Fig Gardens

Fresno's "Fig King"

By: Kirsten Honeyman
E.-Kirsten-Honeyman

Kirsten Honeyman, a clinical psychologist, includes gardening, writing, and photography among her avocations. She blogs at  LaDolceVitaFresno.blogspot.com where she writes about…

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J.C. Forkner, third from left, in 1917 with one of his newly planted fig trees. Photo: courtesy of the Pop Laval Foundation

J.C. Forkner, third from left, in 1917 with one of his newly planted fig trees. Photo: courtesy of the Pop Laval Foundation

In today’s eco-conscious approach to gardening, there are several prevalent buzzwords. Terms such as “organic,” “water- wise,” “sustainable,” and “edible” get lots of press— and rightfully so, as we grapple with difficult issues facing our planet. But these terms simply herald a return to practical methods of gardening that were already in use thousands of years ago in the Mediterranean Basin.

Landscaping was organic because natural fertilizers and insect control were all that was available. Water was a precious commodity and thus used efficiently and sparingly. Sustainability was a necessity since people could not afford to treat the land in any way that might make it less productive for future generations. And all gardens were essentially edible, with ornamental gardens found only in the villas of the ruling classes or in temples or monasteries. So these modern, environmentally sensitive concepts are not so much new as simply recycled. Everything old is new again!

Fresnans especially have to smile at the “new” concept of the edible landscape. Incorporated in 1885, Fresno has deep roots in agriculture. Influenced by farm culture and blessed with a mild, mediterranean climate, Fresno’s residential landscapes have long flourished with fruit and nut trees, grape vines, and aromatic herbs. Orange, lemon, lime, kumquat, grapefruit, plum, apricot, peach, fig, persimmon, pomegranate, olive, almond, walnut, grape, rosemary, and bay are no strangers to Fresno’s home gardens.

Forkner’s battalion of tractors in 1921. Photo: courtesy of the Pop Laval Foundation

Forkner’s battalion of tractors in 1921. Photo: courtesy of the Pop Laval Foundation

One of Fresno’s earliest real estate developments exemplifies the concept of residential edible landscaping on a grand scale. In 1912, real estate developer J.C. Forkner, a California transplant from Kansas, set out to establish the world’s largest fig ranch, Fig Gardens. Inplace of barren land and hog wallow, Forkner envisioned an elaborate real estate project where homeowners could live the good life in custom homes nestled into small, but profitable fig orchards. Forkner was obsessed with a vision of the Central Valley as a New World version of the ancient Mesopotamian Valley of the Euphrates River. He fervently believed the fig was a noble fruit destined to turn California into a land of plenty.

Forkner set about developing the Fig Gardens project with great fervor. After purchasing 12,000 acres between downtown Fresno and the San Joaquin River roughly 10 miles to the north, Forkner hired 400 men of Mediterranean descent, whom he felt would be accustomed to the climate. Crews worked around the clock to level the land, first using horse-drawn Fresno scrapers and later, 104 Ford tractors fitted with a smaller version of the scraper invented by Forkner himself. Forkner owned more Ford tractors than any other person in the world, prompting Henry Ford, while in California on business, to make a detour to Fresno to check out the project.

Forkner’s crews dug an elaborate system of irrigation that included a main canal some 25 miles long from the Kings River head gate with 135 miles of lateral ditches. Over 660,000 pounds of dynamite were used to blast holes into the hardpan to plant some 600,000 fig trees. Forkner also built 125 miles of oiled and surfaced streets and planted them with 60,000 shade and ornamental trees such as deodar cedars, eucalyptus, and oleander. This included the now verdant, nine-mile stretch of Van Ness Boulevard.

Young growth emerging on fig. Photo: Shutterstock

Young growth emerging on fig. Photo: Shutterstock

Though dubbed the “Fig King” in a 1922 New York Times article, Forkner’s grand scheme did not come to pass in its entirety.  While off to a strong start, Forkner went bankrupt during the Great Depressionand the project splintered. The Central Valley did not become a modern-day Mesopotamia nor did the Fig Gardens ever produce the 40,000 tons of canned figs he once imagined. But Fresno should be thankful for his vision. With increasing urbanization, the land became more valuable as residential acreage, and a lush remnant of the project lives on in the historic neighborhood of Old Fig Garden. Shady, tree-lined streets dotted with the occasional fig tree are a treasured vestige of Forkner’s herculean efforts.