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COLUMN: Don’t give a fig about figs? Think again!

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By Jeneen Wiche

After I finish writing this column, I need to go pick figs. Every other day seems to be right on in order to harvest ripe fruit. It takes some finesse because it is the soft texture of the fruit that reveals ripeness, not necessarily the color. And picking only ripe fruit is the goal: figs do not improve if picked under ripe so if it feels firm leave it on the shrub.
In a normal year — whatever that is — we can expect to begin harvesting in late September or early October. If the summer is hot and dry expect earlier; if it’s a nice summer expect later. This year it proves to be much earlier because of two things: a mild winter and a hot, dry summer. Typically, in Kentuckiana, figs get killed back to the ground each winter but once the plant’s roots are established figs prove very hardy.
The tried and true varieties for Kentuckiana include “Brown Turkey” and “Celeste” and our local garden centers will reflect this. Others that claim root hardiness here include “Hardy Chicago,” “Excel” and “Nordland.” Figs are shallow rooted but the roots become dense and woody so once the fig has a few years in the ground it is likely it will persist for years to come. From to time we have the old wood winter over successfully, like we did this year, which means we get a heavier and earlier crop. The average year proves a decent harvest and the taste of the fruit improves if we remain hot and dry.  
Plant your figs in a location that is well drained and add lots of organic matter from compost or composted manure. Organic matter holds moisture while maintaining good drainage. Figs will not be happy in clayey waterlogged soils. If figs are happy they will increase in size dramatically each year (even if the top dies back each year) so give them plenty of room. Full sun is necessary for a good crop and if you plant on the south side of a building your chances of successfully over-wintering old wood increase two-fold.
Once your plants are established there is not much more to do except harvest and cut back old dead canes in the spring of the year (after you are certain it is dead wood) before new growth begins at the base of the plant. Use the canes as plant supports in the garden. They are quite attractive.
The first year in the ground irrigate when necessary but after that figs will actually produce a better crop if they stay on the dry side. They are native to the Mediterranean so the more Mediterranean we are the better. Don’t have high expectations in terms of flavor if the season is cool and rainy, in other words. Using compost as mulch around the plant is adequate fertilizer maintenance.
I have been selling my figs to Courtney Farms CSA subscribers so I have not had to do too much processing of the bumper crops but I have managed to throw some in the freezer to use in winter savory-sweet lamb dishes and for stuffing pork loins.
I have also managed to dry some for our winter dried fruit concoction of all the fruit we grow on the farm. And last but not least just pop them in your mouth.
Figs are great with goat, feta or other soft sheep’s milk cheese with a sprinkle of a savory herb like rosemary or sage . . . smear it all on a baguette or roll it in pancetta or thinly sliced country ham.
They are also great grilled, with ice cream, or with your morning cereal. And, yes, you can grow figs in Kentuckiana.