Most fig trees are hardy only in USDA zones 7 and higher, but you don’t have to move down South to have one. There are ways to grow your own fresh figs, even up North!
Start by selecting the most cold-hardy varieties. Among the best are Celeste Fig, Brown Turkey Fig, Ventura, and the most cold-hardy of all: Chicago Hardy Fig. Check out other popular fig varieties (ficus carica) in our past blogs for the best advice on choosing your new fig tree. Learn how to winterize a fig tree in this blog.
Winter Protection is Necessary for Figs Indoors and Out!
Smart site selection helps with caring for your fig tree over winter too. Plant your outdoor fig tree next to south facing wall, where it doesn’t get so cold. Avoid depressions in the yard where cold air settles. Planting in the ground is a great option if you have plenty of room and have the ability to protect during the winter if needed.
Still, most fig trees will need winter protection in areas where the temperature drops below about 20°F (-7°C). Either that, or they must be brought inside to a cool garage or storage shed for the winter months in a container. (Deciduous fig trees lose their leaves and go dormant in the cold winter, so they don’t need to be kept warm – just kept from freezing temperatures.)
If you do grow a fig tree in a container, use a soil-based potting mix and add bark chips, pebbles, or perlite to improve drainage at the bottom of the plastic pot. Keep the potted fig tree in full sun during the summer, then bring it into a place that does not freeze when the leaves drop in autumn.
Fig trees grown in containers need to be watered abundantly and fertilized with a high nitrogen fertilizer every four weeks during the growing season. Don’t fertilize in winter, and water only sparingly, when the leafless tree is indoors. Repot containerized figs every 2 or 3 years, and prune to maintain size. (Pro tip: Use a light weight container.)
For more information on how to care for a fig tree in winter please read below for outdoor planted trees. These fruit trees can get very large and up to 20 feet tall. It is important to protect them when they are young trees and can suffer from the cold. As older more mature trees, the trees can put up with more during the winter months but may lose some patches of tree or branches that are not protected.
Here are 3 Ways to Protect Fig Trees in Winter:
1. If your winters are just occasionally too cold for a fig tree, you can mulch the roots heavily with organic matter, and build a tent (start with an A-frame) over the tree. Install a heat source (such as a space heater or light bulb) to be turned on when winter temperatures are forecast to go below 25°F (-4°C).
Simply wrapping or draping the tree with plastic or a blanket will not suffice. Trees do not put out heat. You must have a heat source inside the tent. You can use old blankets with or without an outer covering of plastic sheeting for the tent. Just don’t let plastic touch the tree itself, hence why the A-frame works well.
2. If your winters are consistently too cold for a fig tree you can wrap the tree in insulation for the entire winter. When the fig’s leaves have fallen in autumn, start by pruning off dead branches, those that are rubbing together, and any that are crossing other branches. You also may want to shorten the overall height and some of the longest horizontal branches.
Next, tie one end of a length of twine or rope to the main trunk, to a strong branch, or to a stout pole driven into the ground near the center of the fig tree. Circle the tree, gathering the branches together into a tight upright bundle and tie securely. (Fig tree branches are surprisingly bendable!)
Next, wrap the bundled fig tree in several layers of old blankets, burlap (not plastic or plastic bags!) or tar paper, secured with more twine. Keep the very tip-top open to allow moisture to escape.
Install a thick blanket of organic mulch on the ground over the root zone. (Layers of newspaper covered with dirt will work.)
Next, build a cage around the bundled fig tree with chicken wire, hog fencing, concrete reinforcing mesh, or welded wire panels. The cage should taper upward leaving a small opening (less than foot in diameter) at the top. You may find it easiest to start with a teepee-like framework of three wooden poles to support the cage.
Place a plastic bucket upside-down on top of the cage to keep the rain out while still allowing heat and moisture to escape. Wrap a tarp, some tarpaper, or plastic sheeting around the cage and fill it with hay, straw, or dry leaves, snug up to the swaddled tree. You can even use commercial attic insulation.
Next spring, when nighttime temperatures consistently stay above 20°F (-7°C), remove the winter protection and free the fig!
3. Some people actually bury their fig trees for winter. This method works even in zone 3!
Start by pruning and bundling the branches into a tight cylinder as described above. You may want to wrap the tree in some kind of cloth (not plastic) fabric at this time.
Decide which way the tree is to recline, and dig a trench as long as the tree is tall, as wide as necessary, and just deep enough to bury it under a foot or so of soil and mulch.
Next, use a sharp spade to sever lateral growing roots one foot out from the trunk on the side opposite the trench. Shove the spade under the tree and undercut some of the root ball on the side facing the trench. Do not cut roots on the other two sides. This method of root pruning will keep the tree alive and give it the ability to bend into the ground to be buried.
Push and bend the tree down until it lies in the trench, and hold it down with something heavy. Fill the trench with mulch, cover with a tarp, and weigh that down with more mulch or potting soil.
No matter where you live, growing fig trees is possible and plausible! With a little time, effort, protection, and TLC you can provide winter care for your fig trees and have them bounce back in time for new fig leaves to flush out and produce this delicious fruit!