Figs In the Northern Winter: Part 2

Last week I shared my previous experiences with ‘crating’ in-ground figs to keep them alive through Pennsylvania winter. I also promised I’d share the method I use now, storing potted figs, in my next installment of Life In the Fast Lane. I do try to honor my promises, so here it is:

Figs are unusual among fruit trees in that they grow and fruit well in containers. Sure, you can argue that Calamondin oranges, Meyers lemons and columnar apples can be container grown. Figs, however, make good on their promise of fruit, producing enough of a harvest to make the effort worthwhile.

Overwintering potted figs isn’t difficult; you just need the right conditions. A potted fig needs to stay dormant, cool and dry. They don’t need sunlight, and won’t do well for long as a houseplant. Don’t be tempted to bring that beautiful green specimen into your living room in September. Wait until it loses all of its leaves, usually around Thanksgiving in my area, and looks worse than Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree before you put it in storage.

Where you store it is important, too. While a fig growing in the ground can tolerate winter temperatures that dip to about ten degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to the insulating earth around its roots, a potted fig can’t stand a freeze. The perfect storage range is from about 35 to 50 degrees. An unheated garage, basement or barn will work well, as long as they don’t freeze. Most garden sheds don’t have enough protection for the task.

I use the back stairwell to our basement for storing my figs. It’s almost like a root cellar, made of precast concrete with steel Bilco doors on the outside, and an insulated fire door at the bottom. I can easily access the figs from the bottom door throughout the winter, no matter how much snow covers the Bilco doors. That’s important, so I can keep an eye on the pots, making sure there are no pest problems and giving them a little water once a month. Another nice feature of the stairwell is that I can control the storage temperature somewhat, moving items up the steps to cooler spots, or down the steps to warmer spots.

My figs are in large pots; the rims are easily 25 inches across, much bigger than a standard step tread. To accommodate them, I fabricated a shelf extension out of scrap 1/8th inch aluminum sheet metal. There are benefits to working in the maintenance department of an aluminum mill. Because I built it on break time with rough measurements, it didn’t quite fit the way I designed it. With a little modification and two four-by-four corner posts, I actually got more room out of the set up than I expected. There are also benefits to getting lucky.

It’s almost Thanksgiving, the shelf is in place, and the figs are dormant, and tucked away for the winter now. True, I could have used more room than I have, but they won’t mind being crowded a bit. They’ll wait out the winter there, and in April, I’ll move them back outside to greet the sun for another summer. The hardest part was manhandling them into the stairwell, but even that wasn’t as hard as burying a tree!

  • Published on Nov 16, 2015
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