Q. How do I care for my fig tree?
Fig trees (Ficus spp.) thrive in Mediterranean-type climates. However, certain varieties such as 'Brown Turkey' and 'Celeste' can be grown in the Northeast. If protected from frost, they will tolerate temperatures as low as 15°F.
To avoid possible loss of your fig, find the warmest, sunniest spot in your garden. This could be near a white painted wall or in a high area where frost can't be trapped. The south or southwest side of your house is best. The space allotted to the tree should be approximately 12 feet square.
Plant in well-drained soil. Fig trees tolerate a pH from 6.5 to 7.5, although 6.5 is ideal. Amending the soil each year with compost will enrich and condition the soil, reducing the need for inorganic fertilizer. This can be done in spring and fall.
Ficus can adapt to dry and moist conditions; established figs are drought tolerant. Avoid excessively wet conditions, as the roots can drown. On the other hand, severe drying out can cause the lower leaves to drop. If the tree well is dry, apply extra water, usually not exceeding 1 inch per week. A good technique is to use a soaker hose around the tree's drip line but not in contact with the collar (basal flare) of the tree.
Fertilize in spring and midsummer. Use natural organic compost or an 8-8-8 formula (1 cup each time). Don't fertilize after midsummer, as you don't want to stimulate late growth.
After leaf drop--usually after Thanksgiving--it's time to "put your fig to bed." First, using natural twine, wrap the tree into a tight cylinder. Then wrap the tied tree in burlap. Cover that with a roofing paper wrap. Some gardeners use old linoleum instead of tar paper; avoid using plastic--it doesn't breathe. Place salt hay or shredded leaves in the interior of the wrap and the tree well for insulation. It's a good idea to put three stakes around the tree well, then wrap around the stakes to support the tree and keep the tar paper intact. To protect the roots, mulch the ground around the drip line and beyond with salt hay or shredded leaves. Evergreen boughs can help hold the leaves in place.
You can further protect your tree by "capping it off"--placing a pail atop it. If the tree is too tall for this step, don't worry--it's not completely necessary. Its purpose is to prevent water from entering and freezing branches. If you discover dead wood in spring, simply prune it out.
In spring, if you live in the Northeast and had a very cold winter as in the recent past, you can unwrap your tree after Mother's Day or when you start seeing green buds. If temperatures threaten to drop again into the frost range, take off the wraps in layers. First remove the tar paper. After another week or two, when the danger of hard frost is past, remove the burlap and twine and wait for your fig tree or bush to "wake up."
Winter damage due to not wrapping tree: In the harsh winter of 2014, many fig trees didn't grow back, or made little growth, or produced suckering growth late in the season:
If you observe no growth or life happening on the trunk, but live shoots rising next to the trunk from the ground or pot, take heart--your fig is alive and coming back. You can either let all these "suckers" grow into a bush or allow 1-3 stems to grow as a single- or multi-stemmed tree. Do not cut any wood back until you are sure it's dead. Starting up high, scrape down the bark until you see green. Everything below where you first see green is likely to be alive; the wood above the green is dead. When you are sure it's dead, cut this wood back.
Because it might take an additional 6 weeks for buds to break, proceed cautiously. You may also see some branches not sprouting. You can cut these off. If any green buds at all appear, your fig has survived another winter.
Alternatively, you can plant your ficus in a container. Then there's no need for winter wrapping. Just bring the potted plant into an unheated garage where the temperature will remain above freezing. Water sparingly once a month during winter. Do not soak. The tree is dormant and requires only that its roots don't dry out completely. A small castered planter can make the moving job easier; simply place the plant on the saucer and wheel it into the garage. If moving the pot into a sheltered area is not an option, then protect as you would a planted tree, by digging a hole and place the potted plant in it, then wrapping as described above.
Late winter or early spring, when the tree is still dormant, is the best time to prune your fig tree. In dormancy the tree will not bleed sap, which makes the chore easier. However, damaged, broken, or diseased branches can be removed at any time. Use a sharp, sterile tool to make clean pruning cuts, leaving no stubs behind. Cut at an oblique angle above the branch bark collar (the tree collar area is resistant to disease and promotes healing). Do not head back the tree, but rather make thinning cuts to secondary limbs, removing no more than a third or a quarter of the plant.
For tips on a variety of gardening topics, see our Plant Information Guides.
- Courtesy of NYBG Plant Information Service