Combining passion and expertise with figs
by Richard Skelly
Retired environmental engineer Bill Muzychko developed a passion for growing figs about 16 years ago. With no background in farming but a little knowledge of what makes for good soil, he turned his backyard in Flemington, NJ, into a prolific fig tree-growing operation. He even hosts an annual, private “Fig Fest” for loyal customers.
Muzychko spoke at the Northeast Organic Farmers’ Association (NOFA-NJ) winter conference.
He delivered a lively, humor-filled, informative presentation and showed some of the methods he uses to successfully grow and harvest thousands of figs despite the often harsh winters in the Garden State. He has about 300 fig trees on his three-acre property. His fascination with figs began when he took a Sunday drive and found a neighbor with fig trees for sale.
He showed slides of various species of fig trees that do well in Mid-Atlantic climates, including brown turkey and celeste varieties, and pointed out, “Everywhere there is a leaf, there should be a fig. If you have a fig tree with lots of leaves and no figs, something is wrong.”
He typically sees yields of 250 to 300 figs from each of his mature trees. “You should get about a dozen figs the first year, the second year about 30, and by the fourth year you should be getting about 140 or 150 figs, so it almost doubles every year,” he said.
Late July, August and September are harvesting months for figs and he said deer have not been a huge problem in his fenced-in growing area. Squirrels typically only eat about 4% of his yield.
Full sunlight is recommended for healthy fig trees, Muzychko said, and he carefully prunes his potted trees each spring, typically in April and May before they really start growing. Pressed about the details of pruning potted fig trees, he urged cutting back on branches that aren’t producing any fresh leaves – “Again, anywhere you’re getting new leaves, you’ll be getting new figs.”
“All fig trees will fruit twice a year if given the opportunity,” he said. “When you get trees that produce twice, you really don’t get that many for the first crop at the end of July, and then the main crop will come in August and September.” He cautioned that if you don’t prune carefully you’re going to have a big tree that doesn’t produce fruit.
The draining pots Muzychko uses are 24” across, tapered at the bottom and about 18” deep. Behind a screen and a piece of burlap in each pot is a hole for water to drain from the bottom. Trees are watered from the bottom. Each tree typically takes up to two gallons of water a day during spring, summer and autumn, depending on rainfall, he said.
While his system of pots is labor-intensive for the young fig tree sprigs, once the trees begin bearing lots of fruit in their third and fourth years, all the effort is worthwhile, he argued. Lime is an important component in his pots, he said, as most of his figs grow best when soil pH is very high, around 7.8 or 7.9.
He recommended trimming the trees’ roots every four years. “Every four years the fig has to come out of the pot and you prune the roots from the side, then it goes back into the same exact pot and back into the soil it came out of,” he explained, noting at that point, one can add fresh lime.
“The first time I pruned a tree’s roots, I thought the tree was never going to make it, but several months later it produced more figs later that season than it ever did,” he said.
For winter storage, he uses his large unattached garage, which rarely get below 34º. He begins the process of putting his figs into winter storage each year in October or November, depending on weather patterns and forecasts for freezing temperatures.
“It takes me about two weeks to put the figs away and two weeks to bring them all out, but in the middle of the summer I really don’t have to do anything, and all the big trees get an automated irrigation system over the summer and the little ones have their own hose system as well,” Muzychko said. “I set the figs up so I can fit a lawn mower in between and it’s about seven feet in between rows of figs.”
He estimated about 400 potted fig trees can easily fit on an acre. “From the 150 [fully mature] trees that I have, I probably get about 30,000 figs and from that, about 4,000 go to my Fig Fest every year,” he said.
There’s no comparison between store-bought figs and fresh figs right off the tree, he argued.
“If you go to a store and buy figs, they’re about a 1 or 2, but if you grow them yourself, they’re usually about a 9 or a 10,” he stated.