Large, potted figs


Not a Hot, Dry Desert, but No Matter

Today’s cool temperatures, along with this overcast sky that’s periodically sneezing raindrops, doesn’t conjure up weather we usually associate with fig harvest. Still, I just returned from the greenhouse with near overflowing handfuls of dead ripe figs.Bowl of figs

This harvest does highlight one of the many characteristics of figs that makes it possible to grow them in cold climates. The particular characteristic, in this case, is the plant’s rather unique way of bearing fruit. Read more


They’re Not Tropical

Too many people think fig trees are tropical plants. They’re not. They’re subtropical plants and that’s one reason those of us living in cold winter climates can harvest fresh, ripe figs. In fact, fig trees like that little rest that cold weather offers them.Fig fruits in plate

Here in Zone 5 (average winter lows of minus 10 to minus 20° F), I grow figs a number of ways. Figs are cold hardy to the low ‘teens, too cold for even subtropical plants to grow outdoors in the ground, their stems splayed to cold winter air like my apples and pears. Their roots, especially if mulched, generally will survive winters here in the relatively warmer temperatures underground. But then new shoot growth must originate at ground level, and the growing season isn’t long enough for figs that develop on those shoots to ripen.


  Some of my figs, like many of yours, are in pots.

With nighttime temperatures now often below freezing, there’s an urge to grab the potted fig and carry it indoors. Don’t! As I wrote, fig trees like a little cold weather. Experiencing some cold weather also toughens them to be more able to withstand even colder weather. My goal is to get these potted plants into a deep sleep, and to maintain that state as long as possible through winter, ideally until they’re ready to be carried outdoors again in spring.

My friend Sara's fig

My friend Sara’s fig last summer

If temperatures are going to be super cold, below the low ‘teens, move the plant to a temporary, but cool, location such as an unheated garage or mudroom, or garden shed.

Plants might still sport some leaves this time of year. Perhaps some of those leaves have been frosted. Not to worry.


Eventually, a potted fig needs to be moved to a winter home. Around here, at least, not yet. Typically, I leave my potted fig trees outside — in a slightly sheltered spot near a wall of my home where temperatures are modulated — until sometime in December. A fully dormant fig tree sheds its leaves so won’t need light in winter. If any of my plants are still holding onto their leaves, I just pull them off before the plants move to their winter home.

The winter home should be cold, but not frigid, ideally 30 to 45°F. That previously mentioned unheated garage or mudroom, or garden shed might be suitable. A minimum-maximum thermometer is an inexpensive way to know just how cold a site gets during winter even when you’re not in there or looking — at 2 AM, for example. 

Some of my potted figs retire to my basement for winter, where winter temperatures are usually 40 to 45°F.

Fig trees stored in cold basement

Kadota fig stored in cold basement

More recently, I’ve set up an insulated, walk-in cooler, mostly for storing fruits and vegetables. There’s also plenty of space for some potted fig trees. The cooler, which needs a little heat in the dead of winter, maintains a pretty consistent temperature of 39° F.

To help the plants remain asleep, I keep them on the dry side, perhaps watering them once or twice during this period.

To a point, the more stem growth on a fig tree, the more fruit it bears. So a potted fig can only bear so much fruit. I want more figs from some of my trees.

Innovations for Greater Yields

Years ago, I built a greenhouse in which to grow cool-weather-loving salad stuff and greens such as lettuce, celery, kale, chard, arugula, mustard, mâche, and claytonia through winter. I soon realized that the hot summers and the cool (never below about 35°F) winters in the greenhouse mimicked the Mediterranean climate that figs call home. So I planted four fig trees right in the ground in the greenhouse. The vegetables don’t mind their figgy neighbors because they’re leafless in winter.

Those fig trees are more than just leafless in winter; they’re also pretty much stemless. Each tree is trained to have a short trunk off which grows one or two permanent, horizontal arms. (This method of training is called espalier.) Espalier fig tree

Fig trees in greenhouse

Fig fruits on branchesFruits are borne on shoots that grow vertically from these arms. Tomorrow I’ll lop all those vertical shoots back to the arms. Next year, new shoots will bear fruits and be cut back next fall, and the year after that, new shoots . . . and so on.Pruned greenhouse fig

I’ve even used this method, this time with the horizontal arm trained just a few inches above ground level, for a fig tree I have growing outside. That low-growing arm is easily covered with a blanket of leaves, straw, or some other insulating material, how much depends on the depth of wither cold expected.Espalier fig outdoors

Once again, I’ll delay covering the plant until colder temperatures arrive so that the plant is hardened more against cold and goes into winter as dormant as possible.

Over the years, other figs of mine have weathered cold winters also by such methods as being bent over and covered to keep them warm and outdoors, by being grown in pots sunk into the ground then lifted, before the arrival of frigid weather. etc., etc. You want to harvest fresh figs in summer? There are many paths to this mountaintop.

The takeaway today is: Don’t protect your fig tree from too much cold too soon. Let the plant experience and benefit from the sleep-inducing and hardiness that some exposure brings.

And if you want to know more about growing figs in cold climate — varieties, method details, pruning,  accelerating ripening, potting mixes, and more — see my book with the eponymous title GROWING FIGS IN COLD CLIMATES (available from the usual sources as well as, signed, from my website).Here’s a very short video I made back in October about some methods of growing figs in cold climates and my new book: Fig video


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.
Some figs on a plate
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.
Potted fig tree
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.
Repotting a large plant
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.
Espalier fig outdoors
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.

Devil’s Details

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.

Early figs on old part of stem, later figs developing on new shoot

Early figs on old part of stem, later figs developing on new shoot

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.
Adam and Eve
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.
Me eating a fig

Battle for Figs: Victory

Some History

I don’t know the score over the years, but this year’s victory is mine. The battles have been with scale insects, both armored scales and their cousins, mealybugs (but rarely both in the same year), on my greenhouse fig plants.
Eating a fig
Those fig plants are planted in the ground in a minimally heated greenhouse, where winter temperatures can sink to about 35°F. The oldest of these plants have trunks 8 inches in diameter. They thrived for years without any pest problems, scale of otherwise. A few years ago, the insects made their appearance, sometimes ruining almost the whole crop.
Over the years I fought them in various ways. One year it was spraying the dormant plants with alcohol. Another year it was, more aggressively, scrubbing trunks and stems of dormant plants with a toothbrush dipped in alcohol. Ants herd and protect scale insects, so another year I fenced the ants off the plants with a band of masking tape coated with forever (almost) sticky Tangletrap around the trunk of each plant.

An expensive but short-lived success was the two releases of the predatory ladybird beetle Cryptolaemus montrouzieri and the parasitoid wasp Anagyrus pseudococci.

Mealybug destroyer

Mealybug destroyer

These biocontrol helpers ended up valuing each fig at about a dollar, still worth it. I screened all openings in the greenhouse, hoping to perennialize them inside. (It was not effective.)

Battle Plan, Done

So this year I tried a multipronged approach.

The biggest change was, rather than growing the figs as bushy trees, training them as espaliers. Espalier is the training of plants to an orderly, usually two-dimensional form both for beauty and, in the case of fruit plants, for good production of high quality fruit. For my figs, an additional benefit would be that each plant would only have one point of contact — its trunk — with the ground. IA band of masking tape coated with Tangletrap would be a roadblock on the ant highway. (Plus the look of the plants always elicits a “Wow” from visitors.)
Rabbi Samuel fig, espaliered in greenhouse
The fig plant growing near the greenhouse endwall has a short trunk that, after rising to about 18 inches from ground level, bifurcates into two, self-supporting horizontal arms extending parallel to the wall in opposite directions. At the head of each of the south beds, a fig tree is planted each of whose trunk is terminated by just a single, self-supporting, horizontal arm reaching down the bed to the sidewall. With just a trunk and one or two arms, thoroughly scrubbing down the dormant plant with alcohol is a relatively quick job. Quick enough to prevent 2 or 3 scrubbing before plants resume growth in early spring from becoming tedious.

Another nice feature of this training system is that pruning the plants at the end of the season is a no-brainer. Vertical shoots that rise up from the horizontal arms are thinned to keep neighboring shoots 8 inches apart and helped along in their vertical growth by being trained to pieces of bamboo attached to the greenhouse roof. (Yes, an ant could walk up the wall and across the roof of the greenhouse and then down the bamboo to get at the plants but they are either not that smart or energetic; it hasn’t happened.)
San Piero fig
A little later in the early part of the greenhouse growing season I gave the plants some dowsings with neem oil. I’m not sure how effective the neem component is but “horticultural oil” itself is effective in fighting off scale insects.

A ring of cinnamon around the base of each plant provided further disincentive to the ants, who will not cross a cinnamon line. The cinnamon and the Tangletrap did need renewal once per season.

As new fig shoots soared skyward near the greenhouse roof, I used a pole pruner to prune out the top of the growing shoot. Side branches, of course, then grew, and I periodically had to to hack them back also.

Uh Oh, But All Still Good

Everything was copacetic and we were harvesting figs, which formed along the vertical stems at the juncture of almost every leaf. Then, in late August I noticed some mealybugs on one plant. Time for Cryptolaemus montrouzieri again. I released them in early September and we were back in business, harvesting large handfuls of three different varieties of delciously sweet figs — San Piero, Brown Turkey, and Rabbi Samuel — daily.

And then, just today, I noticed armored scales on the plants, and a few ants! I’m not sure how the ants are getting onto the plants, but one possible “benefit” of the armored scales is hardly any mealybugs. Perhaps they can’t coexist.
Fig scale
All the measures I took against mealybugs should also be effective against the armored scales, except for the Cryptolaemus montrouzieri. Their predator Aphytis melinus, also known as the Golden Chalcid, has been effective against armored scales.

I’m not taking action. With less sunlight and cooler temperatures the figs trees have slowed down, running out of new stems on which to hang fruit. No matter; it’s been a good season of fresh figs.

Northern Figs? Yes!

Faking The Subtropics

At first blush, the setting would not seem right for fig trees. There they were, in pots sitting on my terrace — so far so good — but with snow on the ground around them. Figs? Snow?Potted figs and snow

Figs seem so tropical but, in fact, are subtropical plants. And it does sometimes snow in subtropical regions. Climatewise, subtropics are defined as regions with mean temperatures greater than 50 °F with at least one month below about 64 °F. Further definitions exist but the point is that it does occasionally snow in subtropical regions; temperatures just never get very cold.

My potted figs couldn’t have survived our winters outdoors. They wintered in my basement, where winter temperatures are in the 40s. Cool temperatures are a must to keep the stored plants from waking up too early indoors, then, because the weather is too cold to move them outdoors, sprouting pale, sappy shoots in poor indoor light. Even sunny windows don’t hold a candle (pardon the pun) to sun in the great outdoors.

Sleep, Sweet Figs

My goal is to keep the plants asleep as long as possible and then to move them outdoors just as soon as temperatures are unlikely to plummet low enough to do them harm. I figure that date was yesterday, April 2nd. Most fig varieties tolerate cold down into the 20s, some even lower.

Roots of all plants have evolved in, of course, the ground, where temperatures are more moderate than the air. So they can’t tolerate as much cold as can stems. With cold penetrating the exposed soil in pots, more so the smaller the pot, I have to keep an eye on the outdoor temperature and, if it gets too low, whisk all the pots into the shelter of the garage.

In the ideal world, temperatures will slowly warm without any dramatic lows or highs, and fig buds will gradually unfold into shoots along whose length will develop and then ripen juicy, sweet Celeste, Genoa, Excel, Ronde de Bordeaux, and Rabbi Samuel figs.Plate of figs

Cold concerns this time of year don’t apply to one of my potted figs, a Himalayan fig (Ficus palmata). I rooted a cutting of this plant a few years ago. It’s billed as being much more  tolerant of both cold and summer rain than common figs (F. carica), both assets for a fig in this part of the world. I have yet to see fruit from this plant.

Primal Urges?

What is it about figs that makes so many people want to grow them? I know of someone in Sweden who grows them. Even someone in Canada who has a collection of over 200 varieties (! Figs are an ancient fruit with origins in the Fertile Crescent, so is it some primal connection with the distant past that is the attraction?

A big part of the attraction is, of course the flavor of fresh figs, which is unlike that of the dried fruit. Market figs don’t make the grade because figs have to be picked dead ripe for best flavor, at which point they’re too delicate to travel much further than arm’s length from plant to mouth.

As would be expected of so ancient a fruit, hundreds of varieties exist — and perhaps thousands of names because more than one name has been ascribed to many varieties. My variety Rabbi Samuel, for instance, mentioned above, is, I know a made-up name. A friend made it up because he got it from some Hassidic Jews who had no name for it. And the frequently grown variety Brown Turkey is a name assigned to two different varieties, one more common on the west coast and the other more common on the east coast. And the east coast variety has a number of other names, including Everbearing, Texas Everbearing, and La Perpetuelle.

The first plant I ever grew once I got the gardening bug (in my 20s) was, in fact, Lee’s Perpetual (another name for eastern Brown Turkey). I grew it in a pot in a not very sunny window of the apartment I was renting. Not surprisingly, in retrospect, the plant never fruited.

Nowadays I think of the climate in which figs are native when growing my figs: cool, moist winters (as in my basement) and hot summers with plants baking in abundant sunlight. I now harvest plenty of figs.

Postscript April 6th: Temperatures of 22 °F perhaps prompted me awake at 3 am; I got up and lugged all 11 potted figs into the shelter of my unheated garage. 

Winter’s Comin’

Ready of Ol’ Man Winter

October 31st, was slated to be the first hard frost of the season, later than ever. That afternoon, I went down my checklist of things to do in preparation for the cold.

Drip irrigation needed to be shut down so that ice wouldn’t damage the lines. I opened up the drains at the ends and at the low points of the main lines. I also  opened up the valves on all the drip lines so water wouldn’t get trapped anywhere. Some people blow out all the lines with compressed air.

The only parts of the drip system that ever need to be brought indoors are the parts near the spigot: the battery-powered timer, the pressure reducer, and the filter.

But I wasn’t yet finished with water. All hoses got drained, with any sprayers or hose wands removed from their ends. Hoses were also removed from frost-free hydrants to let the water drain freely out their valves. (The hydrants are frost free because water drains and enters the hydrant’s pipe four feet below ground, where temperatures, even in winter, remain at a balmy 50° F. or so.)

Tropical plants indoors

Tropical plants indoors

Moving on to plants . . . Tropical houseplants had all been brought inside, but outside still remained subtropicals, including some potted figs, pomegranates, bay laurel, olive, and an angel’s trumpet (Brugsmansia). Subtropical plants can tolerate, even enjoy, temperatures below freezing, even down as low as 10°F. for some of them. My pomegranates, the varieties Kazake and Salavatski, both from western Asia, are reputedly cold-hardy to below 0°F! All these subropicals will enjoy the great outdoors for a few more weeks, barring a drastic change in the weather.

Some vegetables remaining out in the garden can likewise weather cold weather well. Just to make sure, though, I laid “floating row covers” over beds of endive, mustard greens, and lettuce. These diaphanous coverings keep plants beneath them a few degrees warmer while letting light and water filter through. The soil retains enough heat to protect roots of turnip and winter radishes, which are further protected beneath their leafy canopies.

I forgot to pick and eat Sungold tomatoes, which would be done for after a freezing night. Any red peppers still left on the plants had been harvested; those plants would also be dead on the morrow. I can’t complain; the Sungolds and the peppers bore well and for a longer time than ever before.

The final cold prep was to check the greenhouse, making sure window, sidewalls, and doors are closed up tight, and the heater is functional.

I’m ready for Ol’ Man Winter.

Not So Cold

The morning after: The cold turned out to be not nearly as dramatic as expected. A little before sunrise a cloud cover crept over the sky, tucking in the earth’s warmth rather than letting it radiate out to a clear sky. The low temperature for the night was 28°F. Even the pepper and tomato plants had toughened up enough by then to tolerate that amount of cold. Not to keep ripening good-tasting fruit, though.

Temperatures aren’t predicted to drop near freezing for many days after that night, but I didn’t consider my scurrying around to move or cover plants, and drain water lines, to be wasted effort. Endives and other greens still out in the vegetable garden transpire very little water in cool weather, and even less so when covered with floating row covers.

The only watering needed from then on would be of the compost pile, easily accessible from one of the frost-free hydrants and a short length of hose, connected as needed.

“Trip” to the Mediterranean

Greenhouse temperatures dropped only to 40°F, the temperature at which I set the thermostat. Cloudy days in there are like today are akin to winter days along the Mediterranean: Very cool and somewhat dreary. On sunny days, I open the greenhouse door to bathe in a tropical paradise of sunlight, heat, and high humidity, with lush plants of lettuce, mustard, arugula, celery, chard, claytonia, and parsley blanketing the ground. Greenhouse fig and greens

Fig trees in the greenhouse have slowly eased their way into dormancy. I hurried them along by lopping them back — except for the few branches still ripening a few fruits. Those figs, ripening in low sun and cooler weather (even in the greenhouse), aren’t as tasty as those of summer and early autumn. I wonder how tasty November figs are in Italy and Greece?


The Destroyer To The Rescue

Predatory Helpers

Some of the figs — the varieties Rabbi Samuel, Brown Turkey, and San Piero — started ripening last week. With their ripening, I am now in a position to claim victory over the mealybugs that have invaded my greenhouse fig-dom for the past few years.
Mealybugs look, unassumingly, like tiny tufts of white cotton, but beneath their benign exteriors are hungry insect. They injects their needle-like probiscis into stems, fruits, and leaves, and suck life from the plants, or at least, weaken the plants and make the fruits hardly edible.

Over the years I’ve battled the mealybugs at close quarters. I’ve scrubbed down the dormant plants with a tooth brush dipped in alcohol (after the plants were pruned heavily for winter). I’ve tried repeated sprays with horticultural oil. I put sticky bands around the trunks to slow traffic of ants, which “farm” the mealybugs. And I’ve rubbed them to death with my fingers when I came across them on the stems. All to no avail. The mealybugs always made serious inroads into the harvest.

Mealybugs finally have been quelled this season thanks to another insect, the aptly named “mealybug destroyer” (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri), available from To soldier along with the mealybug destroyer, I also ordered some green lacewing (Chrysoperla rufilabris) eggs. Besides attacking the mealybugs, the lacewings prey on aphids, seizing the aphids in their large jaws, injecting a paralyzing venom into them, and then sucking out their body fluids. With good reason, lacewings are also called aphid lions.

Mealybug destroyer

Mealybug destroyer

I ordered the first batch of predators in early summer. After recently noticing a buildup of mealybugs again, I ordered another batch. The mealybug destroyer and aphid lion populations may have plummeted after they ate all the bad guys, or they may have found their way to greener pastures via the many openings in the greenhouse.

The smallest amount of either pest that could be purchased could have policed a greenhouse much larger than mine, so the predators were relatively expensive: about $80 per shipment, with shipping. Still, I estimate the potential ripening of about 160 figs, which brings their cost to $1 per fig. Not bad for a dead ripe, juicy, ambrosial fruit that, with each bite, transports me back thousands of years to the Fertile Crescent, where figs originated.

Help From The Queen

A visitor to my greenhouse might have thought it looked weedy this summer. Tall flower stalks of Queen Anne’s lace grew with abandon, cilantro flowered and then their seed heads flopped down willy nilly, lettuce grew bitter as the plants bolted, and mustard greens shot up stalks capped with yellow flowers. There was reason for this wild wantonness.
The purpose of all these flowers was to encourage the adult mealybug destroyers and aphid lions to stick around. Flowers of plants in the Carrot Family, such as Queen Ann’s Lace and cilantro, the Daisy Family, such as lettuce, and the Mustard Family, such as, of course, mustard, provide nectar and pollen that the predators enjoy.Queen anne's laceThe Carrot Family Helps Out

I also encouraged beneficial insects outdoors, in my vegetable gardens, by growing or, at least, letting grow, some of these same plants.

Add to that list dill, another member of the Carrot Family, which I always let flower and set seed in the garden. Those seeds become next year’s dill plants with no extra effort on my part except to weed out excess self-sown seedlings.

For some reason, dill did not self-seed in the garden the past two years, so this year I bought and planted seed. “Planted” might be too specialized a term for what I did. In fact, I just tore open the packet of seeds, poured them into my hand, and waved my hand as I let the seeds fly. Like magic, seeds sprouted a few weeks later.
This season’s dill not only encouraged beneficial insects and provided some ferny leaves and seed heads for flavoring, but also provided beauty. The variety was ‘Fernleaf,’ which grows dwarf, compact plants that also are slower to make flower heads. Perhaps it was the compactness of the flat heads of greenish yellow flowers or the denser backdrop of green leaves, but the plants captured my attention every time I walked by them. Still do, because they’re still blooming.Fernleaf dill

Queen Anne’s Lace also appeared in my garden with no extra effort on my part. Not only from self-seeding, as a weed. But also from an occasional rogue carrot seed from those I planted. Queen Anne’s Lace and carrot are the same genus and species, carrots having been selected and bred to make fatter, juicier, tastier, and orange-er (or, these days, purple-er) roots.

Here, at least, this season was particularly welcoming of QueenAnne’s Lace. The meadow next to the vegetable gardens has been dotted white with an abundance of their flowering heads.


 Ginger on the Way

   Now that summer-y weather has blown in and is here to stay, it’s time to plant the greenhouse. Plant the greenhouse?! This time of year? Yes. No reason to let all that real estate go to waste through summer.
    Ginger plants that I started from supermarket tubers a couple of months ago were crying out to be released from the confines of their 4-inch pots. Warming their bottoms on the seed-starting heating mat pushed them along even when early spring skies were overcast and the greenhouse relatively cool. Ginger is a tropical plant that shivers even when temperatures drop below 55°F.Planting ginger
    I never could see the rationale for the current interest in growing ginger in northern regions. That is, until I tasted freshly harvested, baby ginger. This far north, ginger rarely has time to develop the mature, tan-skinned roots you see in supermarkets. No matter, because immature, or “baby,” ginger, which is ginger harvested before it matures, is better — a white, tender, tasty tuber. It doesn’t keep or ship as well as mature ginger, which is no problem for backyard growing or local sales.
    So 4 ginger plants went into two greenhouse beds. I’ll dig up the ginger in September, freeing up space for lettuce, celery, kale, and other cool weather salad makings that will inhabit the winter greenhouse.

Early Curcurbits

    One can eat only just so much ginger. (We’re still using last year’s harvest which, for long term storage, was sliced thin and put into jars with vinegar.) What about other greenhouse beds that are being vacated as the last of winter’s lettuce, celery, kale, and chard get harvested and cleared away?
 Greenhouse in June   Cucumbers and melons love heat, so a few extra plants that I started back in early May went into beds.
    The permanent fixtures in the greenhouse, the plants that really help the greenhouse earn its keep, are the four fig trees — Bethlehem Black, San Piero, Brown Turkey, and Rabbi Samuel — planted right in the ground. The largest of these has a trunk 7 inches in diameter. All yield bountiful crops daily in August and September, and less bountiful ones going into October.Figs growing, last of greenhouse lettuces

Tropicals and Subtropicals Summer Vacation

    In a reversal of fall, tropical and subtropical plants that had been moved into the greenhouse and house are now lined up outdoors, ready to offer fresh black mulberries, Pakistan mulberries, pineapple guavas, pomegranates, Golden Nugget mandarins, olives, dwarf Cavendish bananas (probably no fruit from this one, just a very tropical look), and a few other varieties of figs, in pots.
    (My black mulberry is the species Morus nigra, one of the best-tasting of all fruits, but is not cold hardy here. Black-colored mulberries that grow all over the place outdoors here are, despite black fruits, species of red or white mulberries, or their hybrids.)
    Any of my tropical and subtropical plants, given their druthers, would reach 8 feet, 10 feet, or even more feet skyward, and spread their roots many feet in all directions. Here, they can’t do that or they would be too big to move or to house in winter.
    So I mixed up a batch of potting soil, and started root pruning. It sounds brutal, and it is, but plants recover nicely and then happily have new soil to explore. Basically, I slide a plant out of its pot, stand it upright, and then start slicing off the outer edges of the root ball. Pruning shears take care of any roots too large to slice with a knife.
    The finished root ball is an inch or two smaller in diameter than it started out. How much to remove depends on the initial size of the root ball — larger plants get more removed — and, to a lesser degree, the kind of plant. Figs, for instance, tolerate especially brutal treatment.
 Root pruning   So much for the roots. To keep it manageable, the plant also needs stem reduction. Some stems get shortened, some are removed in toto, and some are left untouched. Who gets what treatment depends, for fruiting plants, on their fruiting habit — just where and how they bear fruit. Figs that bear on new shoots can be pruned rather severely; pineapple guavas bear on new shoots growing off older stems, so only moderate pruning is tolerated so that some older stems are preserved, etc.
    After root and shoot pruning a thorough watering, plants are ready for a year or two of good growth before they will again feel constrained.


Fruit for My Mouth, Flowers for My Eyes

As I write this, on December 1st, the Rabbi — that’s the Rabbi Samuel fig — is still ripening fruit in my barely heated greenhouse. That’s commendable. Not so commendable, however, is the flavor; cooler temperatures and sparse sunlight have taken their toll. The drooping fruits look ripe and ready to eat, inside and out, but they are no longer worth eating.

End of the fruiting season for Rabbi Samuel fig.

End of the fruiting season for Rabbi Samuel fig.

On the other hand, another fruit, Szukis American persimmons, hardly look edible but still have rich, sweet flavor. Outdoors, fruits of this variety of American persimmon cling to bare branches. Their orange skins once stretched almost to the point of breaking over the soft flesh within. Now, alternate freezing and thawing temperatures and drier air have sucked moisture and temper from the flesh, so the skins have shriveled and barely cling. Their darkening does nothing to increase the fruits’ visual appeal.

Szukis persimmons, starting to look ugly, but still honey sweet

Szukis persimmons, starting to look ugly, but still honey sweet

The ripe fruits are hard to distinguish, by eye, from the almost ripe fruits. The latter still retain some mouth-puckering astringency which has given American persimmons a bad name. An unripe persimmon “will draw a man’s mouth awrie with much torment” wrote Captain John Smith 400 years ago. I give Szukis’ branches a slight shake and only ripe fruits come raining to the ground, at which point the Captain’s further words ring true: “When [persimmon] is ripe, it is as delicious as an apricot.”

Can’t Help Wanting African Violets

New leaf cuttings

New leaf cuttings

Man can’t live by bread alone; a feast for the eyes is also in order. Well, maybe not a feast, but an appetizer, some winter flowers. Probably the easiest and most longlasting of winter blossoms are those of African violet. Okay, okay, I know that African violets have been mostly associated with doilies, lace curtains, and other appurtenances of old ladies (nothing against old ladies).

Generally, I don’t even like the color violet. But African violet’s flowers do brighten up a windowsill that looks out upon a gray and brown landscape.

Plantlets forming at bases of leaf cuttings

Plantlets forming at bases of leaf cuttings

Now that I’ve gotten my secret attraction to African violets off my chest, let’s talk horticulture. African violet’s whorl of leaves, like those of many low-growing perennial flowers, is actually a compressed stem, one that has been telescoped down so that each leaf and associated node originates just a fraction of an inch above the next lower leaf. But there is some distance between those nodes, so over time the stem does slowly elongate, rising higher and higher out of the ground. And side branches occasionally sprout forth from the leaf axils. The result of all this is that the potted plant becomes, over time, so overgrown with layer upon layer of leaves that the plant no longer can gather enough energy to flower well.

African Violet in all its glory.

African Violet in all its glory.

The solution to this problem is to make new plants and then chuck the old ones. All that’s needed to make a new plant is a leaf from an old plant and patience. So a few weeks ago I plucked a few leaves (a few, for insurance) from my old, overgrown African violet and plunged their stalks into a moist mix of peat moss and perlite. A plastic bag covering and held above the leaf cuttings by some twigs provided the needed humidity until roots could develop to keep the leaves turgid. Bright but indirect sunlight fueled, via photosynthesis, new root growth, and within a few weeks, resistance to a gentle tug on the leaves told me that roots had developed.

I removed the cover and now little plants are poking up through the ground alongside the leaf stalks. I’m going to transplant my rooted cuttings into larger pots and should, in a few weeks, be enjoying flowers. By then, I’ll have my knitting also ready.

11th Hour Apple Tree Planting

On to less gender stereotyped gardening: tree planting. Picture the day before Thanksgiving, November 26th. A wet snow is falling and beginning to whiten the ground. In my garage are two sturdy, bare root apple trees, a Hudson’s Golden Gem and an Ashmead’s Kernel, recently arrived from Cummins Nursery and needing planting.

Fortunately, I prepared the plantings site a couple of weeks previously with a 4-inch-deep, broad circle of leaf compost, the most immediate purpose of which was to keep the ground from freezing. Rushing to beat out the snow, I pulled enough compost aside to make space to dig holes, spread tree roots out in each hole, backfilled the soil, sifting it around the roots by pressing with my fingers and bouncing the tree up and down, and then settled all into place with a couple of gallons of water per plant.

I like autumn for tree planting. Roots have opportunity to grow in still warm soil (especially if mulched) while stems won’t grow and need water until spring. The soil is crumbly and soft, in good condition for digging and planting. And autumn planting leaves one less thing to do in the flurry of spring gardening.

However, winter temperatures and furry creatures can be a hazard to autumn-planted trees. The first line of defense, to fend off  mice and rabbits and moderate temperatures on the trunk, is a spiral plastic tree guard. An 18” high cylinder of 1/2” hardware cloth provides further defense against mice and rabbits. Beyond that, a higher and wider cylinder of 2×4 fencing should fend off deer and my puppy Sammy. (Past puppies considered newly planted trees as playthings, fun to tug out of the ground.) And finally, the well-furnished, new tree goes into winter with some perfume, a deer-repellant spray, any of which is effective if applied before the plant gets nibbled and renewed monthly.

I expect to harvest the first apples from the new apple trees expected in 3 years.


Hints of spring are evident even in the dark corners of my barely heated basement. There, buds of potted roses and pomegranate plants are starting to sprout. Some gardeners — including me — overwinter potted figs in such places and their early sprouting also can cause concern. So far, only a couple of pomegranates and roses are all that have sprouted from among the 20 or so plants in my basement.

And what are all those plants doing sitting down in my basement? Some, including the pomegranates, figs, and black mulberries, would shrivel up and die from our usual winter cold. The plants are in pots that each autumn are I carry downstairs from outside after their leaves have dropped. Other plants in the basement menagerie are normally cold-hardy, except that they are in decorative pots within which roots, which are not nearly as cold hardy as plant stems, would freeze to death if left outdoors. Larger or better insulated pots would offer roots more protection from cold.

The problem with early sprouting in my basement is that there’s little light down there. New stems on the roses are pale, stretched out, and tender “etiolated). When the plants can finally be moved outdoors, those sprouts, unaccustomed to bright light and wind, will dry out and die. If the plant has not invested too much energy in the sprouts, new sprouts can develop. Ideal conditions, for now, would be cool temperatures and the brightest possible light — preferably before the new sprouts appeared.
The pomegranates are special varieties so they get first-class treatment: into the greenhouse they go, even though space there is at a premium. The pomegranate buds were just unfolding so the bright light should not burn them.

The roses are more cold-hardy and not so special; they went into the garage where there is some light and, more importantly, it’s a lot colder than the basement. The goal is to hold back growth as long as possible while letting some light fall on what sprouts slowly develop.
The figs in the basement aren’t yet acting like it’s spring. The buds are swelling slightly but are otherwise still folded closed. The goal is to keep them that way as long as possible with minimal watering. 

It’s still too cold in the garage for these plants, whose stems tolerate temperatures down in the ‘teens. Their roots, though, like those of other plants, would be less cold-hardy. I may end up moving the plants in and out of the garage, a sheltered nook of the terrace, and the mud room as temperatures fluctuate in coming weeks. Or perhaps I can find space for them in the greenhouse.

By April, everything in the basement should be fit to face the great outdoors.

Easiest to care for among the subtropical plants in the basement are the mulberries. Anyone who is familiar with mulberries might wonder why I would coddle them in pots in my basement. These mulberries aren’t the run-of-the-mill mulberries that sprout just about everywhere outdoors and bear good-enough tasting fruit that is a bit too cloying.

No, in my basement is a plant of the most delectable black mulberry, Morus nigra, a  species not cold-hardy outdoors here. To my taste, black mulberry — which the black-colored fruits you see around here are not — is perhaps the most flavorful of ALL fruits. Each fruit, although the size of a nickel, packs such a whollop of flavor, a congenial mix of sweetness and tartness, that you’d think it came from a fruit the size of an apple.

Two other mulberries down in the basement are there because I’m not yet sure just how cold-hardy they are and because, if cold-hardy, I still have to figure out where to plant them. Gerardi Dwarf is possibly a variety of white mulberry (M. alba), a very variable Asian species well-established in eastern U.S. and often bearing black-colored fruits also. (This variety is sometimes listed as Morus macroura.) Whitman Farms (, where I got my plant, states that the fruit of this particular variety is almost as good as black mulberry, the species, and the plant grows only 6 feet high, which makes picking and protecting from birds easy.
The other plant, Kokuso mulberry (M. latifolia) is supposed to be very cold-hardy and, as rumored on the fruit “grapevine,” very tasty. The plant is semi-dwarf and the  fruit, like the others, is dark.

The thing that makes all these mulberries easy is that they are late to awaken in spring. Mulberry’s generic name, Morus, comes from the Latin word mora, meaning delay. This sluggish start in the spring usually saves mulberry flowers from being nipped by late spring frosts, which makes mulberries bear very reliably and, as described in Fruit and Its Cultivation (1919) by Thomas William Sanders, “the wisest of trees.”