How to grow figs, pick the best varieties for cold climates
You might be surprised to learn that figs (Ficus carica) thrive in Western Pennsylvania, with a little help and winter protection, of course.
Though many varieties of this fruit have been selected for improved cold hardiness and early ripening, you’ll want to select a warm location with southern exposure to speed the fruit ripening process. Figs do best with at least eight hours of sun per day.
Most varieties of mature fig trees are only hardy down to about 10 F, making it necessary to overwinter your fig plants indoors or under some form of protection (more details on this process in a bit).
Typically, figs produce two crops per season. However, some varieties are better at this than others, especially when it comes to growing them in Western Pennsylvania.
The first fig crop arrives on growth from dormant buds that did not fruit the previous season. Called the breba crop, these fruits ripen as early as July, but the timing will vary with the variety and the weather. The second — or main — fig crop forms on new growth produced in the current growing season. Here, and in other northern climates, this later crop will likely ripen in September or October, but may not ripen at all if the weather doesn’t cooperate or if you have a late-maturing variety.
For this reason, it’s good to try to find a variety of figs that reliably produces a breba crop even in cold climates. My favorite is “Desert King,” but “Kadota” is another great choice.
Fig trees perform very well in containers, and no pollination is necessary for fruit set. The advantage of growing in pots is that plants can be placed to maximize sunlight, and they are easy to move indoors for the winter. Containers also restrict the tree’s roots, which helps limit the overall size of the plant and increase fruit production.
Figs can be pruned into tree form or allowed to grow more like a shrub.
In the autumn, fig trees naturally go dormant here in Western Pennsylvania. They drop all their leaves and stop growing at the first frost.
Prepare for winter
While they are dormant, fig trees don’t need light or even much heat. In areas like ours, where figs won’t reliably overwinter outdoors, this means they should be stored indoors, in a cool, dark place. If it gets too much light or warmth, your fig will have weak, lanky growth.
An attached garage, cold cellar, or unheated basement are perfect overwintering sites for potted figs. Ideally the temperature should be between 27 and 45 F.
During winter dormancy, water your fig tree exceedingly sparingly, perhaps every 6 to 8 weeks.
It is also possible to overwinter figs outdoors by burying the plant underground, constructing a shelter around it, or wrapping it up like a mummy with burlap or blankets surrounded by a plastic tarp. To me, this sounds like a lot of work, so I choose to grow my fig in a container and overwinter it in the garage.
Figs are delicious fresh off the tree. Whether it’s a breba crop or a main crop, figs are best harvested when their necks are soft and the skin easily tears.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.