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"Johnny’s Fig Comes Marching Home," by the Whistling Gardener

When I purchased Sunnyside Nursery in the fall of 1989, there was a large fig tree (actually a bush) growing in the back yard next to the old carriage house. At the time I didn’t think much about it and over the next several years of remodeling and relandscaping, the old fig got uprooted and relegated to the compost pile.
Fig tree in the Whistling Gardener’s yard. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

When I purchased Sunnyside Nursery in the fall of 1989, there was a large fig tree (actually a bush) growing in the back yard next to the old carriage house. At the time I didn’t think much about it and over the next several years of remodeling and relandscaping, the old fig got uprooted and relegated to the compost pile.

Little did I know that a cutting from that very same fig would find its way back to the nursery almost 25 years later.

The original owners of the nursery, John and Genny Holtum, had planted that fig way back in the 1950’s and over the years had taken multiple cuttings and shared them with fellow gardeners.

The Holtums had a home on Camano Island where they eventually retired to and had established a substantial garden, with a cutting from the original fig from the nursery of course. A young boy by the name of Tim Gray (the current owner of Pacific Stone in Everett, WA) hung out with some of the seven Holtum children and became smitten by John and Genny’s garden. 

According to Tim, “Their terraced westside Camano home and garden was almost a Seventh Wonder of the World to this fledgling horticulturist. Id never seen such garden spaces, so varied and beautifully maintained. Very intensely planted.  John started giving me plant starts to take home. One of them was a fig. In many ways the life John and Genny lived made them superstars in my young eyes.”   

Tim took his fig start home in 1983 and planted it in front of his mobile home, where it lived until 1994, at which time it got transplanted into a 24-inch tree box during construction of his new home. In 1996 it finally settled into its permanent home, where over the years Tim has given away many young fig trees, keeping on with Johnny’s tradition. 

Several years ago, Tim contacted me to let me know that he had a fig start he wanted me to have that had come from the original nursery plant. Not having a sentimental bone in my body, my first thoughts were something like, what do I want with a darn fig plant and where on earth am I going to plant it.” 

Nevertheless, I feigned interest and graciously accepted Tim’s generous offering. Like a lot of plants that gardeners obtain, that fig start stayed stuck in its one-gallon pot for several seasons until I finally took pity on it and planted it in my neighbor’s front yard (with his permission of course). 

It is now almost eight feet tall and has produced delicious crops of figs for several seasons in a row. While not planted in the exact spot where it originally grew, I suspect it still feels at home and somehow it is comforting to know that I was part of this whole reunion. Damn, maybe I am getting sentimental in my old age.

This tale of sharing plants and gardening passion is proof that we can actually grow figs in the northwest. We carry a half dozen or so varieties in the nursery that should perform well in our cooler maritime climate and while they are not the same variety as Johnny’s (reported to be an Italian Everbearing), you should still be able enjoy the same success and have years of yummy figs to enjoy in August and September. 

If you’ve never tried growing a fig, maybe now is the time to try. I know Johnny would agree.  Stay safe and keep on gardening.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at sunnysidenursery@msn.com.

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