Optimizing Winter for a Fig Plant

For those of us who grow figs in cold climates, where winter lows reliably plummet below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, this time of year brings some nervous expectation. You want the buds to pop out and start growing, but not too, too soon.

Fig stem beginning growth


Except for maritime climates, such as in the Pacific Northwest, where winters are what I term “coldish” rather than “cold,” figs need some sort of protection in truly cold winter climates. The challenge in maritime climates is using variety choice, pruning, and site selection to get fruit to ripen in the relatively cool summers. In these climates fig buds gradually unfold usually in synch with the gradual warming weather in spring.

Not so for protected figs in truly cold winter climates, whether plants are in a pot or in the ground, wrapped or buried. For directions here, allow me to excerpt my recent book, Growing Figs in Cold Climates: Read more

Gooseberries on a bench


Am I a Hoarder?

I once had what may have been the largest collection of gooseberries in this country east of the Rocky Mountains — four dozen or so. Many more existed and exist in collections across “the pond,” especially in Great Britain. That was due, in large part, to the gooseberry contests held annually since the 18th century in the clubrooms of inns, especially in Lancashire, Cheshire and the Midlands. Flavor be damned: rewards went for the largest berries. The gaiety of singing and refreshments at these shows was offset by the solemn weighing of fruits.

Gooseberries on a benchThose winning berries were the handiwork of amateur breeders and some rather esoteric horticulture. Suckling a promising berry, for example, whereby a saucer of water was perched beneath an individual berry throughout its growth, just high enough to wet only its calyx (far end).

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So Much From Which to Choose

Pear espalier in Mt. Vernon, WA

Pear espalier in Mt. Vernon, WA

Of all the common tree fruits, pears are the easiest to grow — and not just here in New York’s Hudson Valley. My site is admittedly poor for tree fruits, the flat lowland acting like a reservoir into which cold, damp air flows, leading to increased threats from diseases and late frosts. Proximity to acres and acres of forest provides haven for insect pests.

But I’m not complaining; the air might be bad for apples, peaches, cherries, plums, and apricots, but underfoot is rich, well-drained, rock-free river bottom soil that grows very nice vegetables, berries, and many uncommon fruits such as persimmons, cornelian cherries, and kiwifruits. And pears.

Of the more than 3,000 varieties of pears, only a handful are well-known. I figured, as with apples, there must be many varieties better or as good-tasting as the few usually offered in markets. Back in 2004, twenty dwarf apple trees that I’d planted were nearing the end of their productive life. So I dug them out, which left me with space for a number of dwarf or semi-dwarf pear trees. But what varieties to plant? I sought suggestions from other fruit growers, from nursery websites and catalogues (especially Raintree Nursery and Cummins Nursery), from the USDA Pear Germplasm Repository, and books such as the 100-year-old tome The Pears of New York, finally settling on sixteen varieties (listed at the end of this blog post to avoid boring you if you don’t want such detail).

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The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Supporting Artists?!

I’ve been thumbing through my latest book, Fruit: From the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection. Most of the book is illustrations of many kinds and varieties of fruits painted by 20 artists over the years from 1892 to 1946. Most obvious is the beauty of the paintings. Less obvious is what they tell of fruit growing and marketing in this country.Book cover

For instance, why were the watercolors commissioned — by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no less? To answer that question let’s first backtrack to before the middle of the 19th century. Up until then,  fruit trees were planted mostly for cider, brandy, or to feed pigs. Fermented beverages were a more healthful drink than water at the time. (Just imagine all the tipsy kids wandering around!) 

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Potted Figs, but First a “Haircut”

Temperatures here have dipped into the lower 20s a few nights and still dip readily to around freezing, which might lead some of you to believe I have been neglectful of my fig trees, which are still outdoors. Not so! They are subtropical plants that can take temperatures down into the ‘teens.

Today I moved all my potted figs to their winter home. As I wrote in my book Growing Figs in Cold Climates, fig, being a subtropical plant, likes cold winters, just not those that are too, too cold. My plants went either into my basement, where winter temperatures hover in the 40s, or into my walk-in cooler (also used for storing fruits and vegetables) whose temperature is nailed at 39°.

Potted fig

One of my friend Sara’s figs in summer

I always prune my figs before nestling them into the basement or the cooler. Then they can be carried without errant stems slapping my face, and the pots can be stored without undo elbowing neighboring potted figs. 

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Free Eats, and Delicious

After last year’s bumper crop of black walnuts, filberts, and acorns, I didn’t expect much this year, nutwise. As I looked up into the few black walnut trees bordering the farmden, my low expectations seemed justified. In desperation of securing my annual supply of black walnuts, I gave a shoutout to the local community for black walnuts. I got good feedback — of trees, trees that, as the nut season approached, proved to be barren.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a few black walnuts on the ground beneath a couple of my favorite trees right here. A few days later, the ground was littered with nuts, perhaps not as much as in previous years, but still plenty. So it was time to get to work (details a few paragraphs ahead).

Walnuts in tree

Too many people have never tasted a black walnut. That’s too bad. The nuts are distinctively delicious (if you like them). I much prefer them to English walnuts, the nut usually referred to when anyone says“walnut.” Black walnut trees grow and bear relatively quickly, casting a pleasant dappled shade beneath their limbs. Just don’t plant one or allow one to grow where tennis ball size fruits littering the ground each fall would be objectionable.

Black walnut trees are abundant over much of central and eastern North America. The nuts are free for the picking, and usually yield more than enough to satisfy humans and squirrels alike. Many a homeowner who’d like to get rid of the nuts strewn over their front lawn will let you come and pick them up. A homeowner once even gathered them up for me!

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(Much of the below information is gleaned from my book Growing Figs in Cold Climates and a video I presented, now available online.)


If you’re not growing figs because you think your cold winter climate is wrong for them, you’re wrong and you’re missing out on an exotic treat. Figs can be grown just about everywhere. If you are growing figs and you’re in a cold winter climate, the fruits should be nearly or already ripening.

Impatience is the affliction of the cold climate fig grower. I’m feeling it right now, as I write. That impatience comes from watching little figlets forming and expanding early in the season and then just sitting on the branches, doing nothing, seemingly forever. Knowing somethingAdam & Eve, painted by Titian, 1550 of how fig fruits develop and grow, and ways that ripening can be hastened along helps soothe my affliction.

Let Me Know Thy Ways (of Fruiting)

Most varieties of figs bear fruit on new, growing shoots. This bearing habit is very different from that of most common fruits, such as apples, peaches, and blueberries, which bear fruit on stems that are one-year-old or older. (Some fig varieties do bear on one-year-old stems, and some bear on both one-year-old and new, growing shoots.) Figs’ bearing habit is a boon to cold climate fig growers because that means that a fig tree can still bear fruit even if its stems freeze back or are pruned back rather severely.

Figs forming on new shoot

Figs forming on new shoot

But it takes time for fruits on young fig stems to develop and ripen, which they do sequentially from the bottom (the oldest) part of the growing stem to the top. The closer a stem originates to the roots, the longer it takes for fruit on that stem to develop and ripen. That time could be too long, depending on how severely the plant was pruned or froze back and the length of the growing season. I like to develop and leave one or more permanent trunks at least two feet long, letting sprouts grow from or at their tops.

Some so-called “hardy” figs sprout new shoots from ground level after dying back from winter cold. Actually, since ground temperatures in winter are milder than air temperatures, many figs will do this. Problem is that figs will form on those sprouts from ground level but may not have time to ripen.

Quicken the Pace

Assuming a portion of trunk or trunks have survived winter, perhaps because the plant was potted and moved to shelter, the trunk was insulated, or the trunk was buried, etc., impatience still lurks. (I detail a number of ways to get figs through winter in my book Growing Figs in Cold Climates.) The problem — for us, not the figs — is that fruit growth follows a sigmoidal (S-shaped) curve over time. That is, the fruits swell up rapidly early in the season, then just sit for a long time.

But hang tight. If all else is in order, fruit growth leaves the flat part of the curve, and figs start to rapidly swell, at the same time softening and developing a rich, sweet flavor. How long before ripening begins depends on the where the fruiting shoot originated, the variety, and the growing season.Ripe figs on plate

Fortunately, you can hasten along ripening to some degree. The first way is earlier in the season, when a shoot has just a few leaves, say about five. If you pinch out the growing tip, that could stimulate figs down along the stem to start developing sooner than if the stem was left alone. However, doing so also might reduce total yield because shoot growth is at least temporarily stalled.Five varieties of fig

As fruits near ripening, they can be hurried along by “oiling.” Do this by putting a drop of olive oil in the eye of a fruit; I just dip a chopstick in the oil and then let the oil drip off onto the eye. Oiling a figVery important: Don’t try this on a fruit very far from ripening, which is, of course, hard to tell until the fruit starts ripening. But if you really love your fig tree, you’ve been staring at it a lot. As you do so you’ll begin to notice subtle changes. I’ve typically used this method towards the end of the growing season when fig ripening slows with waning sunlight and cooling temperatures.


Whatever you do, don’t harvest any figs before they are fully ripe. Figs, like many other fruits do not ripen at all once they have been harvested. Incipient rot might make harvested, underripe fruits a bit sweeter, but that’s different from ripe. Commercial figs are harvested just short of full ripeness because then they can be shipped without damage. 

Fig with tear in eye

When your fig is fully ripe, the fruit is soft and perhaps has a “tear” in its eye. The flavor will be sweet and rich.Eating a fig


From Alaska & the White Mountains to my Garden

Lingonberry a plant of harsh, cold climates. I’ve seen the plants poking out of rocky crevices in Alaska and high in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, all of which makes all the more surprising the stellar performance of my plants in this hot summer. For years they sat quietly, growing slowly and slowly spreading; this summer, the plants took off, their underground stems reaching further than usual and aboveground stems sporting a very respectable crop. Or, I should say, crops, plural; more on that later.lingonberries in hand

Here in the U.S., lingonberries are little known and, when they are known, it’s as jars of jam. But merely utter the word “lingonberry” to someone Scandinavian and watch for a smile on their lips and a dreamy look in their eyes. Each year, thousands of tons of lingonberries are harvested from the wild throughout Scandinavia, destined for sauce, juice, jam, wine, and baked goods. A fair number of these berries are, of course, just popped posthaste into appreciative mouths.

Lingonberry in White Mountains

Lingonberry in White Mountains

Lingonberries have often been compared to their close relative, our Thanksgiving cranberries. But lingonberry fruits meld just enough sweetness with a rich, unique aroma so that the fruits — if picked dead ripe — are delicious plucked right off the plants into your mouth or mixed with, say, your morning cereal. As far as I’m concerned, cranberries are never palatable until doctored up with plenty of sugar and heat.

More Than Just Good Looks

As tasty as lingonberry is, I don’t grow it only for its fruit. Lingonberry also outshines its stateside relative in looks. The plants are pretty enough to have garnered a rating of 3, the highest possible, in my book Landscaping with Fruit.

Like cranberry, lingonberry grows only a few inches high and spreads horizontally to blanket the ground with evergreen leaves the size of mouse ears. While the onset of cold weather in fall turns Thanksgiving cranberry’s evergreen leaves muddy purple color, lingonberry leaves retain their glossy, green appearance, like holly’s, right through winter. Lingonberry under snowLingonberry could stand in well for low-growing boxwood — in a parterre, for example, a use first suggested in 1651 by André Mollet, the French gardener to Queen Christina of Sweden

Cute, urn-shaped blossoms dangle singly or in clusters near the ends of lingonberry’s thin, semi-woody stems. These urns hang upside down (upside down for an urn, that is) and are white, blushed with pink. They’re not the kind of blossoms that are going to stop street traffic, but are best appreciated where plants can be looked at  frequently and up close — such as in the beds along the path to the front of my house.Lingonberry flowering

If you miss the spring floral show, you get another chance because lingonberries blossom twice each season. That second show has now morphed into clusters of developing fruits that hang right next to clusters of fruits ripening from the first round of blossoms. Fruit yields are greater from the second flowering than from the first.Lingonberry old and new fruits

The pea-sized fruits a show in themselves, the bright red berries hanging on the plants for a long time, well into winter. Backed by the shiny, green leaves, they making a perfect Christmas season decoration in situ.

Soil Prep & Management: Obligatory but Easy

Lingonberry plants do need some special care. Hot summer temperatures aren’t ideal. My plants were originally near the east and north sides of my house. Those on the east side are now few and far between, perhaps helped along on the way out by the scratching of the ground beneath them by my chickens, now gone (replaced by ducks, who don’t scratch). The north side of the house, not as welcoming to the chickens because it’s my dogs’ hangout, is, of course, cooler.

All the soils that lingonberries naturally inhabit have good drainage and are extremely rich in humus (decomposed organic material), which clings to moisture. In addition to good drainage and abundant organic matter, lingonberries enjoy the same very acidic conditions — with a pH ideally between 4.5 and 5.5 — required by blueberries, mountain laurel, rhododendron and other kin in the Heath Family. These conditions are easily reproduced in a garden.

I created my bed of lingonberries, which is also home to lingonberry kin, by first checking the soil pH. If the pH is too high, digging elemental sulfur into the top six inches of ground can make it right. Three-quarters of a pound per 100 square feet in sandy soils, or 2 pounds per 100 square feet in heavier soils will lower the pH by one unit. Where soils are naturally very alkaline (pH higher than 8), such as in many parts of the western United States, soil needs to be excavated at the planting site and replaced with a fifty-fifty mix of peat moss and sand. Alternatively, this mix could go into containers plunged into the ground up to their rims. In wet areas, build up mounds of soil and peat, and plant the lingonberries on the mounds, which keeps their shallow roots above water level.

I set my plants at two foot by two foot spacings which plants fill in to form a solid mat over the ground. Young lingonberry plantEvery year, in late fall, I scatter wood chips, sawdust, or shredded leaves over the plants, enough for an inch or two depth. Sifting down through the leaves and stems to keep the ground cool and moist, to prevent frost from heaving plants in winter, to maintain high humus levels in the soil, to provide some nutrients, and to buffer soil acidity. Every few years I check acidity, and sprinkle sulfur on the soil, as needed.


Beyond needing mulching and having their soil acidity monitored, lingonberries are carefree plants. My main “job” is harvesting the berries. No need even to rush picking or eating them. They keep well on or off the bush, in part because they contain benzoic acid, a natural preservative. Refrigerated, the harvested berries keep for at least eight weeks. In nineteenth-century Sweden, lingonberries were kept from one year to the next as “water lingon,” made by merely filling a jar with the berries, then pouring water over them.

My main problem with lingonberries is, at the end of the growing season, deciding whether to harvest and enjoy the berries immediately and enjoy only the glossy, green groundcover or whether to leave the berries on into winter and enjoy the look of the glossy green groundcover livened up with red berries. Or to split the different, occasionally harvesting some of the fresh berries all through winter.

Lingonberry and lowbush blueberry in fall

Lingonberry and lowbush blueberry in fall

GROWING FIGS IN COLD CLIMATES video recording now available.

Watch, listen, and learn — on your own time — about GROWING FIGS IN COLD CLIMATES, with a recording of a webinar with Lee Reich. Now available online.

Learn about the nice quirks of figs, subtropical plants native to hot, dry climates, that make it possible to grow and harvest fruit from them even in cold climates. With that covered, I detail some practical applications of this information. Winter care, pruning, varieties, and speeding up ripening will all be covered. If you already grow figs, this webinar will help you grow more or better figs, and be able to manage them more easily. If you haven’t yet experienced the rewards of growing figs, you have a treat in store.

To access this video, go to

San Piero figEspalier figFig potted in ground



As flaming red petals drop to the ground beneath my pomegranate bush, I’m not hopeful. Sure, the flowers are beautiful, but the plant is here to give me fruit.

To survive winters here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley (Zone 5), my plant’s home is in a large flowerpot which I cart into cold storage in late December and back outdoors or into the greenhouse in late winter or early spring. Even my cold-hardy variety, Salatavski, from western Asia, would die to ground level if planted outdoors. The roots would survive that much cold because of moderated below ground temperatures, but new stems that would rise from ground level would need to be more than a year old before flowering.

Potted pomegranate, but NOT mine

Potted pomegranate, but NOT mine

Growing in a pot, my pomegranate (and other potted fruit plants) need regular pruning and repotting. To prune the pomegranate, I snip off young suckers growing from ground level, shorten lanky stems, and thin out stems where congested. I repot the plant every 2 or 3 years, cutting off roots and potting soil from around the root ball to make room for new potting soil.

When flowers do appear, which they do over the course of a few weeks, I dab their faces with an artists’ brush. Going from flower to flower spreads the pollen from male flowers to the female parts (stigmas) of the  hermaphroditic flowers.

Male pomegranate flowers

Male pomegranate flowers

Hermaphroditic pomegranate flower

Hermaphroditic pomegranate flower

Then I wait, my eyes concentrating on each flower and hoping to see the base swelling. Problem is most, some year all, the flowers open and then drop. Occasionally, in past years, a flower or two has swelled into a mini-pomegranate. Then also dropped.

Swelling pomegranate fruitlet

Swelling pomegranate fruitlet

I’ve ministered to this plant for years and it has never rewarded me with a single fruit. Help! Any suggestions?

Not So Idle Threats

Every summer, as my pomegranate drops its last flowers, I’ve threatened it with the same fate I wrought upon another of my subtropical fruit plants, pineapple guava. Beneath the thin, green skin of this torpedo-shaped fruit lies a gelatinous center with a minty pineapple flavor.

Pollinating pineapple guava

Pollinating pineapple guava

Over the course of growing this fruit for many years, I did harvest a few, small fruits from this plant, but not enough to keep me from reincarnating it as compost. (The flowers, however, reliably produced, sport the most delicious, fleshy petals of any that I’ve taste, with a strong, sweet minty flavor.)

A Most Delicious Fruit

Not all has been failure with my growing subtropical fruits. 

My most recent success has been with Pakistani mulberry, Morus macroura, native to Tibet, the Himalayas, and mountainous regions of Indochina. I first tasted this fruit a few years ago at a nursery in Washington State and was swept away by the delicious flavor, sweet with enough tartness to make it interesting, and a strong berry undertone. (Yes, mulberry does have “berry” in its name, but botanically, it’s not a berry; it’s a “multiple fruit.”)

Besides having great flavor, Pakistani fruit is also notable for its enormous size, each one elongating, when ripe, to between three and five inches!Pakistani mulberry fruit

Pakistani mulberry is easy to grow and needs no particular coaxing to bear plenty of fruit, which it does over the course of a few weeks. Mine grows in a pot measuring a little over a foot wide, with the tree rising about four feet high. Fruits are borne on new shoots that grow off older stems, which keeps the tree very manageable. Shortening those older stems each year makes it easier to muscle the plant through doorways to move it indoors for winter and then back outdoors when weather warms a little.

Very Easy, Very Successful, Very Delicious

My longest term and greatest success with subtropical plants has been, of course, with figs. (I write “of course” because I’ve written a whole book whose content is described by its title, Growing Figs in Cold Climates, and now is available as a video of a webinar I have presented on that topic.)Fig book cover

Like mulberries, to which they are related, figs — most varieties — can bear fruit on new shoots that grow off older branches. Figlets on new shootSo, like mulberry, the plants can be pruned back some so they’re more manageable to be protected from bitter winter cold. An in-ground plant, then, could be protected from bitter winter cold by being swaddled upright or lowered to the ground, even trained to grow along the ground; a potted plant is more easily maneuvered into a garage, unheated basement, or other cool location for its winter rest.

Right now, there’s nothing for me to do with my figs except watch them grow. Small figlets now sit in the plants’ leaf nodes. They’ll just sit there, doing nothing, for a seemingly long time. Once ripening time draws near, the figs suddenly puff up, becoming soft and juicy and developing a honey sweet, rich flavor.Bowl of figs