Part 3: Winterizing, Varieties & Propagation.
WINTERIZING & THE FIG SHUFFLE
Should I protect my fig tree during the winter? This is probably the second most popular question that I get asked. And the answer is always, If you want your fig tree to live. It’s true that some varieties are more cold tolerant than others, and some varieties produce ripe figs earlier than most. But the cold, hard truth is this; if you want delicious, ripe fruit from your fig tree year after year, then you must protect it from the cold.
I’ve often heard stories about fig trees in New York City that have been in the ground, unprotected for 50 years and longer. All of these stories end the same way… until the winter of 2013. And if that winter didn’t wipe them out the winter of 2014 certainly did. During those two arctic blasts, the northeast suffered massive fig tree losses. Thousands of fig trees planted by immigrants many decades ago are gone forever. Those fig trees represent the best of the best varieties that were introduced to this country by immigrants who came to this country with nothing, and now they’re gone. My Great-Grandfather Pietro’s included.
Grandpa’s fig tree was in-ground and unprotected for 82 years. It was in the backyard of our Bronx apartment building most of his life, all of my Grandfather’s life, my parents’ and my own. It was a large, stout and healthy tree with a trunk that exceeded 10 inches in diameter and a low canopy about 20’ wide. I remember that tree loaded with beautiful dark and delicious figs throughout most of my youth. I remember my Grandparent’s picking bowls of fruit; it seemed endless. And after my grandparents had passed and my family moved away, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins moved and the house was sold in the 80’s it was still producing tons of delicious fruit every season. In 2012 I went back to our old Bronx neighborhood with my own family and spoke to the owner of the house. She said the tree still produces tons of fruit but no one eats it. I took cuttings and tried to propagate Great-Grandpa Pietro’s tree but failed. I went back to get more cuttings in the winter of 2013 but all the wood looked dead. I took some cuttings anyway and failed again. It wasn’t until the fall of 2014 when a Bronx collector taught me how to propagate a green cutting that I was able to get a tree to grow. That winter of 2014 my Great Grandfather’s tree was gone. Today, my own family eats fruit from the tree that I was able to grow and the figs are as delicious as I remember them to be.
So, should you protect your fig tree in the winter? Yes. You can wrap your in-ground tree and top it with a bucket, or dig up half the roots, bend it down to the ground and cover it with plywood, leaves and other debris. Or you can uproot your fig tree, dig a hole next to the house and bury the entire thing. Or you can move your potted fig trees into a garage or cool basement. Or you can build a temporary structure around your fig tree and hang Christmas lights around the branches. Or… I think you get the idea. Just Google ‘How to protect my fig tree in the winter’ and you’ll get an endless string of ideas. Remember these tips:
- Fig trees will do okay down to temperatures in the low 20’s but not much more.
- Protect you fig tree from the cold winter winds, even if the temperatures are above the 20’s, and 30’s.
- Water your potted, dormant fig trees during the winter. See the section on watering.
- When moving your pots into a garage or shed, remember to cover the windows with black plastic so light does not come in.
What is the fig shuffle? The fig shuffle is a dance that fig growers do in the spring and fall. When growing in pots you’ll want to get your fig trees outside as early as possible in the spring, but also want to avoid potentially dangerous frosts. After moving the potted fig collection outside in the spring, the fig grower keeps a sharp eye on local temperatures. At the first sign of a potentially harmful dip in temperature, the fig grower will move (shuffle) all the potted fig trees back into storage. When low temps have passed the fig trees will come back out of storage. This shuffle is conducted, sometimes daily, until the danger of frost has passed. The same shuffle is conducted in the fall to get those last few days and sometimes hours of heat and sun required to ripen any fruit still on the fig trees. The fig shuffle is NOT a requirement for growing in pots. The rule of thumb in the northeast is:
- take potted fig trees out of storage or unwrap in-ground trees on Mother’s Day.
- put potted fig trees in storage or winter protect in-ground trees after Thanksgiving.
You may harvest a little less fruit this way, but you won’t be a slave to the thermometer and your back and healthy trees will thank you for it.
Any discussion of fig trees deserves a mention of variety. The variety of figs available today is a subject that has filled volumes and can be debated until the end of time. Most people who eat fresh figs come to believe there is a dark fig, a light fig and that’s all. Speaking to them I find, most of the time, this belief is born in childhood and the memory of eating figs from grandpa’s tree, myself included. In reality, there are hundreds of varieties. Some of the differences are near subtle and appear only in the leaves and/or growth habits. But figs range in size, color, and taste from grape-sized, jet-black figs that taste like berries to bright green pear-sized figs that taste like melon and everything in between.
The Best. I’m often asked what are the best and worst varieties of figs. The answers are quite simple; The best variety is the tree you ate figs from as a child and the worst variety is any tree that won’t produce a good crop of delicious figs for you. Expanding on those answers just a little bit I will offer the reader two pieces of advice; Firstly, if you ever have the opportunity or figure out a way to obtain a live piece of the fig tree you’ve eaten as a child, please do so. You will never regret it and growing that tree will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. Secondly, you must grow what grows. If the tree does not produce fruit for you, it is not a good variety.
Second Best. The second best variety is any fig tree located close to home that is producing fruit. Have a neighbor that is always bragging about his delicious figs? Ask them for a cutting of that tree and propagate it. Even better, learn how to make an air-layer from a branch. Either method will give you an exact duplicate of the tree and you’ll soon be eating delicious figs as well.
Everything else. If you can’t get the best or second best, here is a short list of varieties for northeast growers that are easy to obtain, hardy and certain to produce delicious figs year after year. Most can be found in your local nursery or big box store. But I suggest you buy from a dedicated fig grower. Dedicated fig growers have an endless pool of fig-growing knowledge to help you along. Additionally, you’ll be sure to get a healthier tree that is true-to-type. I’ve had or have all of these varieties and attest they are all winners in our climate. Not in any particular order:
- Celeste - Small with light brown skin and strawberry red pulp. Very sweet.
- Brown Turkey or Texas Everbearing - Medium sized fruit with brown/violet skin and red pulp.
- Hardy Chicago - Small to medium-sized figs with dark purple skin and red pulp. Very hardy variety.
- Black Spanish - Large dark purple with light red to red pulp. More flavor than sweetness.
- Kadota - Medium light green fig with amber to a light red pulp.
- Mission - Large-sized, black shiny skin, light red pulp.
- Lattarula - Medium to large-sized, light green skin, light red pulp.
- Desert King - Breba crop only. Large to extra-large fig. Green skin with white flecks. Light amber to red pulp.
- Adriatic - Medium to large-sized green fig with bright red pulp. One of our favorites and probably the best tasting.
COLOR, TASTE & TEXTURE
Like variety, volumes have been written about color, taste, and texture. I’ll mention all briefly here but the reader should be warned that my family loves lighter colored figs so a slight bias may appear. Additionally, climate, soil, and age, among other conditions, will change all three of these factors, sometimes quite a bit. So a fig grower in New York City will not have the exact results of a fig grower in Southern California. Results will be similar, but not the same.
Taste is very subjective and probably the factor most influenced by climate, soil, and age. All figs are generally referred to as sweet with some varieties being sweeter than others. But sweetness can be the overwhelming or subtle factor and figs have many undertones of flavor including:
Sometimes there is a mix of these flavors and sometimes the undertones are overwhelming. At times the flavor of a fig is so unique that a proper descriptor is not available and can only be referred to as ‘complex’. It’s up to the taster to decide.
Why is color so important? Color may be important for many reasons. I’ve discovered the most important is the connection that most new fig growers have with their childhood. “I like dark figs” or “My favorite are the big green ones” many people will tell me. “Do you have any of those?” I’ll always ask why and the answer inevitably is, “That’s what grandpa used to grow”. But figs come in many colors including brown, maroon, purple, black, green, and yellow. Sometimes figs are mixed in color and sometimes figs are striped.
In our orchard, we find there is a relationship between color, size, and taste. Some components are suggestive and there are no steadfast rules. But generally, lighter colored figs are larger and have a thicker skin than darker figs. I’ll also find that trees producing lighter colored figs grow more vigorously than trees of darker figs. Additionally, lighter figs may be juicier and sweeter than their darker cousins. Does this mean that darker figs are less desirable? Absolutely not! Darker figs are less juicy, but their texture is more jammy. They’re not as sweet, but tastier with variable, subtle tones of berries and sugar. You can slice some dark figs, remove the pulp with a butter knife and spread it on a piece of toast. I find that trees producing darker figs are more compact with slower growth habits that are perfect for container growers. Some will say that dark figs are the figs of kings!
The only way to know for sure is to get yourself both a light colored and dark colored variety. Make your own determinations and throw them into the mix. Until then, the best and most comprehensive collection of information I’ve ever seen written about color, taste, and texture can be found on www.mountainfigs.net. The owner of the site did a great job of breaking down all components into an easy to read format with colorful charts and lots of pictures. Please be sure to take a look.
/ ˈpräpəˌɡāt /
1. breed specimens of (a plant, animal, etc.) by natural processes from the parent stock.
2. spread and promote (an idea, theory, etc.) widely.
That definition comes from Google dictionary and it encompasses a lot. Propagating fruit trees is a most rewarding experience, wonderful family activity and not that hard to learn. With today’s technology, anyone can get on the internet and discover the basic skills necessary for duplicating a fig tree. No special experience is required.
Propagation is a skill that has a definite value and pays big dividends. Your single fig tree can provide an endless supply of duplicate fig trees. This article will not teach you how to propagate. Instead, I will put you on the proper path of learning and developing your skill. And we’ll do this by answering some simple questions.
Who can propagate? Anyone can learn the skills necessary to propagate a fig tree. It took many years before I finally figured this out. It wasn’t until meeting a woman selling specialized nursery pots that it dawned on me; I can do this! Elizabeth and her husband had a large piece of property in northern New Jersey right on the border of New York (The NY/NJ border was the property line in their yard!). They were in the middle of moving to a new home and larger piece of property. She grew everything from vegetables to fruit trees, ornamental plants and shrubs, orchids and anything in between. She had been growing her entire life. Elizabeth was retired US Navy, held specialized degrees in botany, certifications in horticulture and had a successful agricultural career for more than 40 years. She and her husband were unloading some equipment that had been hanging around too long. We talked about plants, fruit, growing and propagation, pests, plant diseases, greenhouses, and equipment for hours and hours. She was very generous and at the end of the day, my truck was overflowing with more stuff than I bought. As I was leaving we exchanged numbers, shook hands and she said, “It’s always nice to meet a fellow horticulturist”. I drove away thinking I’m a horticulturist? Here was this person that made a living from horticulture and clearly had nothing to gain, but took the time to talk and share ideas with me for most of the day. Wow, I am a horticulturist! Anyone can do it.
Why would you propagate? Only you can answer that question. Maybe you’d like to expand your collection or make gifts for friends and family. Maybe you’d like to trade for other varieties that you don’t have. Maybe you want to start a small farm. Maybe you just want to experiment to see what will happen. There is no magic answer here. There is no wrong reason. Just do it!
When should you propagate? Just like why, there is no wrong time. Fig growers and collectors will propagate all year long through any weather. A technique that works for one person during a certain time may not work for you. In the end, if you propagate at the wrong time, you’ll know and won’t do it again. You just may have to figure this one out on your own. But generally speaking, early spring is the easiest (not the best) time to propagate figs for northeast growers.
Where can you propagate? Anywhere your heart desires. I know people that do it in their basements under lights, in a shed or barn, in their backyards, kitchen table, dining room, attic, and even a van parked in the driveway. Find the best environment you can and make it adapt to you. Start small and discover the space you’ll need. I started on a kitchen table, moved to a den, then a basement, then a shed. Now I have several locations depending on the season.
How do you propagate? The best is always saved for last. I’ve heard a thousand times or more, ‘My grandfather used to stick a branch in the ground and it would grow’. That may be true. But today, collectors are more advanced and newer techniques have been developed on the back of the old-school methods. So you no longer have to take a branch, stick it in the ground and hope for the best.
I’m not going to teach you how to propagate here. Instead, I’m going to describe the basic ideas and the rest is up to you. The internet will be your most valuable resource. All but one of these methods will produce an exact copy of the mother tree just as grandpa used to do. You can propagate fig trees in any of the following manners:
- Cuttings - Usually cut in the fall/winter. A piece of dormant (brown or gray), leafless wood 8 to 10 inches long is cut from the mother tree and rooted or planted. The cutting should have at least 3 good nodes on it. With proper care, you can refrigerate the cutting for a year or longer but it is best to root as soon as possible. 4-5 seasons for ripe figs
- Air-Layering - There are tons of variations and tricks. Basically, you are rooting a branch of the fig tree while it is still attached to the mother tree. A small mass of moist growing medium (potting soil or sphagnum peat moss) is suspended on the branch and a root ball develops into the medium. The branch is then separated below the new root ball and potted. This is the easiest and fastest method for a beginner. 2-3 seasons for ripe figs.
- Bending a low branch - This is a form or air-layering. A low branch on an existing in-ground or potted fig tree is bent toward the ground and held in place. Soil is placed over a portion of the branch. Roots will form into the soil and after some time the branch will be separated from the mother tree at a point before it enters the soil. The branch is then carefully dug and potted. 2-3 seasons for ripe figs.
- Digging a root sucker - Root suckers are those long, straight branches that grow directly from the soil line close to the base of the mother tree. Root suckers are a small phenomenon to me. Some varieties will sucker all season long and others will sucker as a sign of something negative. In the first case, a tree will grow and fruit sooner. In the latter case, a tree will grow and take longer to fruit. In every case, a healthy tree will develop. Let the root sucker grow for a bit then dig it out with roots intact. The sucker may need to be separated with pruners below the root zone. Pot the sucker in a good quality medium. 2-5 seasons for ripe figs.
- Rooting green wood - Difficult to do and most times takes an entire season. I’ve done it successfully only a handful of times. Takes a long time and recommended if the only wood you are able to secure is green wood. Try to get a shoot at least 12” long with some hardened brown or gray wood below the new green growth if possible. Separate the branch somewhere in the hardened wood area if present. Cut off all but 2 or 3 leaves. Can root directly in growing medium during the summer or plain water during any season. This method will require a cover around the cutting as you are trying to create a moist and humid environment. Keep in a bright and sunny location with a small amount of temperature fluctuation. 4-5 seasons for ripe figs.
- Grafting or budding - Not as hard as you think. I’ve done it successfully many times with no formal training. Consists of joining tissue (scion, cutting or bud) of one variety to the rootstock of another. Anything growing above the graft union is the new variety. Anything growing below the graft union is the rootstock and should be removed. Google, ‘How to graft a fig tree’ and you’ll find some great tutorials. This is the fastest method. 1-2 years to fruit.
- Growing from seed - Although it is not recommended, growing from seed deserves a mention. Growing from seed will NOT produce an exact duplicate of the mother tree. It takes the longest to achieve an adult tree and since the (sex) life of edible figs is complicated, there is a high probability the tree will not fruit at all. This is only recommended if you are breeding, experimenting, or need rootstock. 5-7 years to fruit if it happens at all.