ShareThis Page

Fig trees are an Italian tradition and need winter care

Doug Oster
| Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, 7:36 p.m.
Mary Menniti of Pittsburgh runs The Italian Garden Project. Figs are a traditional tree grown by Italian Americans and she is chronicling gardens all over the country. She's standing in front of a fig tree in this picture.
Courtesy of Mary Menniti
Mary Menniti of Pittsburgh runs The Italian Garden Project. Figs are a traditional tree grown by Italian Americans and she is chronicling gardens all over the country. She's standing in front of a fig tree in this picture.
Figs can be hard to grow, but are worth the effort as they are a sweet, wonderful late-summer treat.
Marcy Holquist Duff
Figs can be hard to grow, but are worth the effort as they are a sweet, wonderful late-summer treat.
Mary Menniti of Pittsburgh runs The Italian Garden Project. Figs are a traditional tree grown by Italian Americans and she is chronicling gardens all over the country. This is one way to get the trees to survive a northern winter.
Photo by Mary Menniti
Mary Menniti of Pittsburgh runs The Italian Garden Project. Figs are a traditional tree grown by Italian Americans and she is chronicling gardens all over the country. This is one way to get the trees to survive a northern winter.
Ripe figs become soft, sweet and turn a beautiful shade of purple.
Photo by Marcy Holquist Duff
Ripe figs become soft, sweet and turn a beautiful shade of purple.

As a child, Mary Menniti spent a lot of time with her Italian grandfather, who visited their rural home to tend his figs.

“He came from a lifestyle of surviving on what he could grow and brought that knowledge to New Castle,” she says.

Even then, she could tell there was a special connection between her grandfather and those figs. They grew easily in Italy but are one of the plants that need a lot of work to thrive in Pennsylvania.

“It represented self-sufficiency to them,” she says, “because the fig was something they could depend on.”

In Italy, the tree is almost a weed, producing thousands of fruits that could be used either fresh or dried. “Sometimes during hard times, a dried fig with a nut inside might be the only thing a family could eat for dinner,” Menniti says.

She's crossing the nation chronicling Italian-American gardens (theitaliangardenproject.com), and one of the first things those gardeners want to show off is their fig trees.

“It's not just a phenomenon; it's almost a fanaticism,” she says about fig growing. There's a deep nostalgic feeling wrapped up in those figs. Many trees come from cuttings brought here by relatives.

Getting them through the winter can be problematic, but Menniti has learned from the experts who have been growing figs for decades. There are newer, hardier cultivars such as ‘Brown Turkey' and ‘Chicago Hardy,' but even they will be helped by protection to survive.

“Fig trees are incredibly resilient,” Menniti says, “especially ones that are a couple years old.”

One way to overwinter them is in a container. When the leaves have fallen off after a couple frosts, bring it inside to go dormant before a hard freeze. An unheated garage is a perfect place. Even then, it should be wrapped with burlap or a blanket. Make sure the container is up off a concrete floor.

“You don't want it to get colder than 10 degrees,” she says. Every month, give the pot a little water, just to keep it from completely drying out.

Around April, the pot can be dragged out when temperatures allow; if the plant has leafed out, it can't take a frost. When the chance of frost has passed, the plant can be left outside again all season until the end of fall.

When grown in the ground, the process is more complicated, but the trees will be much bigger.

“You either wrap it or bury it,” Menniti says. Buried trees are the most likely to survive in the coldest winters. Like many marginally hardy plants, figs can be killed to the ground and will sprout from the roots the next year. The idea is to keep it from dying back, so the plant can put on fruit sooner and therefore ripen in time to be harvested.

Burying and wrapping follow the same timeline as container plants. Wrapping involves tying the supple branches together, making the tree columnar. Then surrounding the tree with something to insulate it against the cold. One word of caution: Plastic can't touch the tree, and there needs to be some air flow during the warmer months of winter.

To bury the tree, dig a trench large enough to lower the tree in without it being at the bottom of the hole; around 3 feet deep usually is a good starting point. Sever the roots on one side and push the tree over into the trench. No dirt should touch the tree, and some growers surround them with a heavy fabric.

Place a piece of plywood on top of the tree and then mulch over the wood. Straw, leaves or garden debris are good choices. Leave a little space for air to circulate until the coldest months of winter.

In the spring, slowly acclimate the tree to the weather and stand it upright sometime in May. Watch the weather carefully to avoid a late frost.

“I really see these trees as heirlooms,” Menniti says. “They are very important to the Italian-American experience. They are symbolic to who these immigrants were. They were people of the earth who thought about the importance of food for survival and self-sufficiency.”

Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or doster@tribweb.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at triblive.com/lifestyles/dougoster.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.