April Reflections

For your reading pleasure this Easter - a 2011 article from my former column in the Toowoomba Chronicle. Late April always gets me in a reflective frame of mind.

 

It's been more than 150 years since Easter Monday last coincided with Anzac Day, a date well before the landing at Gallipoli and one that won't be repeated until 2095. For the keenest of the keen, such a rare event equates to five days in a row of gardening bliss. I'm pretty keen myself. I plan to do a bit of work outside, but I'll also be making time to relax, and reflect on what the weekend might mean beyond chocolate bunnies and slouch hats.

Easter and Anzac Day share a common message as far as I'm concerned. It's a message not of war and glory, but one of sacrifice and ultimately, enduring peace. The Old Testament prophet Micah foresaw this peace in pointedly non-violent, agrarian terms:

“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”

These words ring true for a fruit grower (and peace-lover) like me. I'm a bit taken by the idea of sitting under my abundant fig tree and pruning it with a tool furnished from a defunct weapon of war. It's certainly not the reality at the moment. I've got one old, poorly positioned fig in the garden, and the world's most cursed marsupial – the possum – usually beats me to the fruit. I'm planting more figs this winter, and hope for a day when I can eat from a number of trees and live not just in peace with my fellow human beings, but the local wildlife as well.

The common fig, Ficus carica, is probably the oldest of all the domesticated fruit trees. It is one of a number of contenders for the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, and was first described in stone tablets by the Egyptians more than 2700 years ago, when it was revered as the Tree of Life. The tree and it's fruit are afforded frequent mentions in the Bible, but the most famous is, of course, Adam and Eve's use of the leaves as “modesty patches” to hide their nakedness.

The fact that the leaves were able to hide the dangly bits of the first man should give some indication of their ornamental value. The leaves are big and handsome. The tree itself can look scrappy, but a well pruned example can make for a very attractive specimen that meets my ideal characteristics for a plant – beautiful and productive.

The fruit is even more luscious than the foliage. If you've never eaten a fat, fleshy fig straight off the tree then I don't reckon you've quite lived. Don't even give the occasional supermarket fruit a second glance. Figs have such a short shelf life that they demand to be eaten fresh, cooked or dried. Freshly picked figs, halved and baked with honey, then served with a dollop of double cream is nothing short of a taste of heaven.

Figs will grow in any climate the Downs has to offer, from warm to cool temperate, to subtropical, and while the tree prefers reasonably rich ground to sand, isn't overly fussy. The real key to getting bumper crops is to grow figs “leaner” than you would most other fruiting trees. A well-nourished fig tree will get fat and lazy, developing an extensive root system and putting lots of energy into a lush canopy. It will do this at the expense of fruit, so in fertile soil, feeding is only necessary to get the tree established. As Louis Glowinski says in his excellent The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia, “neglect seems to be a good policy as far as fertiliser in concerned.”

The other trick people employed to stimulate fruiting, was to constrict the tree's root ball. Old timers would plant a fig in a 44-gallon drum to keep the roots compact. Others advocate pruning the roots periodically with a sharp spade. A simpler option is to either plant your tree against a sunny wall and espalier it, or grow a fig tree in a large pot. Half wine barrels are perfect, both practically and aesthetically, but don't forget to drill drainage holes in the bottom, and for longevity, treat with a wood preservative. As for varieties my picks for the Downs are 'Brown Turkey', 'Black Genoa' for colder areas and 'White Adriatic' where its warmer.

My hope is that you'll take some time this weekend to reflect on the common message of both Easter, and Anzac Day. Perhaps you'll be inspired to plant a fig tree. In years to come, maybe you too will be found sitting beneath your tree, eating its fruit, looking forward to the day when war is over and peace reins upon the earth.