live and reproduce--just like the birds, the coyotes, the bobcats in the fields. Everything seems possible--even figs in Vermont.

TAGS: Barbara Ganley, Gardening


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