by Tamara Scully
Over 5,000 figs were harvested from Bill Muzychko’s trees during the 2009 season. His harvest begins in August and extends into October, and each tree bears fruit for an approximate six-week season, with figs ripening daily. With 230 varieties in the orchard, Muzychko is assured of a plentiful crop throughout the entire season.
The oldest trees in Muzychko’s orchard are six years of age. Some fig varieties are productive their first year, with a small crop; by three years of age, all the trees are producing a crop of three or four dozen figs per season. Fully mature trees produce several hundred figs during a season. Since figs are known to live and bear productively for two decades, Muzychko’s fig orchard is still young.
There is one problem. Bill’s Figs, as Muzychko calls his orchard and fig propagation business, is located in central New Jersey, zone 6, with cold winters that figs can not survive.
“Fig trees are warm-weather plants. They love the heat,” Muzychko says. So establishing his orchard has been “a little bit of trial and error. Not all varieties will grow here.”
In fact, without some specialized care, the trees wouldn’t survive here at all. Figs are semitropical plants and would not be able to grow year-round outdoors until as far south as Georgia. Most figs in the Northeast are grown by homeowners who meticulously wrap the trees in burlap, tarp or even insulation, or they dig a trench and bury most of the plant each winter. Others plant trees in containers and move them to a sheltered place each fall, as does Muzychko. With a bit of water once a month in the winter, the trees have no problem surviving as long as the temperature stays cold, but above freezing, to maintain a dormant state.
Muzychko moves the hundreds of trees in his orchard, along with the smaller trees in his nursery sales stock, into the barn in November around Thanksgiving, then back out again in April. The trees tolerate light frosts, but not periods of heavy freezing, Muzychko says, so an early or late frost isn’t of much concern. The trees are planted in containers in a specialized system of his own design, and are moved by a wheeled contraption, also of his own design, which makes moving the 135-pound containers almost effortless.
The plastic pots contain the figs for their entire life span. This system uses PVC piping as a drainage system in the bottom of the containers. One drainage hole, placed to allow a 3.5-gallon watering capacity per pot, is drilled. Burlap covers the PVC layer, with a few cut-outs where the soil mixture can make direct contact with the water. Potting soil mixed with 9 pounds of limestone to obtain the optimal pH range of 7.75 to 8.25, as well as time-release fertilizer, completes the planting. The tree is planted and covered with black plastic, held in place by a bungee around the lip of the container, which warms the soil and prevents evaporation.
The system, Muzychko explains, allows the tree to receive optimal water and fertilizer throughout the season. The drainage hole prevents over-watering concerns, while fertilizer needs are readily calculated to maintain nutrient levels. The plant does not need to be repotted with Muzychko’s system. It is kept from becoming root-bound by root pruning at four years old, and then again every three years after, he explains. During pruning, the soil can be refreshed.
Other than that, a 12/12/12 NPK fertilizer mix yearly and regular watering (until the water starts to drain out of the hole) is all that is needed. Younger trees get a 19/6/12 NPK mix to get them off to a good start. This system, Muzychko says, also creates optimal growing conditions that increase crop output each season without depleting the trees.
The common fig, which is what Muzychko grows, is self-pollinating. Figs are set on current season’s growth, so pruning of the tree each fall is simple to do, maintains tree shape and size and does not reduce the crop size. Considering the growth rate of 1 to 2 feet per season, pruning allows the figs to be kept at a reasonable size for easy harvesting and handling.
“You can prune all the way down” to the ground if desired each fall, Muzychko says.
Muzychko takes off about two-thirds of the growth when he prunes and uses the cuttings to propagate new trees. He freezes pruning cuttings in sections about 12 inches long for three months. In March, he places the cuttings into a potting medium in the greenhouse, and has a germination rate of about 75 percent. Trees propagated from cuttings are true to type.
Figs require eight hours of sunlight each day starting in April when they are brought out into the orchard and break dormancy. The containers are spaced about 3 feet apart in rows wide enough to mow between easily. The only care needed is daily watering for the older trees and weekly for the younger plants.
“Fig trees are notorius for drinking a lot. When you water the figs, the water comes out the side [when] it is enough; you can’t overwater them,” Muzychko says.
Muzychko does not use pesticides or herbicides, and he has never had a concern about any pest or disease. The orchard is not fenced, and deer graze contentedly nearby. “Deer don’t like figs at all. They don’t touch the figs. Not the leaves, nor the fruit,” he says. The fig trees contain a latex that deer avoid. The latex can also cause photodermatitis, which would cause skin to sunburn readily, but Muzychko reports no issues with this.
Aside from needing to be brought indoors before the first killing frosts and back out again in early spring, the fig has proven to be a reliable, easy-care crop for Muzychko. Not only does he sell young trees he has propagated himself, he has a full harvest of saleable crop from August until early October.
Muzychko plans on attempting to grow all 600-plus common fig varieties. He has found several varieties that he cannot grow in New Jersey. He adds those varieties that do grow well into his permanent orchard, and then propagates them for customer sales as well.
While figs may not be grown on a commercial scale in New Jersey, there are several small farms that do harvest them for direct sales. With a shelf life of only three days, bringing them to market can be tricky. Figs are picked fully ripe off the tree, Muzychko said, so daily harvesting is required. Figs are ripe when they feel soft, and are easily plucked.
“The fig itself is technically the flower; an inside-out flower,” Muzychko explains.
The market rate for figs is probably about $1 a fig, Muzychko estimates, but he’s not sure, because while he harvests his entire crop, he has yet to develop a marketing plan for the fruit. Currently, he markets the plants only, selling 1 to 40 trees per customer, all of whom have been homeowners, not farmers, he says.
The harvest at Bill’s Figs is available only to his nursery customers. Anyone who has purchased a fig tree from Muzychko in the past is welcomed to share in the bounty. Whatever is left, he freezes for his own use. Figs freeze easily; they just need to be put in a freezer bag. Figs can be eaten raw, off the tree, as well as used in numerous bakery dishes, jams, syrups and sauces and more.
Muzychko doesn’t have time to spend at farmers’ markets to sell the figs. Currently, he has an offer on the table to sell via an online farmers’ market, where customers order several days in advance and the market manager picks up orders for immediate distribution. This would allow him to sell figs the day they were picked without necessitating time off the farm. Restaurant sales are also a consideration. For now, he celebrates the harvest season with an annual invitation-only September celebration for customers. The two-hour shindig includes live music, fig harvesting and figs to eat.
Muzychko’s status as fig farmer happened “on a whim,” yet he is now on the leading edge of niche farming, growing a specialty crop that is in demand, and developing and improving ways to make the crop a feasible one for other growers.
The author is a new freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.