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A true Minnesota grown fig!

A true Minnesota grown fig!

This has been a topic I have wanted to write about for a long time.  But due to a slow progression in this experiment, lack of actual results, the loss of some of my original photos of this project’s inception, and my habit of starting something and then setting it on the back burner for a while, an aritcle about growing figs in Minnesota has been well over three years in the making.

 

Back a handful of years ago when I was really starting to get into growing perennials, permaculture, and basic plant propagation, I came across a video of a guy somewhere in New England who was propagating and growing his own figs.  I watched that video, and subsequently, many more about folks who had fallen in love with growing fig trees.  My interest was piqued!

 

It seemed like an interesting project.  Even though the prospect of growing a plant in Minnesota that originated somewhere in the Middle East seemed like a fools errand, I easily located fig cuttings through the North American Scion Exchange and the experiment began.

 

I learned rather quickly, that there were an awful lot of people like myself growing figs in all sorts of different climates, and many of these folks take it pretty seriously.  Northern climate greenhouses dedicated to this Mediterranean delicacy, and collectors who seek out rare and exciting varieties from throughout the world.  Just like apples (or any other fruit for that matter), the folks growing figs do it out of love and a sense of horticultural adventure with a dedication that I find inspiring.

 

I am not going to go through and show you step by step on how to root fig cutting or the best way to over winter a fig in a cold climate.  There are already plenty of other folks out there doing these things with much greater success and with more knowledge than I have to learn from.  But what I am going to do is share my excitement, my small victory, and the short story behind my adventure of figs thus far!

 

While my love affair first started because of youtube videos and those first few fig cutting I received in the mail, it wasn’t until my short stint working at a Trader Joe’s that I got my first taste of a “fresh” fig.  They were small little things, picked before they were ripe and shipped thousands of miles to end up in the produce section.  I knew these were less than perfect specimens, but once ripened on the counter they were still good and I could catch a glimpse of what a truly delicious fig must taste like.

 

Adrianno's backyard orchard.

Adrianno’s backyard orchard.

Fast forward to this summer.  At the end of June, I was lucky enough to participate in a family vacation to the North eastern part of Italy.  The small town of Polesella where we spent the majority of our time, is located in the Po river valley, and is the main fruit growing region of the country.  Adrianno, one of the family friends we went to visit, has a backyard orchard the likes I have never seen.  Apples, pears, plums, apricots, nectarines, persimmons, grapes, currants, gooseberries, and yes, figs all had a home in his backyard paradise.

 

My son Owen with a basketful of fresh, Italian figs!

My son Owen with a basketful of fresh, Italian figs!

And it just so happened that the time of year that we found ourselves in this northern, mediterranean region was peak fig season!  It seemed that almost all yards had a fig tree (along with gardens and other fruit and nut trees).  We were spoiled for 9 days with some of the best food I have ever eaten, and my curiosity with figs bloomed into an exotic passion.

 

There is no way I can quite explain how good those figs in Italy were, but I will just say that there is nothing quite like them.  I know I will never be able to grow figs like that here in Minnesota, but it doesn’t mean I can’t try, right?!

 

Figs in Minnesota!!??

Figs in Minnesota!!??

So as this summer progressed, I realized there was a good chance I may get a small handful of figs from my half a dozen small fig trees.  While most of them have aborted and dropped off before they fully ripened, I finally grew a fig to near perfect ripeness!  It was great!  It was small, but it was a real fig, from a tree I started from a cutting oh so long ago.  And the taste?  While not quite the figs from Italy, it was juicy and sweet, and contained all the curves and mysteries that seduces a new lover!

 

As of this writing it looks like we may get three more figs from our trees.  While I am smitten by figs, I truly know very little about what they need to thrive when grown in containers in a northern climate.  The information is out there, so really it is just setting aside time and energy and focusing on some of the finer details about what figs really like.

 

But I can say one thing, figs are one of my motivations for building a four season greenhouse.  If the day ever comes that I find myself with a badass bio – shelter, a fig tree or two will find a home on the interior north side.  Until then, I will keep growing, propagating, and experimenting with figs in the expectation that climate change may be slowly making these northern climes more hospitable to these wonderful trees.

 

So there it is, my love story with figs.  It is an incomplete story, and one that I hope to add many pages, and maybe even chapters too.  Luckily we live in an age that is overflowing with information.  So what follows are some of the more interesting things I have come across concerning figs.  First, anyone who gets bitten by this fruit and has a question, check out the forum, Figs For Fun.  It is a great resource for the amatuer and expert grower alike.  There are comprehensive variety lists, discussions on all aspects of figs, and most likely you will be able to find plenty of folks who will be willing to help you get started for very little money.

 

Another source that I found helpful was on episode #89 of The Agricultural Innovations Podcast.  While a bit of it was a little esoteric for my liking, the main body of the interview was very informative and helpful.  This podcast has a lot of other stuff to offer as well, so check out The Agricultural Innovations podcast for more brain food!

And I will finish with a video my friend Little John made of his adventures foraging figs in southern California.  So if you are one of the lucky ones to live somewhere that figs grow without the freezing temps of the north, please enjoy them and know that there are others of us out there who are a bit jealous of what you have!  If you find yourself in a climate like mine, know that it is not completely impossible to enjoy this exotic fruit, you just have to work a lot harder to realize a harvest.  Peace and Cheers…

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Figs in Minnesota!!??  Stay tuned for more details!!

Figs in Minnesota!!?? Stay tuned for more details!!

The fruits of our labor are starting to show themselves.  Everywhere in the garden that I look, I am seeing fruits and vegetables that are ready to eat, or soon will be.  Tomatoes and zucchinis, strawberries and raspberries, kale, and cabbage, and peppers.  But more exciting than that are some of the perennials that have been planted over the last five years or so.

 

I began to plant fruit trees in earnest about five or six years ago and have continued adding to the count every year.  I started out with a few apple trees and a cherry tree.  That first year I planted a Meteor cherry, Ashmead’s Kernel (which was chewed in half), Haralson, Rubinett, and HoneyCrisp apple trees.  Since then many more apples, cherries, plums, apricots, cornellian cherries, mulberry trees and other perennial fruits have been added to our foodscape.

 

When we plant annual vegetables, things like a tomato or a pepper or a kale plant, we reap the harvest in the same season.  Our culinary desires are realized in one summer of photosynthesis and our hard work of weeding, mulching, trellising, tying, and pest control pay off in the fall when we start to eat whole meals that come right from the garden.

 

But fruit trees are a little different.  They are slow growing, and mature at their own pace.  Sometimes they get chewed in half by a loving (but stupid dog – sorry Harvey!!), or they get planted in a bad spot and get moved three times before they find their final home.  Fruit trees are a test for us gardeners of how patient we truly can be and how well we design our forest gardens.

 

For myself the wait and patience is starting to pay off.  This is not the first time we have harvested fruit from our trees, but this year on a few of our trees we are starting to realize the abundance that our future holds for us!  Each year we have harvested a bit more than the last, and with each season the fruit improves in quality (most of the time).  A good place to start is our cherry tree.

 

A bowl full of Meteor Cherries!  They were delectable in homemade muffins for breakfast!

A bowl full of Meteor Cherries! They were delectable in homemade muffins for breakfast!

Over the last three years or so we have harvested a handful of cherries each season.  Although last year was a complete loss due to a fungal infection, this year, whether it be climate conditions or the tree starting to reach maturity, the tree has bounced back and we have had the best harvest we have ever seen!  While it is still a drop in the bucket compared to what we can expect in the coming years, the cherries we harvested this year were in almost perfect shape.  Very little damage from pests, and the fungal rot that appeared last year was virtually non-existent this time around.

 

Meteor cherry, described by Michael Phillips, in his book The Holistic Orchard is

 

“Montmorency x Russian variety, introduced in 1952.  Large, oblong, bright red fruit.  Juicy, dense flesh.  Natural genetic dwarf grows 8-10 feet tall.  Large leaves help shield fruit from sunscald.  Requires less pruning than average. Resistant to leaf spot. Spur type. Zone 4-8”

 

This description is fairly accurate with one major difference – ours is well over 10 feet tall.  I have done a lot of pruning over the last three years, but mainly just to open up the interior for airflow and access for sunlight and harvesting.  I suspect that in the next couple of years we will start to see the full potential of this tree for two reasons.  First is that we now have bees on our property.  I believe that our fruit trees have suffered because of inadequate pollination, and second, which goes hand in hand with the bees, is that I have grafted two other varieties, namely Evan’s Bali and Northstar onto our existing tree to aid in that pollination and also planted a Mesabi cherry in close proximity to the Meteor.  Many cherry trees are said to be self fertile, but having another tree(s) of a different lineage will definitely help out in proper pollination.

 

Here are some of our Haralsons.  There will be much pie consummed this fall!!

Here are some of our Haralsons. There will be much pie consummed this fall!!

Moving about 20 yards west of the Meteor cherry is our Haralson apple tree.  This was planted the same year as the cherry and this year it is finally showing us what it is capable of.  Though it is one of the oldest apple trees on our property, it is also one of the smallest.  But do not let the size of the tree fool you, this tree is loaded with greenish orbs with a blush of red starting to show that will be finished ripening in the next two months.  There are so many apples on this tree that I am probably going to have to put some support stakes into the ground to keep some of the overloaded branches from breaking (and this is after doing a major thinning out of fruit early in the season!)

 

Haralson was introduced in 1922 from the University of Minnesota fruit tree breeding program and was named after Charles Haralson, head of the program at the time.  It is an all around good apple, mildly tart that is good for fresh eating, for baking, or as an excellent cider apple.  Throughout the years Haralson has become a Minnesota classic and most orchards have dedicated space to this apple tree.  I am glad that it is a part of my small orchard and it is finally coming into maturity!

 

The White Niagaras!  I can't wait to taste them!!

The White Niagaras! I can’t wait to taste them!!

This year also saw the addition of three grape vines planted along a south facing privacy fence we have running through our yard.  They are using the vertical space provided by the fence and are part of a guild that contains apricot trees and strawberries.  We planted three varieties – Catawba, Concord, and White Niagara and all three are doing great, but the White Niagara is by far the most vigorous.  It has put on almost five feet of growth over the last few months, and has a small bunch of grapes ripening as well.

 

Grapes are a new plant for me and I have much to learn as far as proper pruning, disease, and pest control goes, but I am excited to have finally found a good spot for them, and even more excited to eat them!  I also wouldn’t mind trying my hand at some winemaking as well.  Now anybody who has followed this blog for any length of time knows that I am a beer drinker, but as far as homemade wine is concerned, I say “Bring it on!”

 

While there are many other things going on and growing here at The Dead End Alley Farm, that is a good review of the season so far concerning perennial fruit.  It is fun to see some of these projects, or should I say plants, that were planted so long ago, begin to enter a new phase of their life cycle.  Barring the premature death of fruit trees to disease or pests or strong wind, we can expect these trees to only grow healthier and produce more fruit with each passing year for a long time to come.  It is one of the beautiful things about woody perennials, you plant them once and can harvest off of them for years, and sometimes even for lifetimes!  Stay tuned for more fruit updates, I hope to do a few more apple tasting reviews this fall, as well as a few other surprises!  Until next time, enjoy the rest of the summer … Peace & Cheers

 

 

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One thing I have always liked about blogging is the ability to tell stories and teach skills through writing,  and usually accompanied with those words are pictures.  Over the last week or so we have taken a lot of neat pictures, so here are some of those pictures, and the short stories to go along with them.  Enjoy!  Cheers!

Over the last few years, we have had a pair of mated Mallard ducks use our yard as a rest stop. Here is the male in all his glory, distracting us from noticing his partner hidden in our pile of wood chips! Quack, Quack!!

Here is the first shoot of asparagus for the year!! In the next few days are meals will start becoming a little more fancy!!

Here are the first raised beds for our garden expansion. There are going to be another 3-4 built, and these will become the work horses for our CSA this year. Each one is about 23 feet long by about 4 feet wide, that is a lot of space to grow food!!!

Here is the greenhouse, loaded with tomatoes, peppers, onions, brassicas, flowers, gooseberries, currants, and some figs!!

After realizing that my rain barrel system was leaking, I figured I had better try and fix it. Using some plumber's putty, I hopefully sealed up where the water was leaking out. It is supposed to rain tonight, so I will find out tomorrow if it works.

Figs up close! I will be posting more about these as the season goes on, but so far so good!!

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