Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Growing Figs in Brooklyn?

Every week i see beautiful fig plants at the green market, and am tempted to plant several in my back yard (in Brooklyn). I know they are not really frost tolerant, and remember reading Joan Dye Gussow describing how she wraps hers in burlap every autumn (but she lives on the banks of the Hudson). I also remember some figs in the back yard of a house here in my neighborhood, which i was told had been planted MANY years ago from plants or cuttings brought over from Italy. the garden had been neglected for years, but the figs had flourished, without bundling up, i assume. So, what do you think about figs in WIlliamsburg? i have a small stone patio, which will hold some heat. Can you recommend any other edible perennials for the urban gardener? I was thinking about fruit trees, but wouldn't be able to, or want to, spray...
also, a totally separate question.

I've been reading about the decline of common songbirds in this country, and wonder what I could plant to feed/shelter the birds. I have some big weeds that grow clusters of dark purple berries that the birds seem to dig, but the plants aren't that nice. I'd rather choose a perennial/shrub/tree than keep working around the big weeds.

Your question about the fig is an excellent one. The common fig is botanically known as Ficus carica. This shrub or small tree is native to western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean region and has been cultivated for thousands of years. A number of references describe the fig as only being hardy to zone 8 or warmer, which makes it an unlikely candidate for our colder 6b or 7a conditions here in the city. However, that being said, in my neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, where there is a substantial Mediterranean population, there are figs being grown everywhere!

I would say that you should definitely try and grow one in your backyard in Williamsburg. Well, I should add that planted in the ground I think they might do fine, but in containers I would not recommend figs because their roots will freeze through and really suffer. Figs grown in the city benefit from a sheltered sunny location in a backyard or protected community garden. They thrive on long warm summers in full sun and a dry atmosphere, so for the most part our city summers are perfect for them. In the winter you will need to wrap it, and a couple layers of burlap or a breathable tarp over the entire tree is necessary. In Queens I even see people wrap them in those standard blue all-purpose tarps, which I fear will suffocate the winterized tree, but every spring I am amazed at how the trees come back and leaf out bigger and better than before. Not to mention the fruits do turn out to be delicious. Now, it is possible that some of those trees in my neighborhood have been there for many years and originated as cuttings from overseas, but I would say that if you can find a small specimen then you should have a good chance of success as well. As a general rule of thumb for all trees, they are most resilient in their youth and slowly become less-so as they mature. Therefore, you should be able to plant and care for a small tree and it should be able to adapt to your environment well enough that it will be around for years of enjoyment.

As for the other question about the birds, there are plenty of shrubs that produce edible fruit that songbirds will love. The plant with berries that you are describing is most likely a weed called pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) and it can certainly become a late summer nuisance. Shrubs that you might consider to plant for the birds would include blueberry (Vaccinium), serviceberry (Amelanchier), dogwood (Cornus), snowberry (Symphoricarpos), blackberry and/or raspberry (Rubus), and many many more. If you are thinking more in terms of trees then there are plenty of apples (Malus) and cherries (Prunus) you might consider. Here in our library we have a great book called Bird Gardens, a 21st-Century Gardening Series publication by Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and it would be a perfect book to give you plant suggestions based on your garden's orientation and exposure.

1 comment:

  1. You should try it, my friend.I had relatives in Brooklyn that had a fig tree for many , many years.It got huge.It was eventually transplanted to Queens, and it still stands today, and they don't even frost protect it.