Fig trees know no peace, Tu BShevat or not

Even though we think of Tu B’Shevat as a day of peace — a truce day between the human and the vegetable family — I knew I was in trouble the minute we drove into our driveway. It was littered with clumps of pine needles shed by the tree that guarded the driveway from the direct rays of the sun.

Nothing’s free, I thought. You get a little shade and the price is a messy drive. But on Tu B’Shevat, a day of peace that begins at sundown, Friday, Feb. 6, a wife should be extremely tolerant of a lazy husband. So says the Talmud, I bet.

“The driveway’s a mess,” complained my wife who once again proved she can read my mind. “Somebody’s gotta sweep the drive.”

“Somebody” always means me. Like “somebody” left the freezer door open and melted our 10 lb. rib roast or “somebody’s” got to call the kids and remind them about her birthday.

“Maybe you would enjoy doing it,” I gently suggested. “Give you a chance to get out of that messy kitchen, get a little fresh air …”

Tu B’Shevat or not, I raked ’em up and used them to put my fig trees to bed for the winter. Tucked them in with a thick blanket of pine needles.

There’s something Frostian — I mean Robert Frostian — about this ritual.

Something New Englandish. Something elegantly parsimonious that appeals to the frugal spirit in me. Here is this abundance of pine needles littering the driveway, threatening my marriage because of my wife’s tidy driveway compulsion — a marriage, I thought, as strong and resilient as the pine tree that dropped this debris.

Late in the afternoon, dragging my rake, I pile up the pine needles, load ’em in a garbage bag and then carefully pile ’em around the roots of the fig tree. Everybody’s happy; especially the wife and the fig tree.

The Bible, you know, is full of fig trees; that Land of Milk and Honey should be called the Land of Wine and Figs. Whenever the Israelites lose their nerve, the Creator of men and women and grapes and figs reminds them that across the Sinai, in that second Garden of Eden, everybody shall sit under “his own vine, under his own fig tree.”

Fig trees do better in the Holy Land than in northern Alabama where I observe Tu B’Shevat. The winter here can wipe out this delicate plant as quickly as a gardenia bush. A bad winter can put a fig tree out of business. It’s the winter suspense that makes the game adventurous. What a bore to plant your back yard full of fig trees in sunny Florida.

Growing figs in northern Alabama is a chancy project. But if, like your Israelite, ancestors you love figs; canned, dried, fresh or preserved, you take the plunge and pray for a mild winter. You must also remember to plant your bush close to the house so on frigid nights the tree roots and the heated foundation can cuddle up. Then there’s the mulch — those pine needles — lots of them stacked a foot high around the plant.

Even so, there’s always uncertainly on winter nights when the weatherman, who wouldn’t know a fig tree from a fir tree, tries to steal the headlines with his disastrous predictions. But it adds a certain sweetness to the life of the amateur nurseryman. The risk spices up December, January and February like a bet on your Super Bowl favorite adds something to the game.

What a thrill to wait nervously through the winter and in April see a green sprout on a sticklike limb of your fig tree, which would rather be living under the Mediterranean sun of Tel Aviv than Huntsville, Ala.

It’s a war every year. If you win, you’ll notice early in spring, a green bud — the first leaf — usually at the end of the limb. Lose, and the limbs turn into dead sticks and the bush comes back from the bottom. The novice cheers. His plant’s alive! But we veteran horticulturists moan. There will be no fruit. It takes all spring and summer just to replace the bush. If the summer lasted till January, you might have a shot at a few fresh figs.

A couple of fig trees in the back yard, a football bet on a weekend — that’s as close to the redline as a 65-year-old, law-abiding, middle-class zayde gets.

So what’s left for kicks? The Army Rangers, the Navy Seals, Special Forces? I hear the food’s lousy. And bungee jumping’s hard on my arthritis. And I’ll need a whole new, expensive wardrobe to move into cross-dressing.

I think I’ll plant another fig tree, this Tu B’Shevat.

Ted Roberts is a humorist based in Huntsville, Ala.