Fig Tree Fears
By Ann Boutcher
April has just past, and, in my youth, that is the month you uncover the fig trees, so their soft branches can embrace the Spring sunshine and the buds can appear. Of course, that was then. This year April marked the time I started praying for the trees to sprout a bloom because this past winter, I committed the ultimate sacrilege. I did not cover them. If you know nothing else about Fig Tree Management, you know that the trees MUST be covered on November 15th and uncovered on or about April 15th…. apparently, they have this little atomic clock that lets them know the date.
Our fig trees first belonged to my maternal grandfather who tended them until the ripe old age of 92. My father took them over in ‘Popie’s’ memory and loved them until his untimely death fifteen years ago this past March. Now, by default, they are mine, which is not necessarily a good thing since my experience with all things green is limited to Heineken bottles and cash. Never much of a gardener; I shudder to think about my butt up in the air as cars drive by and I tend tulips.
The men in the family knew when to cover the trees and when to uncover them, they must have had the same internal clocks. They knew what those little black bugs are, when to put nets over the trees, when to pick the fruit, how much water they require…and so on and so on. It has become painfully obvious that I should have paid more attention….as far as I know lime is what you put in a Rum and Coke.
Even if you know what you are doing, it is one pain in the butt to cover the trees. They may have supple limbs, but those limbs seem to have minds of their own. It requires Herculean strength to truss them up before you wrap them in felt and apply the final coat… tar paper. It takes forever and is one of my least favorite fall jobs. I have cousins who never cover their father’s trees and they get figs so why not us? Two years ago, we experimented with only covering one of our three trees. The yield from the covered tree was ten times that of the uncovered…. lesson learned? You would think so but NOT… so this year laziness prevailed, and we went all the way and did not cover any of them and so now I wait…in dread that I have killed them.
Before I go any further, allow me to share my limited knowledge on the infamous Fig Tree with you. Fig trees are indigenous to Italy especially in Sicily where our roots are as well. These fruit trees love the sun- drenched Sicilian hillsides and the balmy Mediterranean breezes. God never intended them to grow in frigid New York winters where the breezes are more often howling Nor’easters. However, neither of my grandfathers or any of my uncles had that discussion with God and so growing fig trees in a hostile environment became one of the immigrant’s challenges….and they never met a challenge they could not conquer. Enough padding and tar paper, carpet scraps, or linoleum could protect anything from the cold.
Fig trees yield fruit that is pear shaped and either a white flesh version that has green skin and is called white (don’t ask) or a blood-red flesh version that has eggplant color skin and is called black. Fresh off the tree, they can be one of the sweetest fruits you will ever taste… often served with sharp Parma cheese and home-made wine as an appetizer or desert in a rustic Italian meal. They are a delicacy; sold in trendy markets for $5.00 each and they are not half the size of the ones the family used to grow.
I don’t like them. Never have. The upset my stomach, which just adds to the fun I have being responsible for them now. The people who do like them are either old Italians who actually lived in Italy; Nuevo Italians, those baby boomers who have spent a vacation in Italy and are therefore experts on the culture and/or other Mediterranean’s like the Greeks and Jews who will both try and tell you that figs originated in their country. All these groups of aficionados share one thing; they don’t buy figs…but they will take all you have.
My grandfather loved them. My father loved them. My uncles loved them. However, nothing pleased any of them more than sharing them. Having time on your hands is a wonderful thing. It makes hobbies like tending fig trees or making homemade wine sort of a full-time job; it also affords you the opportunity to expand your social life by establishing a delivery schedule that can keep you on the go for a good part of every summer day. My father turned delivery into an art form.
In my childhood, you got figs in a pie tin lined with a fresh fig leaf. One day several years ago dad discovered that discarded egg cartons make the best receptacle. They guarantee portion control as no one gets more than a dozen and they protect the delicate fruit. We now save every egg carton just to have enough although this year I worry we may have too many.
On any given summer day, Dad would leave the house with several dozen egg boxes under his arm and be gone for hours, returning more than a little glowing from a couple of Johnny Walker Black’s offered by one or more thankful recipients. My delivery technique is a little less graceful. You are more likely to find an egg crate in a recycled plastic grocery bag dangling from a doorknob when you go out for the morning paper since I run my ‘fig’ route on the way to work. A friend’s little niece told her Aunt she saw me leaving eggs in the yard and was wondering if I had chickens.
We have had 14 wonderful growing seasons since his death, but we have flirted with disaster by not covering the trees for the last two years and it is about to come to roost. It’s not all my fault, the trees have just become impossible to manage. The white tree is about 13 feet tall and 6 feet wide…as opposed to the ideal 8 feet tall I remember from my childhood. Last year that tree was more intent on reaching the sky than making fruit; a little more and we could donate it to Rock Center for Christmas.
In all my childhood memories, the covered fig tree was slender enough to have a 5-gallon paint bucket on top of it to keep out the snow. When I realized that our monster might get slim enough for a 30-gallon trash pail on top it was time to act. I found the pruner things in the garage, took a deep breath, glanced at the heavens looking for some kind of sign that I was doing the right thing and cut 5 feet off the top of the biggest tree creating raw wounds oozing some milky sap while a little voice in my head chanted, “you are killing the trees”.
My father pruned the trees occasionally, and I remember he sealed these wounds with left over tar that he always seemed to have in the garage. I took off to the nursery, where a 12-year-old who swore he had a degree in horticulture, sold me “tree wound healer” for $12.99 an ounce that looked remarkably like tar. I slathered all the oozing cuts and got a friend to help me tie up the wounded trees with about 40 yards of bright yellow twine I found in the garage. That done, I said enough; I am not covering them. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the bolt of lightning, but it did not come.
Instead came this sense of dread. Every time we were hit with freezing rain or snow, I ran out there and knocked the snow and ice off the branches. Every time the temperature dropped below freezing, I contemplated taking the comforter off my bed to wrap it around them. I spent this miserable winter reminding myself that it was a conscious decision not to cover the trees. I was tired. I am getting older. What the hell was I thinking?
Well it is May and the day of reckoning is almost here. We have had three warm days in a row and so yesterday morning I went to check for buds. Amazing! One tree has tiny burgundy buds on the ends of the branches I did not decimate in the fall. I can’t say much for the ones with the tar mittens on their ends. Perhaps they need a little more time. I headed to the basement to check on the supply of egg cartons.
I dreamed of him as I often do. He was sitting on a lawn chair; in fact, they were all there; all the ‘farmers.’ Dads two brothers, Tony and Joey and brother in law Vi and of course Grandpa P and Popie were sitting in the back yard and I could smell the herbs in the garden. The uncles were laughing, the ever-present twinkle in dad’s eye catching the light like a mirror. They were tossing a ball of bright yellow twine back and forth. Between them on a small crate were two glasses of wine and an open egg carton.
Ann Boutcher has a knack for finding insights and humor in everyday moments. Until now, her published writing has been limited to work, but now, thanks to this wonderful opportunity as a guest editor, the world will get to witness firsthand her humor, life experiences and the gift of gab she brings to the pages of The Three Tomatoes.