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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.
Cold Clime? Bury Your Figs Alive!
Q. I'm exploring methods of fig tree protection as we head toward winter. As my fig is completely exposed, I'm considering building the 'fig house' you mention briefly in your A to Z Answers section, but need more detail. What materials should be used? Should it be completely surrounded? All the way to the ground? What else should I know? I wish I could attempt your 'bury it' technique, but it just doesn't seem practical in my yard—and my wife thinks I'm crazy for even entertaining the idea.
---Bill in Camden County New Jersey
A. What's going on here? We talk about fig protection all the time! Are we just rewriting an old question of the week and hope nobody notices?
Nope. I thought Bill was wrong when he said the only thing he found at our 'A to Z Garden Answers' article on figs was a quick mention of one or two methods, but he's right. And it was buried at the end of a long article about basic fig tree care—so let's do it up right and get an important resource up at that A to Z section.
First the basics. Fig trees are Mediterranean plants that generally need no winter protection if you're gardening in the warmer areas of USDA growing zone 7 or higher. ("Higher zone numbers mean warmer winters.") But if you're in the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, frozen North or anywhere that's rated USDA Zone 6 or lower, you should probably protect your fig from the worst of winter.
If you're in what we'll call an 'indecisive' area—warmer portions of Zone 6 that act more like Zone 7, for instance; and the plant is in a high spot on your property or in a "protected area" like next to a garden wall—or even better, in a corner with walls on two sides—it'll need less protection than a fig that's planted down low in a frost pocket or one that's standing out in the open with no walls or windbreaks nearby.
The reason is that unprotected figs in cold climates suffer a lot of 'winterkill'—branches dying off from freezing and dehydration. We've never heard of a case where the roots died, but if the fig has to regrow all of its top growth, it might not have time to set fruit before the season is over—especially in a cold clime, where winter weather arrives early. In warm winter areas, like USDA Zone 8, figs don't need protection; and they might even have enough growing time to produce two crops a season.
Now, let's talk about burying them alive, a technique that fellow Rodale Press veteran Pat Corpora and his dad Vincenzo showed me back in the fall of 1991: In late November, after all the leaves have fallen and the fig has gone dormant, prune off just enough of the branches to make things manageable, wrap the fig in the same kind of breathable row cover fabric blankets used to protect lettuce and spinach over the winter and dig a two-foot deep trench right next to the tree. Tighten the row cover with string, and then 'rock' the roots slowly out of the ground until you can lay the wrapped fig sideways in the trench. Cover it with scrap wood or carpeting and then top that off with the soil you dug to make the trench.
And when is the fig supposed to be resurrected?
Easter Sunday, of course! Or even earlier—like rosemary, you just want to protect the tree from the worst of winter in your region; a couple light frosts and cold nights are fine on either end of the process. Anyway, lift it up and out, remove the wrappings, replant it, shovel compost around the base, water deeply right away and then once a week if we don't get rain.
Now—what about just circling the fig with welded wire animal fencing and filling the cage with shredded leaves, as many listeners have suggested?
That's a good choice if you double-line the bottom of the cage with hardware cloth; otherwise, mice and voles will squeeze in and nibble on the bark. Which would be bad.
Then what about 'wrapping' the fig?
The least intensive method would be to wait until dormancy, do a little light pruning and then string heavy duty row covers around the fig. Even better—do two or three layers. But gardeners who are handy and prefer real projects will want to build the 'fig house' that Bill refers to: Frame out the area to make a little house around the plant and then secure plywood walls and a roof to the frame. (Make sure that roof is slanted or it'll collapse under heavy snow).
Just don't use any kind of plastic if the fig is going to remain standing. The plant would get cooked on a sunny day and then freeze up when the sun goes down that night. And don't prune too early in the Fall. If the fig isn't dormant, you'll stimulate new growth at the worst time of year.