If you love figs and have been thinking about getting started growing your own and are living in a colder climate this is for you!
With proper winterizing choices for your figs you can grow almost any type of fig and believe me there are a lot of varieties to choose from! When we are considering growing figs in a cold climate that has moderate or worse winters there are many factors that will help your success.
Choosing the right cold hardy varieties may be more important if you cannot afford to provide extra insulation, frost protection, or effort to prepare your fig for winter!
How Cold Hardy are Fig Trees?
Figs will drop their leaves and begin to enter dormancy once temperatures drop in the range of 25 to 27 degrees F (Fahrenheit). Figs thrive in climates that do not drop below 15 degrees F. Without proper fig care, most varieties will kill back to the ground at 15 degrees F and have to start over. Although some of the more frost-hardy figs can survive temperatures down to 5 degrees F, most figs will die at temperatures as low as -10 to -20 degrees F.
Older trees will be more tolerant to frost damage due to the larger stem-base diameter. If you want to plant a fig in-ground from zones 7 and below, you will benefit from waiting until about 3 years of growth. The extra stem-base girth means you need prolonged freezing temperatures to have the stem freeze through. The amount of hours that you have fig-killing temperatures is more damaging than a short freeze.
Types of Fruit Set
Figs generally have two crops of fruit each year while some only have one. Your first crop is called the breba and is produced on the previous season’s growth. This crop tends to be less desirable than the second crop or borne crop. A borne crop is produced off of the current season’s growth. Depending on how harsh and short your winter and the growing seasons are you may only be able to produce breba fruit. This also may influence pruning and insulation techniques depending on your location.
Choosing the right cold hardy varieties
Now that you know more about the types of fruitsets, you may be able to choose a variety better suited for your location.
Some of the most commonly known cold hardy varieties are Brown Turkey, Celeste (Improved), Hardy Chicago, and Brunswick.
Northern fig growers may want to consider high tunnels or greenhouses because of the very short duration of the growing season. If the figs do not have enough time to grow shoots and arrive at the fruit set, then we need to extend the season.
Season Extension with Greenhouses
Growing under a greenhouse will extend the length of the growing season. In early spring when you have a warm couple of weeks followed by a cold snap, figs growing outside will die back and have to start over again. Having the frost protection of a greenhouse allows a solid early start to the season. This early start added to the extra heat generated by the greenhouse effect offers an opportunity for earlier, later, and more abundant fruit yields.
In Ground Poly Low Method
One method for colder climates is to dig a big hole for your fig(s). Digging a large rectangular hole 4-6 feet deep will allow you to cheaply erect a greenhouse top and you don’t have to pay for nearly as much steel or plastic as with a normal greenhouse. The insulating effect of the soil will keep your space much warmer than air temperatures especially if you can insulate the “roof”.
Having the greenhouse top closer to the ground you can also provide additional insulation on cold nights with a burlap cover over the plastic.
Another added function is if you run out of overhead room in a season you can remove the plastic during the summer without ladder work.
Another idea is to add water in kitty pools or barrels to raise humidity levels and add extra passive heat sinks for cold nights.
Low Cordon High Tunnel Method
Another great option for high tunnel production would be to train cordons or the base shoot growth of the figs to rails about 2-3′ above the ground or waist height on a horizontal plane. I am hoping to try this method of fig production on our farm if we are able to afford another high tunnel.
When your cordons are young and flexible you would bend the cordon growth down and tie it to a temporary rail that extends the length of your row. I would plant a double row on a 4′ bed with two figs planted on either side of the 4′ bed. Having two horizontal rails I would send the figs in opposite directions and continue this with 15′ spacing between the trees. This will maximize the number of trees you can fit in a high tunnel.
This is a production method that is used in Japanese high tunnels with great success. It does require more work than an outdoor fig tree. Along with training the young tree to grow horizontally, a trellis system to help the vertical growth may be necessary. Without having older vertical branches like a normal fig tree the branches may need some guidance. You can trellis fig shoots very similarly to tomatoes with twine tied to an overhead wire. The new shoot growth can be trained around the twine as it reaches up vertically above the older stem.
The Japanese tree spacing model is a bit different. They grow one tree in opposite horizontal cordon directions. I think this is less efficient than having more trees filling in the space in less time as described above.
When the season is over and the tree has entered dormancy you will need to aggressively prune the season’s shoots to about 4-6″ above the older horizontal growth. This will also ensure better borne or late crops.
Poly low tunnel
The same horizontal cordon method can be applied in a poly low tunnel. Where you do the same thing only using low-cost poly-low hoops and frost covers for winter. The downside to a poly-low is that you will only be able to protect them from cold once you have pruned them. That may mean you are cutting your season short whereas a high tunnel could help you have an extra harvest of two.
Other Methods for Overwintering Figs
The other methods for growing figs involve individually insulating the trees or physically moving them to prevent dieback or death.
Planting Location of Figs
Careful consideration of where you plant an in-ground fig may determine your success or failure. Figs do not like having prolonged saturated soil, especially in cold, windy locations. Well-draining high ground is preferred. Since cold air sinks, planting figs in valleys or low spots on your property is not advised.
Another for inground planted figs is to plant them nearby a brick or stone wall. The rock will act as a heat sponge when the sun is out and may create more favorable conditions with day and night temperatures. Keep in mind, to plant your tree removed from the majority of your wind. On my farm, the best orientation is a South-facing wall, since most of our winds blow in from the northwest.
Insulating materials for In-Ground Figs
If you are in an area with harsh winters, wrapping or adding insulation to your trees will give them a better chance at making it through to spring.
One method is to use burlap or tarpaper to add an extra layer of insulation around the tree. Another method is to put up chicken mesh circling the tree and fill the space with either hay or a composted source of mulch. Just be careful that you don’t use mulch or compost that is fresh. It will potentially damage your tree as it begins breaking down over winter.
Growing figs in pots
Growing figs in pots allows you to move the pot into an insulated garage or basement where it will not have prolonged killing temperatures. Just keep in mind that the tree needs to stay dormant. A 60-degree F basement, that may have lights on for hours at a time may not work for storage.
On my farm, I like to start the first 3 years of all our figs in 10 Gallon pots before finally transplanting them to their final “home”. This helps decrease the amount of kill back. I keep them in an unheated high tunnel in Virginia.
The last method was popularized by Italians who moved to New York with their fig trees over a hundred years ago. Instead of insulating the trees above ground, they would uproot the tree enough to pull it down to ground level keeping it hanging on with its strongest tap roots. Next, they would tie the tree branches closer together and lay them into a trench, cover it with plywood and start a compost pile on top of it.
The burying method is a sure way to withstand the harshest of winters whereas the burlap method is only suitable for mild winters.