Eating a fig



Yesterday, September 2nd, I picked my first fig of the season, a big, fat, juicy, sweet Green Ischia, also known as Verte. For days, I’d been watching it swell in the tree in the greenhouse. Finally, it was drooping from its stem and the skin gave in readily to my touch, so I picked it and took a bite. Delicious.

Figs have unique bearing habits, which is why I am usually able to harvest those first Green Ischias a few weeks earlier than I did this year. Some fig trees, Green Ischia being one of them, bear fruit on both last year’s stems and on new, growing shoots. The previous year’s stems bear the earlier crop, the current shoots bear the later crop. (With some fig varieties, each of these crops looks and tastes different.)

Last winter, a propane glitch let greenhouse temperatures drop well below freezing. A lot of the old stems suffered damage so there was no early crop this year.

Most temperate zone fruits, such as apple, pear, and blueberry, as well as some varieties of figs, bear only on older stems. And still other fig varieties bear only, or mostly, on currently growing shoots.

These accommodating fruiting habits are what make it possible to grow figs, a subtropical fruit, where climates are quite cold. You choose whether you’re going to protect the stems by burying them, by wrapping them, by growing the plants in pots which are brought indoors for winter, or by growing the plants in a greenhouse. Then you choose the varieties to grow depending on whether you’re going to try to preserve old stems or go for a crop on new shoots.

I’ve tried all these methods. A greenhouse kept cool, but not frigid, in winter (35 degree) is ideal because you can preserve older stems and you can get a lot of growth, which translates to a lot of figs.

The three other fig varieties in my greenhouse, Brown Turkey, Celeste, and Kadota, bear only on new shoots. So each winter I cut these trees back to stimulate a lot of new, fruit-bearing shoots for the following year. Not too severely, though, or the fruit ripens too late. This pruning works out well because the cut back, leafless plants don’t shade the rest of the greenhouse in winter, when lettuce, kale, and other greens growing beneath the dormant trees need all the light they can get.


One of the most exciting things in this year’s gardening is a mere tuft of greenery that sprouted in a 4 inch, square pot. That tuft of greenery originated from some dust-like seeds that I sprinkled on the potting mix early this spring. Those dust-like seeds originated from seed pods of my Mandalay Mandarin hybrid begonia.

I’ve never grown begonias from seed before, and find it incredible that a whole plant can actually grow from a seed not much larger than a speck of dust. Hence, the special treatment I gave these seeds, beginning with sterilizing the potting mix to kill any weed seeds that would germinate more quickly and inundate the begonias even before they could sprout. After watering the pot, I set it on a capillary mat whose end dipped in a water reservoir. The water gets absorbed into the mat and then into the pot via capillary action, avoiding the need to water from above which would dislodge the tiny seeds.

Finally, I set the pot in dappled shade. I wanted to cover the pot to keep moisture from evaporating too quickly from the surface of the potting mix, where I’d sprinkled the seeds. I also wanted to cover it to keep out weed seeds. A pane of glass would be ideal because begonia, like most small seeds, needs light to germinate. On the other hand, I didn’t want the seeds to cook in their mini-greenhouse, so I propped the glass up ¼ of an inch or so above the pot with some wooden spacers.

Lo and behold, what first looked like a green haze has developed into a mound of green sprouts. The next step is to separate them and put each one into its own “cell.”

Then things get more exciting, as I wait for blossoms. Mandalay Mandarin is a beauty. Will any of her offspring match the parent? Will any surpass their parent?


On October 4th, from 2-5 pm, I’ll be conducting a “Backyard Fruit Growing and Tasting” workshop in my garden. This workshop will cover what fruits are best and easiest to grow, and how to grow them. Everyone will also get to taste delectable fruits such as pawpaws, persimmons, and hardy kiwifruit. Space is limited, and the cost is $30 per person with pre-registration before October 2nd, $40 otherwise. Email, or call 845-255-0417, for more information.


My wife commented at dinner the other night that everything we were eating had pretty much the same ingredients. The salad, besides lettuce, parsley, celery, olives, and dressing, had freshly sliced tomatoes, onions (as scallions), and peppers. Skewered and from the grill, were roasted eggplant and, again, tomatoes, onions (bulbs), and peppers. And our home-made focaccio was topped with – you guessed it – tomatoes and onions, in addition to garlic and fresh rosemary.

Not that either of us was complaining; the meal was delicious, and not by some culinary sleight of hand. The good taste came about because most of the meal came from our backyard garden. I had chosen flavorful varieties of each vegetable to grow and they all had been gathered within an hour of their being eaten. In the case of the sweet corn, also part of that dinner and almost every lunch or dinner throughout August and into September, we had the water boiling as we were picking so that the conversion of flavorful sugars to bland starches that occurs as soon as an ear is picked could stopped short.

These foods, day in and day out, don’t become tiresome. Earlier in the season, peas typically appeared on the menu almost daily; in a few weeks, the recurring vegetable du jour might be kale. It’s all good (and organic, local, sustainable, green, etc.)


If you buy corn at a farmstand or market these days, no need to have boiling water ready, as we did, to keep the kernels flavorsome. Two genes incorporated into modern corn varieties dramatically slow flavor decline. And, they also make modern corns supersweet to begin with.

Call me old-fashioned, but my favorite variety of sweet corn, the only variety that I grow, is the old variety Golden Bantam, which lacks those modern corn genes. Although not nearly as sweet as modern hybrids, Golden Bantam has a very rich corny flavor with – to some tastes — just the right amount of sweetness.

Golden Bantam was introduced into the seed trade in 1902 by W. Atlee Burpee Company, who got their original 2 quarts of seed from New York farmer William Coy, who had tasted and enjoyed eating some ears at his cousin’s house in Massachusetts. Long story short: Everyone fell in love with Golden Bantam and it became the most popular corn of its day. An article in The Boston Transcript of 1926 states that “In the twenty-four years since [1902] it has made more friends than anyone else could make outside the movies. Which proves that popularity does sometimes follow real merit.” It’s an odd way to compliment but you get the picture.

Golden Bantam did not rest on its laurels. Breeders sought to continually improve it, leading to other varieties such as Golden Bantam Improved, Early Golden Bantam, Extra Early Golden Bantam, and Golden Cross Bantam (an early hybrid corn that was resistant to Stewart’s wilt disease that devastated corn in the 1930s).

Which brings me back to last night’s dinner. My Golden Bantam is not one of the hybrid ones, so a bed planted at the same time shouldn’t all ripen within a narrow window of time. Yet hot weather has hustled ears in my bed of corn from pre- to post-perfection within a mere week or so. And beds planted almost 2 weeks apart are all ripening together. The upshot is that we’re picking an awful lot of sweet corn. They’re not all perfect, but, again, they’re all good (and organic, local, sustainable, green, etc.).


And now for an update on my dumpster dive of a few weeks ago, at which time I retrieved a forlorn looking, tropical hibiscus with braided trunks from Smith & Hawkens’ store dumpster. I repotted the plant when I got it home, kept it in partial shade for a couple of weeks, watered and fed it, and felt confident that the plant would regain or surpass by next year whatever former glory it had.

Surprise! My 5-foot-high hibiscus has already grown new, glossy, green leaves and is sporting a few coaster-sized, pink blooms. It’s a beauty.

Next year will be even better when a few pinches of new growth create a more bushy head and more, albeit smaller (but more proportional to the size of the head), blooms.


[hibiscus sawfly, wood sorrel, hardy kiwifruit]

Elegance doesn’t generally wow me in the garden (or in architecture or home furnishings); lack of elegance often does. A most inelegant, cheerful flower is now in bloom. The plant is hibiscus, not the tropical one with glossy leaves and coaster-sized flowers, but the hardy, herbaceous perennial ones now sporting dinnerplate-size, red-bordering-on-hot-pink blossoms. What fun!

Looking at my plant more closely, I see that chewed up leaves are making the plants look . . . okay, perhaps a bit too inelegant. The culprit is the hibiscus sawfly, which looks something like a housefly as an adult, except the body section right behind its head is orange-brown in color. The real culprits, though, are the young, the small green caterpillars, who do the feeding.

So here’s my reminder, for next year, to pick the caterpillars off the plants early in the growing season. The caterpillars are also susceptible to most pesticides, which could be a last resort option. The moms keep laying eggs during the growing season so handpicking or spraying has to continue throughout the season. I’ll also keep an eye out for the caterpillars on my hollyhocks, of which I have 20 seedlings that will be ready to plant out next spring.

Thankfully the sawfly doesn’t attack some other important members of the hibiscus (mallow) family, such as okra, rose-of-sharon, and the tropical hibiscus I rescued from the Smith & Hawkens dumpster a few weeks ago.


Incessant rain. Never-ending rain. Day after day of rain. And with it comes mosquitoes and weeds. If there were going to be one theme for this year’s garden, it would be “weeds” (particularly troublesome for the author—me — of a book boldly titled Weedless Gardening).

I do have weeds pretty much under control. In previous years that control, using techniques I describe in my book, required perhaps 5 minutes each week weed. Control this summer has required perhaps a half an hour per week.

Each season brings changes in the makeup of garden weeds, depending on the season’s weather patterns and changes, over time, in soil. This year’s most prominent weed is woodsorrel, a weed with yellow flowers and with leaves that resemble those of clover. There are two closely related species, an upright, bright green species, common yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta), and a creeping form, called – you guessed it – creeping yellow woodsorrel (O. corniculata).

Both wood sorrels are having a field day in my garden this year. The upright woodsorrel is easy and very satisfying to pull out. I just grab the top and the whole plant pops out of the ground. The creeping woodsorrel is more problematic because roots sprout from the stems as they creep along the ground and the purplish brown leaves make the plant hard to see against the soil.

I’m careful and diligent about grubbing out woodsorrels because seedpods of both species readily pop open to actually shoot their seeds. I envelop as much of each plant in my hand as much as possible then keep my fist closed around what I’ve grabbed until I’ve shoved the offender down inside my weed bucket.


As with other plants named sorrel, woodsorrels are edible, with a lemony flavor. I don’t like them that much.


All is not caterpillars, weeds, and other pests in the garden. This week the garden offered up a bumper crop of hardy kiwifruits (Actinidia kolomikta), a cold-hardy relative of our markets’ fuzzy kiwifruits, which are not cold-hardy here. Hardy kiwifruits have the same emerald green flesh as their cold-tender cousins, but the fruits are grape-sized and, with their smooth, edible skin, can be popped whole into your mouth. The flavor is also sweeter and more aromatic than the fuzzies.

Now is not the first time this year that hardy kiwifruits have wowed me. The vine itself is quite a beauty with variegated, luminescent leaves that are especially so all through spring. The leaves are brushed with areas of silvery pink, sometimes leaving circles of green that seem to have been painted on with an artist’s brush (something I jokingly assert to visiting children).

Hardy kiwifruit is an uncommon fruit that’s ideal excellent for “luscious landscaping,” that is, the use of fruit plants a for their beauty and their bounty. Besides beauty and good flavor, the only care the plant needs is annual pruning. If you are willing to sacrifice some yield of fruit and convenience in harvesting, the plants hardly even need that.

You do need at least two plants to reap a harvest of berries, one female for fruit and one male to provide pollen so that the female (or up to 8 females) can fruit. The males aren’t useless except for their pollen, though. They have the showiest leaves.