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The first time I tasted a fresh fig, I was 40 years old. Forty! All of those figless years left me feeling empty and bewildered. How had I not eaten a real fig in four decades? Mostly it's because figs don't travel well and will not continue to ripen after they have been picked, so they aren't particularly good candidates for grocery-store shelves. The solution to this problem could be right outside your door, as the fig is a great addition to the garden as both a fruit producer and as an attractive silhouette for the landscape.
This ancient tree, well loved and well known for thousands of years, is a survivor. I have friends whose grandparents brought a fig-tree cutting over from the old country to their Virginia backyards and they thrived. The good news is that our climate is ideal for growing figs, with our (generally) mild winters and predictably hot summers.
Michael McConkey of Edible Landscaping in Afton recommends the varieties "Hardy Chicago" and "Celeste" for our area. " ‘Hardy Chicago' will produce a lot of figs over a long period," he explains. "In a year when we have single-digit winter temperatures, ‘Hardy Chicago' can respond from winter injury with a late fall crop."
"Celeste" is the longest-surviving fig in the Eastern and Southern United States. "It usually produces early in the season and a lot," McConkey says. For those up for a challenge, try a variety such as "Petite Negri" in a pot as part of a deck or porch garden.
A big part of ensuring your fig tree's success is placement within the garden. I recommend taking time to figure this part out. A south-facing location near the house is ideal — as it will create a microclimate perfect for the fig. It will benefit from the warmth (aka thermal mass) while getting insulation and protection from wind and winter temperatures. Fig trees also need good drainage and ample moisture. Treat it well, and it will grow quickly. By the third year of our own "Hardy Chicago" fig, it was already a third of the height of our house and producing substantial amounts of fruit. (Fig trees will grow anywhere from 15 to 30 feet — so plan for this as well.)
The main crop will arrive in September through October and the ripest, sweetest figs will be tender to the touch, with the purplish-brown skin almost cracking a bit. They should detach from the tree easily. I'm salivating as I write this, thinking about figs warm from the late-September sun.
After they are established, fig trees are low-maintenance. I encourage you to invite one into your garden this spring for fruit come autumn.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Trim the stems of the figs. Cut bacon strips into halves or thirds and wrap them around the figs. Secure the wrapped figs with a toothpick and place them on a foil-lined baking pan. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes. The sweetness of the fig and the saltiness of the bacon meld into something truly awesome.
Figs with Goat Cheese and Local Honey
Rinse the figs and trim the stems. Cut the figs in half, place a dollop of goat cheese in the center and drizzle it with a bit of local honey. This makes a terrific late summer appetizer or finger food for a party.