One of my recent projects at Woolman was fig-tending. We have one fully established Kadota fig tree near the dining hall, which I’ve dated back to the early 1960s by counting tree rings. The tree was severely cut back when the dining hall’s solar panels were installed and has been neglected ever since. Like all figs that have lost their central trunks, this one sacrificed numerous dead branches and sprouted dozens of lanky runners from the base, resulting in a fig pandemonium. Both dead and even potentially diseased branches and vibrant new growth crowded the plant, scattering scarce resources and increasing the risk of further disease. Although some faculty remember a time when the golden-green figs were large and delicious, by this summer they had become small and rather tasteless. The tree was clearly stressed out.
My fig project consisted of two parts. First, I collected twenty varieties of fig cuttings from five different sources: my parents’ tree in Brooklyn, two fig trees at Dinner Bell Farm in Grass Valley, a California Rare Fruit Growers’ Association scion exchange at UC Davis, Woolman’s dining hall fig tree, and a random but extremely healthy fig tree in Berkeley that I passed during the Peace Studies Storytelling Trip. (I asked permission of the owner before taking scions.) I potted these cuttings (in total, 144) and am waiting for some of them to root; those that do we can transplant to larger pots and eventually into the ground.
The varieties range from the cold-hardy Brown Turkey (from Brooklyn) to the tiger-striped Panachee candy-like fig (an expensive delicacy in American supermarkets), and include many that no commercial grower would use. As our climate changes in the coming years, it’s important to have as much biodiversity on our land as possible; many species will perish in the new, increasingly volatile climate, but some will thrive.
The second part of the project involved far less rooting hormone and no pots. First, I cut out the dead and possibly diseased branches on the dining hall fig tree, making sure to dispose of them far away from the original. Second, I chose dozens of new spots for fig trees all over campus, prioritizing spaces that might need more organic matter, shade, erosion protection, or other benefits that figs could provide. And I made them all accessible from central campus, ensuring that all who use our land could enjoy them without an arduous trek through the woods.
Some spots are on slopes, consciously mimicking the terraced fig garden of Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci.
Other spots are near the students’ cabins and community residents’ homes, in the sun-dappled nooks between pine, oak and manzanita; the fungal composition of the soil might help the figs more than the loss of direct sun would hurt them. And still others are along the driveway leading past cow pastures, in the old orchard planted by conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War, and in a dry, otherwise empty yard near the Arbor House that has just become our new classroom. In some cases the figs must take care of themselves; in others, they will link up with students’ current sustainability projects, such as a grey-water system for our Meeting House and an outdoor classroom for the Arbor House and Garden.
The third and most labor-intensive step was replanting all these fig stalks. For some stalks, I clipped as near the main root ball as I could and simply stuck them in shovel-dug holes which I then refilled, trusting to the relatively high levels of natural rooting hormone in fig trees. For other runner-stalks that had rooted along the ground, I dug up as much of the root system as possible without disturbing the main root ball and replanted these, knowing that the success rate for such plants should be very high. To protect the young trees from vast temperature swings, trap moisture in the dry season, suppress rival weeds, and above all, to foster beneficial fungal growth in otherwise bacteria-dominated grassland, I mulched each young tree and the entire original fig tree (for which I also built a retaining stone wall). In all, I planted sixty-two new Kadota fig trees for the campus to enjoy in the years to come.