A Question of Figs

    A question: What am I supposed to do to my fig tree? And is it already too late?

    The Philadelphia area seems to be located on that invisible line separating the North from the South. We can grow a lot of plants that don’t do well much south of here, like lilacs and peonies, and we are also lucky enough to be able to grow plants usually associated with warmer climates, like camellias, crape myrtle, and figs. Of these the fig is the biggest crapshoot. We really are right on the edge of a viable climate for figs, but they are still worth trying to grow.

    First, a long and temperate fall like the one we had this year is a help for figs, allowing them to go completely dormant over the course of several weeks instead of being shocked into dormancy by a sudden fluky cold snap. Now that it really is winter (and doesn’t it feel like it today!) if your tree is still relatively young it’s worth covering the base of the fig with a pile of leaves, held in place by a ring of chicken wire, plastic sheeting, burlap, or whatever else is handy. Some people wrap the entire tree, but as figs grow really fast this is only realistic for the first couple of years while the size is still manageable.

    In severe winters the plant may die down to the roots but will be likely to regrow from the base in spring time. If we are fortunate to have a mild winter, it’s sometimes possible to get two fruit crops; one next summer on old wood and another next fall on new wood.

    A factor that will help determine your success with figs is where the plant is situated. In our area the prevailing winter wind comes from the Northwest, so planting a fig in Southeasternly exposure, particularly if there is some sort of windblock like a sturdy wall or building, will help a lot.

    And of course it all depends on what variety you grow. The Black Mission figs that are usually sold at supermarkets would never make it through a Philadelphia winter. The varieties that most people seem to grow with success in our area are Hardy Chicago and Brown Turkey, both smaller figs with brown skin and strawberry colored flesh. At Wyck we’re in our third year growing the yellow fig Ischia, which gave two crops of egg-sized fruit last year.

    One last comment—figs break dormancy late, so don’t despair if your plant is poky to leaf out in the spring. It’s probably still alive. With any luck your patience will be rewarded with all that delicious fruit a few months later.

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