When Linda and Tony Testa were invited to a friend’s party celebrating her graduation from college at age 54 last July, they thought they had the perfect gift:
A fig tree.
Tony Testa cultivates more than 100 fig trees at a time in a seasonal greenhouse in his yard in Dix Hills. When they are set to bear fruit, he gives away many of them, along with detailed instructions on how to care for them. He also hands out a “business card.” All it has on it is “Tony the Fig man,” his phone number and the silhouette of a tree. No last name, no email. He wants the new owners to call if they need follow-up advice.
In September and October, during the height of the fig harvest season, Testa, 59, says he picks more than 3,000 ripe figs from his five backyard trees, plucking at least 25 to 50 each morning and evening before the bees can eat them.
Testa leaves ripe figs for neighbors in paper bags on their porches. “If we don’t get our figs, we’re, like, ‘Tony, what happened?’ ” says neighbor Regina Cacciato, 57. Tony sends his wife to work as a neonatal intensive care nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital with treats for co-workers who “gobble them up,” Linda says. He makes fig jam. She puts sliced figs on pizza.
Long Island has a robust fig-growing community, says Teddy Bolkas, owner of Thera Farms in Ronkonkoma, which sells about 300 fig trees a year. But most people buy a tree or two and maybe give away some excess fruit; they don’t nurture dozens of them from twig to tree — which takes dedication — and then give away hundreds of sweet figs each season, he says. “This guy’s got a green thumb,” says Bolkas.
Testa is a semiretired electrical contractor. To pass the time — in addition to growing figs — Testa works about 20 hours a week in the electrical department of The Home Depot in Huntington. The nametag on his orange apron reads, “Tony the Fig.” “People think my last name is Figarello,” Testa says. “I say, ‘No, I got fig trees.’ And the conversation starts.”
There were always figs in Tony’s extended Italian family when he was growing up. “Uncle Lou had fig trees in Franklin Square. My Uncle Mario had figs in Garden City South. My grandfather had figs. My Uncle Pat in Brooklyn had figs,” Tony says. “I remember swimming in my Uncle Lou’s aboveground pool in Franklin Square; the trees were behind the pool. I was 5, 6, 7, years old. We would swim around and pick the figs right off the tree. That’s how it all started.”
That’s not an unusual story among fig tree enthusiasts, Bolkas says. The trees are native to the Mediterranean. “Especially Italians and Greeks, when they came over here years ago, they all brought little cuttings with them,” he says, “a little piece of the Old World.”
Testa grew his first fig tree in Old Bethpage 28 years ago. By the time he and Linda sold that house, the tree was more than 6 feet tall. “I wanted to take it with me,” he says. “I had to put it in the contract.” Tony the Fig primarily grows white figs and Sicilian Black figs. Though the black figs are small, they are super-sweet and delicious, he says. “I pride myself on the Sicilian Black.”
Near the fig trees is where Tony the Fig likes to be, says his daughter, Julia, 28, of Brooklyn. “He’ll sit out there in the fall with his fedora on and his leather jacket and his cigar. You know how plants do well when you speak to them? My dad’s do well because he chills with them,” she says.
The trees are “pretty hardy,” Testa says, but coaxing them to produce a bounty takes commitment.
“The fig trees we grow on Long Island are sterile,” says Peter Akras of Wading River, a master gardener with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County who teaches a class each spring on growing fig trees on Long Island (see box). “The only way to generate new trees is by cuttings,” he says.
That’s what Testa does. All of his new trees descend from the one he transplanted from Old Bethpage. Each fall he cuts about 40 branches and starts the rooting process, using his “secrets.” He shared one: He wraps the branches in newspaper, but it has to be the comics. “Somewhere down the line some old-timer told me colored ink keeps away the mildew,” Testa says. He doesn’t know how true that is, but he’s not about to argue with success.
The rooted branches are planted in pots that must be brought inside the garage over the winter for several years to protect them. Testa likes to transition them from indoors to outside, so the trees spend about six weeks this time of year in Tony’s side-yard greenhouse, and they’re all in different stages of development. Once it’s time to bring them outside for the season, he puts them on wooden bleacher-style stairs he built for maximum sun. For each tree given to friends, family and neighbors, there are typewritten instructions for care, a page long, with multiple steps for each year. When to put the pot outside — Step 1: “April 15 (tax day)”; when to bring it in — Step 6: “November”; Step 8: “Water tree every four weeks!!!! Don’t forget!!!!!” That’s when most people kill their trees, Testa says. “They forget to water it.”
In year four, the tree gets planted outside, ideally in a southern exposure for plenty of sun, in a place it can easily be wrapped in hay and burlap over the winter, Testa says. “You look forward to them all summer,” he says of the figs.
Julia, who owns a floral business, is the only one in the family who inherited Dad’s interest in plants. Son Anthony, 30, of Hauppauge, works with cars, and son Philip, 22, who lives at home, is a junior electrician. Testa also has a granddaughter who is almost 2 and a grandson on the way. But though his children aren’t into much more than eating the figs, the extended family is heavily represented.
“He gave fig trees to the whole family, my husband and I, our three married daughters,” says Tony’s sister-in-law Maria Testa of Old Brookville. “He then checks up on you. He would call: ‘Time to unwrap the fig tree.’ ”
HE BREAKS EVEN
His fig tree hobby pays for itself, Testa says. He sells two to three dozen trees each year in total to several Long Island nurseries, including J. Van Cott in Greenlawn and Bubba’s Garden in East Northport. The nurseries sell them for $70 to $80 each. “It’s been an easy sale, his product,” says Howie Geller, co-owner of Bubba’s Garden. Says Jim Van Cott, owner of J. Van Cott’s: “He knows what he’s doing.”
But Testa most enjoys giving the trees away.
The fig tree was the perfect gift, says Eileen Da Silva of Bellport, the recent college graduate. “I was very touched. I was so proud of the first fig I got. I took pictures.”
That pleases Testa. “When I give people fig trees, I want them to see results,” he says. “They take it home like it’s their own little baby and they’re going to take care of it. I like to see people as interested in it as I am.”
Grow your own fig tree
Master gardener Peter Akras is leading a session called “Figs, Figs, Figs” as part of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Spring Gardening School, April 16. at Patchogue-Medford High School, 181 Buffalo Ave., Medford.
“If you really love figs, you can’t eat just one, so I repeated it three times,” Akras says of the name of his class.
The Spring Gardening School runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and costs $65 per person. Akras’ fig session is 9 to 10:15 a.m.
Advance registration required; registration form at ccesuffolk.org/events/2016/04/16/spring-gardening-school-2016. For more information, 631-727-7850 x 207.
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County provides a written fig primer at ccenassau.org/resources/-fig-culture
— BETH WHITEHOUSE