A fig tree was growing on a hillside among the grape vines. It had been there for three years and, finally frustrated with the lack of fruit, the vineyard owner told the gardener to cut the tree down.
The worker was reluctant to do this and pleaded for more time. He promised to cultivate and fertilize the tree, and so the owner agreed to give it another chance and to wait one more year to prove its usefulness.
Father Joe preached a Lenten homily about hope a few weeks ago, using this parable of the fig tree as his text, and that rang a bell with this gardener. There is always hope in the garden. However miserable things look at one time, there is always the promise of good things to come.
Fig trees are mentioned frequently in the Bible, and are important in the culture of the Holy Land. They are regarded as symbols of abundance, fertility and sweetness, and in family celebrations in Mediterranean lands, figs are always provided to represent memories and loyalties.
There is an Egyptian tomb painting dating from about 3000 B.C. that shows a fig harvest, and they were prized by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
When Jesus saw a fig tree with flourishing green leaves, he expected to find fruit there also, ripe for the picking. In that climate, the initial spring crop would be followed by two or three harvests, with figs available for 10 out of the 12 months.
When he did not find any figs to meet his expectations, Jesus caused the tree to wither. And on another occasion, he remarked on the expectation that when green leaves appear on the fig, fruiting time is near.
Although extreme measures are required in our area to grow a fig tree outside, it is possible.
Planted in a sunny, protected spot, preferably against a wall, the tree can be wrapped in burlap and heavily mulched in the cold months and have a reasonable expectation of survival, but it is easier to grow the plant in a container so it can be brought into the house for the winter, or at least moved into a garage or shed.
Two hardy varieties are the Black Mission fig and the Chicago Hardy. Their rapid growth habit means they will probably need repotting into a larger container once a year.
I grew a Petite Nigra fig last year. I bought it as a 6-inch plant in March, kept it in a sunny window until mid-May, then it went out onto the porch and flourished through the summer, more than doubling in size and producing nine or 10 small, very sweet edible figs.
Unfortunately, when it came back inside in late September, it attracted a host of spider mites. Resisting herbicidal soap, Neem oil and everything else I tried, the mites continued to increase until I was afraid my treasured hibiscus, mandevilla and other plants would be infested, so I threw the tree away.
I loved the tree and am going to try again this year, with a Black Mission this time. If I take better care of it, it should grow to 3 or 4 feet tall, and keep producing blackish-purple fruit along with glossy, green leaves.
Planted outside in areas with warmer winters, the fig can reach 33 feet. My niece Joanna who lives in Wimbledon has one in her walled backyard that tops the third story of her house. It is not a family favorite because it sheds leaves and sticky fruit constantly, and the roots are invasive, but it would be difficult to remove in a confined space, so they live with it.
Dried figs are a rich source of dietary fiber,
vitamin K, potassium, manganese, calcium and copper. The fruit must be allowed to ripen on the tree because ripening does continue after the fruit is picked.
Every time I think of the parable that suggested this column to me, I wonder about the end of the story. Did the fig tree produce a harvest within the year? I like to think so.
Janet Del Turco is a local gardener and a graduate of the Ohio State University Master Gardener program. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.