Last Saturday, I was able to attend the NOFA Winter Conference which held a workshop on growing figs in the north. The workshop was presented by Lee Reich who has grown fig trees in upstate NY for several years. It’s always exciting to learn that it is possible to grow tropical and subtropical plants in our area. Figs are subtropical and deciduous and in the north we can take advantage of that to be able to grow them here. Lee presented five different methods of growing figs this far north but in my opinion only two really made practical sense.
Figs can not withstand our winters outdoors so they need to be protected from the cold. One way to do this is to grow the fig trees in large pots and to bring them indoors for the winter. They need to be brought in fairly late in the season when temperatures get around the freezing mark. If the fig hasn’t dropped all it’s leaves by then, remove any remaining leaves and cut the fig back to a manageable size for your storage area. The fig trees will need to overwinter in a cool dark spot. Some basements or a garage can be an ideal spot. If your storage area is too warm or bright they can start to grow too early. If this happens and it’s too early to move it outside for the summer, keep the fig in the coolest sunniest spot you can find.
Once the weather is reliably above freezing move the fig outdoors to a sunny warm spot. Figs require an ample amount of light and heat to bear fruit so a southern exposure with full sun would be best. Fig trees grown in pots will need to be re-potted every few years by removing the plant from the pot, slicing off a few inches of soil and roots and replacing with new soil. Figs also require careful attention to watering so an automatic drip system may be best.
The other method to grow figs in the north is to grow them in greenhouses or high tunnels. In a high tunnel, they can be planted right into the ground but may need mulch and extra care to keep them warm enough through out the winter. Even if they are killed to the ground they often will grow back from the roots.
Depending on variety, figs fruit on old wood or new and old wood. Some varieties give you one crop a year and some will give you two crops; a Breba crop,(an early crop on old wood) and a main crop on new wood later in the season. Most figs will start fruiting their second year and fruit during the summer. The fruit will not ripen after it is picked so it is best to leave it on the tree until fully ripe. The fruit is best fresh but can be dried and used later.
There are many varieties of fig trees and it is important to purchase the hardiest varieties to grow in containers. Of the many varieties available, Lee was saying that he has had the best luck with Brown Turkey and Ischia verde. Those seem like good recommendations so I’m going to try one or two of these figs this coming season. I don’t have a greenhouse and will have to grow them in containers and bring into them my basement for the winter. There is a database of fig varieties and a great deal of information on growing figs at the figs4fun website.
Figs grow readily from cuttings and that is the least expensive way to acquire trees. In the Fall you can purchase dormant cuttings from the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Fruit and Nuts. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help me with buying trees now. So I’ve been looking for nurseries that carry the Ischia and Brown Turkey. So far, I’ve found one or the other. Logee’s has the Ischia and TyTy Nurseries or Willis Orchards carry the Brown Turkey. There seems to be several substrains of the Brown Turkey so that’s going to take some sorting out but I’m looking forward to having fresh figs next year. I suppose this year I could use the fig leaves as disposable clothing.