Hartley Magazine

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Growing Figs in Northern Climates

I really enjoy fresh figs, but here in New England they can be difficult to grow because of the long, cold winters. To combat the deep-freeze time of year, New Englanders often dig their fig trees up each fall, wrap them in burlap, and bury them in a trench covered with mulch for the winter. Or they grow the trees in pots and move them into the garage or basement during the coldest months.

The potted fig coming back after being frozen to the ground - Aug 2016
The potted fig coming back after being frozen to the ground

Another alternative is available to northerners with a greenhouse. The Peter’s Honey fig tree I planted in the ground of my heated greenhouse rewarded me with over 100 pounds of fruit each year. But ultimately it grew so tall that it threatened to lift off the ceiling, so I had to remove it. In retrospect, I could have planted it outdoors in the summer and done the burlap-wrapping and burial routine for winter, but instead I cut it back and propagated some smaller trees from it. I also have a Celeste fig tree that’s done well in my heated greenhouse, and I recently purchased a White Marseille, which is a hardy variety that’s said to be one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites.

A few years ago I decided that New England winters were getting milder enough that I could experiment with leaving some fig trees in my unheated greenhouse for the winter. That worked well for three years in a row, but last winter an extreme cold spell in February killed off the tops of every one, causing me to fear that I had lost them all. But I fertilized them anyway, and about six weeks later they began to develop new sprouts. Now I have a bumper crop of figs coming on new wood. Needless to say, I’m quite pleased.

This winter I’m going to try something different with one of my Brown Turkey fig trees by planting it outdoors on the south side of my unheated greenhouse. I’ve been told that fig trees of this variety grown at Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, RI, have wintered over in sunny, outdoor locations for the last five or six years without any burlap-wrapping, heavy mulching, or other elaborate protections. And these trees have produced bumper crops of figs annually. This seems like a worthwhile experiment to try, which I’ll report on next summer. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy a fresh fig from my greenhouse!

  • Betty

    My grandfather (from Italy) grew fig trees in Massachusetts for many years, of which I was a recipient of the delicious fruit. He had them planted next to his garage and during the winter months he bent them towards the garage and covered them with a few layers of black tar paper. Hopefully I’m going to try that myself this coming year, as finding fresh figs in New England is difficult. Any other ideas out there?

  • Peter McNamara

    I am living in Boston and have two Brown Turkey trees, one is 4 years old and one is 5. I do nothing to them, other than protect them high winds with a burlap screen around them. The younger tree is more of bush than a tree at this point and gave us 28 figs last year.
    A former elderly neighbor, Italian born had one of the largest fig plants I had ever seen. There were so many figs neighbors were welcomed to help themselves. Unfortunately his next door neighbor stored salt next this fig bush and killed it.