Growing Figs, North & South
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Q. I want to plant a fig tree or two. When should I plant? And should I plant two different varieties for cross-pollination purposes?
- ---Marc in Southeast Alabama
Your warm clime allows you to grow a fairly wide range, including many varieties that can't survive Northern winters. And yet back when I was editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, we quoted a fig grower in nearby Georgia who said his favorites were two hardy varieties that are also the ones most often recommended for Northern growers: "Celeste" and "Northern Brown Turkey". He explained that they reliably produce two crops a year down South; an early crop on the old wood and a late crop on the new growth.
(Note: Although often used alone, the term "Brown Turkey" does not identify a specific variety; its more like a general type of fig. Those who wish to grow figs in the West should get "California Brown Turkey". In the East, growers should make sure they get the cold hardy "Northern Brown Turkey", etc.) Figs can be planted (preferably in your poorest soil) in Spring or Fall, from purchased plants or cuttings from existing trees; which brings us to:
Q. Hi Mike: I was listening to your show in the car and had to run into a store. When I got back, you were telling someone how to grow a fig tree from a branch. I missed the first part. Do you dig out a root or snip off new growth and plant that in compost? I have two trees, but as a fig lover that's not enough, and I'd like to give some to my neighbors.
- ---Ellen in Woodbury, NJ
Back when I was at Rodale Press, one of the company's most talented gardeners, Pat Corpora, would use a sharp shovel to slice a young shoot away from the root mass of an existing tree and plant the shoot directly in the ground. No matter what, be careful NOT to plant shoots, cuttings or purchased trees in rich soil or fertilize the plants more than lightly. Figs produce best in relatively poor soil; a little compost is all they need.
Q: Hey Mike! We planted a Celeste Fig in August of '07. I didn't 'wrap' the tree but I did string up the branches, place a large tomato cage over it and stuffed the cage with leaves. Will this do the trick, or do I need to perform further magic? Thanks.
- ---Rob in Philadelphia (specifically Germantown)
- --Jim (formerly Jimbo) in Cherry Hill, NJ
A 'fig house' is framing to which wall and roof panels are attached in the Fall and removed in the Spring. The fig inside is protected from the worst of winter and the framing can be used to support netting when fig-loving birds discover the ripe crop. Roping the branches close to the trunk and wrapping the whole schmageggie in burlap or tarpaper is also popular. That big cage full of leaves described by our Philly listener might work; if mice don't hide inside and eat the tasty bark. Just don't use any kind of plastic; it can smother the tree, hold too much moisture and cook the tree on a sunny day.
Figs can also be grown in big containers and rolled into a cool basement or garage for the winter. But some Northern growers prefer to bury their trees in the fall. They soak the soil, rock the plant loose, push it down into a trench, fill in around it with shredded leaves, cover it with wood or old carpet and then pile the soil from the trench over top. In the Spring, the trees are resurrected, replanted, given a nice mulch of compost and watered well until new growth appears.
Jimbo: Ask your wife's Italian relatives to help you bury your tree this fall! This will insure the survival of the plant, and those relatives will speak well of you all winter long.