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February 14, 2012

Growing Figs in Vermont with the Northeast Organic Farming Association

Lee2Figs are a sultry, sensual food. When opened, they are thought to resemble female sex organs. Purported to have aphrodisiac qualities, they contain zinc, magnesium and vitamin E, all crucial for sexual vigor.

They’re not a food you might normally associate with Vermont. But Lee Reich (pictured), who calls himself a farmdener (“more than a gardener, less than a farmer”), has had exceptional success growing figs in Zone 4. Last weekend he shared his passion for this ancient, alluring fruit at the Northeast Organic Farming Association conference at UVM, in one of many seminars held throughout the weekend.  During his “Growing Figs in Vermont” workshop, Reich revealed various techniques to plant, ripen, harvest and even eat figs, and offered tips to help the plants survive the cold.

Most people assume figs can only grow in a tropical climate, but they are actually a subtropical deciduous plant, which allows them to endure temperatures dipping into the teens. Fig trees can also thrive in a range of well-drained soils, from sandy to clay loams. Of the many fig cultivars, two are ideal for our climate, according to Reich: Green Ischia and Brown Turkey.

Although the best method for growing fig trees is in a greenhouse, that's not the only method, Reich explained. In winter, growers can set the plants in an indoor container, because when they sprout, they don’t need sunlight (suddenly Vermont’s gray winter skies seem perfectly appropriate). Seedlings can be stored in dark basements or garages and watered just once a month, because, at this stage, the plants are dormant and leafless. When mid-spring rolls around, plants should be transitioned outdoors and exposed to full sunlight. Be careful, though: If the tree grows leaves before the height of spring arrives, it cannot move into the garden until the very last frost. Once spring is in full swing, ample sunlight — especially in the morning to dry overnight dew — and everyday watering are crucial.  

The real fun happens when the ripening and harvesting begins in late summer. Ripe figs are tender and wilt slightly with voluptuous curves, succulent velvet flesh and a sweet honey interior. Fig fruits don't ripen at all after harvest, so growers need to pick wisely and enjoy as soon as possible. Avoid figs that are hard, severely cracked or sour smelling.

Reich ended his lecture with an excerpt from D.H Lawrence’s poem Figs: “After you have taken off the blossom with your lips./ But the vulgar way/ is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite./ Every fruit has its secret.” 

I left Reich’s workshop feeling inspired — to grow figs, eat figs, stuff them with Chevre, cover them with chocolate, prepare a fig chutney or jam, and potentially, even, take advantage of their special seductive abilities.

Photo courtesy Lee Reich

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