Have you ever associated fig harvest with hot, dry desert climates? Well, think again! Despite today’s cool temperatures and overcast sky, figs are thriving in unexpected conditions. Just now, I returned from the greenhouse with handfuls of perfectly ripe figs, ready to be savored.
The Unique Nature of Fig Trees
One of the remarkable characteristics of figs is their ability to grow in cold climates. Unlike fruit trees that bear fruits on specific-aged stems, fig trees can bear fruit on both new, growing shoots and one-year-old stems. This means that surviving winter is not a requirement for a bountiful fig harvest. You can conveniently trim the stems to protect the plant from the cold or move it to a sheltered location during winter. The way your fig tree bears fruit depends on the variety and how you prune it.
The Cold-Climate Accommodating Fig
Another advantage of growing figs in cold climates is their ability to tolerate a surprising amount of winter cold. These fantastic plants are not tropical but subtropical, enjoying a certain amount of cold weather and even withstanding temperatures as low as 15 or 20 degrees Fahrenheit. To illustrate their adaptability, I once planted fig cuttings in the ground outdoors in Zone 5. Although I forgot about them and they died back to the ground during winter, they sprouted from ground level the next spring! While fruits formed on the new shoots, they didn’t have enough time to ripen. It’s worth noting that the higher up the stem from which new shoots originate, the sooner they ripen. Typically, a two to three foot stem is sufficient, with fruits ripening on new shoots near the top of the old stem. If you’re growing a fig variety that bears fruit on new shoots in a container, make sure you leave one or more two to three foot stems as permanent trunks.
Trimming these stems each dormant season will ensure a fruitful harvest. The same pruning technique applies if you’re overwintering your plant using different methods, such as digging it up in the fall or bending the stems to or below ground level and covering them with a tarp and mulch for insulation against the cold.
(I provide more details on pruning figs and other aspects of Growing Figs in Cold Climates in my book of the same title, available from the usual sources or signed copies here.)
Organizing Your Fig Plant for Success
The surprising fig harvest I enjoyed today was from my greenhouse. While the temperature inside is similar to the outdoors on a cool, cloudy day, a sunny day can significantly hasten the ripening process. One common issue with greenhouse figs is excessive growth, self-shading, and rotting fruits due to tangled branches. However, I have found a solution by training my fig plants as espaliers. This ancient method of training plants to two-dimensional patterns not only adds an aesthetic touch but also increases productivity. By espaliering the branches, they all receive ample sunlight and air.
Pruning my fig espalier is a breeze. In my greenhouse, I have trained one of my fig plants to the shape of a low, branching T against the back wall. From the top of the eighteen-inch high trunk, horizontal arms, known as “cordons,” grow in opposite directions, parallel to the ground and wall. In early spring, new shoots emerge, and I selectively retain upright shoots that appear around eight inches apart along the cordons, removing all other shoots.
At the end of the season, major pruning occurs. I simply cut back any new shoots developing along the trunk and trim every vertical shoot down to the cordon from which it originates. Once a cordon reaches the desired length, I trim all new growth from its tip back to its origin for that season. It’s that simple!
Because new shoots originate at various places along the trunk and cordons, ripening begins earlier compared to plants that are pruned more severely. As an experiment, I am currently growing espaliers outdoors, training them at or below ground level, and providing cover for protection against winter cold.
Join Me for a Fig Adventure!
If you’re fascinated by the art of growing figs in cold climates, I invite you to join me for a free presentation on “Growing Figs in Cold Climates” this Saturday, September 30, 2023, at the Woodstock, NY Library at 5 pm. Let’s explore the wonderful world of figs together!
So, don’t let the current weather fool you. Embrace the unexpected and discover the joys of fig season. With their unique ability to thrive in colder climates, fig trees are truly an extraordinary addition to any garden.
Remember to visit BDK Restaurant for more exciting culinary adventures!