You’ve caught me at a good time. I’m just now dipping my toes into figdom, and in the next few days expect to be swimming in a sea of fresh, ripe figs.
You’ve never tasted a fresh, ripe fig? Don’t judge them by what you might buy in the market. Ripe figs are very perishable so for commercial purposes must be harvested slightly underripe. But figs don’t ripen at all after harvest, which is why market figs are but a shadow of the real thing.
Fresh, ripe figs are ubiquitous in California, Florida, and other mild winter regions, so perhaps are ho-hum to those living in those parts. Not here in New York’s Hudson Valley though, where winter temperatures dipping to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit are no surprise!
Five Ways with Figs
I — and you —can grow figs in cold climates by one of five techniques I describe in my new book, hot off the press, Growing Figs in Cold Climates. The easiest way is to just plant the fig in a pot that can bask in sunlight outdoors in summer, and then be moved to a cold (ideally 30-45° F), but not frigid, location for winter. Figs are subtropical, not tropical plants, that actually enjoy this winter rest.
Fortunately, fig is a very adaptable plant. You can lop back its roots each winter, so you can pack new soil around its roots without having to move the plant to a bigger . . . and bigger . . . and bigger pot. You can prune stems more severely that most other fruit plants so it can be maneuvered through doorways for its winter rest. And no need for light in winter. And no pollination is necessary. And pest problems are rare.
Of course, there’s lots of wrinkles to getting a fig plant to fruit well in a pot: What’s the best potting mix? How do you prune for best yields? When do you move the plant to its winter quarter, to its summer quarters? How do you hold back growth waiting for equable spring weather?
Another method that I describe in my book is planting a fig tree outdoors (yes, here, where winters are frigid) and training it as an espalier. Espalier is the training of a plant’s stems, often a fruit plant, to an orderly, usually two dimensional pattern. With fruit plants generally, and figs specifically, the result is more than just good looks; you get to pick lots of very high-quality fruit.
I have trained my plant to the form of an upside down L, consisting of a foot-high, permanent trunk and one permanent, horizontal “arm.” (I’m starting another plant, this one trained to a low T, with horizontal arms running in opposite directions.) Each summer vigorous shoots grow from the topside of the arm and bear fruits. New figs are born along the ever elongating shoots, ripening over a long period beginning with the oldest ones, lower down, until shoot growth and fruit ripening is halted by cold weather and short days.
In late fall, I cut every shoot back to its origin on the horizontal arm. Then I insulate the plant beneath a blanket of autumn leaves topped with a tarp to shed water, then perhaps more leaves to hide the tarp from view. Come spring, the cycle of fruiting, pruning, and insulating begins again.
With any of the methods described in my book, the devil is in the details, matching, for instance a particular method of growing the plant to the pruning technique and a variety’s bearing habit.
Speaking of bearing habit, that’s another characteristic of figs that make them such adaptable plants, able to be grown for their fruit even far from their native hot, dry, mild winter home in southern Arabia. While a peach tree bears fruits on stems that grew the previous season, and an apple tree usually bears fruit on stems two, three, or more years old, a fig tree might bear fruit on new, growing shoots; on one-year-old stems; or on both, all depending on the variety. So there’s not necessarily a need to have stems survive winter in order to get a crop the following season.
A nice offshoot (sic) of this bearing habit, for fig lovers/growers everywhere, is that fig plants are very quick to come into bearing. I’ve had plants bear the season after I rooted them from cuttings!
And many fig varieties potentially bear two crops each year. First to ripen is the crop borne on one-year-old stems. Later, the so-called main crop is born on new, growing shoots; this is the crop that continues ripening as the shoot grows, until stopped by cold weather and short days.
Why We Lust for Figs
I am among the many people, all over the world, who have wanted to grow figs. Fig was the first fruit I planted many years ago when I began gardening. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin where winter temperatures regularly plummeted to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit!
Why the lust for figs? Perhaps because fig originated in one of the cradles of civilization, and is one of the oldest of cultivated fruits. It is the most mentioned fruit in the Bible (remember when Adam and Eve “knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” It’s also one of the two sacred fruits of Islam, and figures prominently in Greek mythology.
Flavor has to figure in: A fully ripe fig is soft and juicy, with a honey sweet, rich flavor. If you already grow figs, I’m hoping my book will help you grow better or more figs, or be able to manage them more easily. If you haven’t yet experienced the rewards of growing figs, you have a treat in store for you.