Any day now, the Angel of the Killing Frost will descend to put an end to the 2013 gardening season. Vermont gardeners will store away their tools and retire to their wood stoves with a book, tablet, e-reader, laptop or, in the lucky areas that have reception, smartphone.
Usually I can hardly wait for the Icy One to alight on our hill. The thought of roasting another batch of eggplants or freezing another quart of beans makes me grow faint. But this year is different. This year I have a fig tree, with figs on it–seven, in fact. It used to have nine, but I ate two. They were so splendid, fat and ripe and warm from the sun, that I resolved to do all I can to bring the rest to, well, fruition.
This means frequent watering–my tree is in a pot–with buckets of fish-manure-enriched water from the goldfish tub. It means sheltering it from the wind in the corner of the south-facing wall of the house and the enclosed porch, where it can grab every drop of sun and warmth that the waning season has to offer. And it means going out a couple of times a day to see if there is anything I can do to make it more comfortable.
This way, even with the temperature hovering dangerously low at night, the figs still ripen, one at a time. And I eat each one mindfully and reverently, amazed that such Mediterranean sweetness can emerge from this Puritan soil.
It is a crime against Nature, or at least a misdemeanor, to try to grow figs in Vermont. Figs need long strings of warm, sunny days to ripen, a moderately dry climate to concentrate the sugars in the fruit, and temperate winters.
The label on my tree, a Brown Turkey, assures me that it will be happy in its pot and survive temperatures as frigid as -10F. People around here say they remember winters when the temperature would stay below zero for weeks on end, and reach twenty- and thirty-below at night. In my nine winters in Vermont there\’s been nothing like this. Occasionally there will be a fifteen-below night, but things soon warm up. Still, I don\’t want to take any chances with my little tree, and am researching thermal blankets made especially for tender plants. The fact that somebody out there actually makes and sells plant blankies tells me that I am not the only crazed gardener on the planet.
Why, you ask, go to all this trouble for just a couple of figs? The answer lies not in the figs themselves, but in the warm sweet smell of the raspy leaves, which sends me back every time to those long-ago Catalan summers and the buggy rides to la figuera grossa, which was so enormous that the entire extended family, including the horse, could eat their lunch and then nap in its shade.