Figs In the Northern Winter

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Why do we gardeners love a challenge? What is it about us, that when we read ‘hardy to zone 7’ or ‘8a’ or whatever, we immediately think, ‘Oh really? That can’t mean me. Not here. I can grow that, surely that can’t apply to my backyard?”

I’m guilty. I live in USDA zone 6a, and I have my own personal grocery list of failed attempts at fooling Mother Nature. I’ve tried locating winter-hardy rosemary strains. Low-bush blueberries fascinate me. Bell peppers? I’ve ‘perennialized’ them in two-gallon pots in the basement; what a pain. Mandevilla vine? I’ve tried to perennialize that one, with zero success. But my biggest challenge, and one I share with many, is that most elusive and ancient of fruit: the fig.

You see, most sources list figs as winter hardy in zone 7 -11. Zone 7, that’s only one zone south of me; no big deal, right? My sister lives in Southern Virginia, and she has a fig growing in her horse paddock, no care, no attention. How hard can it be?

Two things: first, they are hardy to zone 7, not reliably hardy to zone 7. That one little qualifier means so much in a particularly harsh winter. Second, in the depths of a late January night, the difference of five degrees becomes huge. I mean huge.

At first, keeping figs wasn’t that hard, at least not the first two years. That’s when I could still keep them in small pots, small being read as one- to two-gallon nursery pots. When the pots are small, I have the perfect place to keep them: the enclosed outside stairwell to our basement. It’s sheltered from the wind, basically well below ground, and pots stored on the bottom and middle steps never freeze. That’s where I store my scion wood for grafting, and my potted figs.

I got my first fig about ten or twelve years ago, and spent the first few years growing it in a pot, as I mentioned above. By year three, it grew out the available pot, and I felt confident I could grow it in-ground. That’s when the game changed.

Winter protection for an in-ground fig is a far cry from a potted fig. If you’re smart about growing figs in-ground in zone 6, you’ve planted them against a south-facing wall, preferably one of brick. The spot will no doubt be sheltered from drying winds and easily accessible for extra winter protection. That’s if you’re smart.

My first in-ground fig was a LSU Golden, planted in the middle of the yard, near the garden, with good airflow. Let’s review this for a moment. ‘In the middle of the yard’ does not equal ‘against a south-facing wall,’ nor does ‘good airflow’ mean ‘sheltered from drying winds.’ I don’t think I could have done much worse if I had tried to kill the dumb thing outright.

There are three different ways to protect an in-ground fig for winter. In order of levels of protection, they are: windbreak wrapping, leaf pack wrapping, and burial. Yeah, you read that right, burial. From what I understand, this is necessary in Boston. Thankfully, I don’t live in Boston, because that sounds like too much work.

In a nutshell, you dig a fig tree sized trench beside the tree, and dig out the root ball on the opposite side of it. Tie the branches up and wrap the bundle up in carpet or burlap, then push it over into the trench. Now, cover the whole tree ‘corpse’ with the soil you dug from the trench. That’s all; you’re done. Yeah, that’s all — all a lot of work, in my opinion.

Windbreak wrapping involves a lot less effort. Basically, you drive wooden stakes into the soil around the tree about a foot or so from the bundled branches, and then staple burlap to the stakes to create a curtain all the way around it. I suppose this would work; I never trusted it. It never seemed to be enough protection for Pennsylvania winters.

For several years, I relied on the third method: leaf pack wrapping, or as I liked to think of it, ‘crating’ the fig for winter. I’d bundle the tree with baling twine and wrap it in burlap. Then, I would stack paper lawn-and-leaf bags of leaves around the bundle as high as I could reach, usually two or three courses of bags. An added tip: I always set the bags upside down on the first course, so the bottoms wouldn’t rot out from ground contact. Finally, I wrapped the whole thing in roofing tarpaper.

Timing is extremely important. Your fig must be completely dormant before you crate it, but you can’t wait until the ground is completely frozen. I wait until about Thanksgiving to do the task, and I’ve had snow flurries dancing about as I worked on occasion.

Three years ago, after a series of mild winters, I got complacent, and decided to try a new wrapping method: bundling with blue tarps, which was much easier. Being the nervous sort that I am, I also took cuttings of my figs: Chicago, Pan E Vino Light and Pan E Vino Dark, two rescue varieties from my friend, Bass. (The Golden had succumbed to mice a few winters previously.) I’m so glad I did; the next two winters were brutal, killing the trees back to the ground. Plastic tarps apparently provided zero protection. Two trees have survived; the Pan E Vinos, but I have lost the Chicago.

Since then, their replacements have stayed in big, five-gallon decorative pots, where they will remain. I’ll talk about their new accommodations in the next installment of Life In the Fast Lane.

Now, I just need to decide what to do about the remaining two trees outside. I hate to just let them go to fend for themselves …