Take advantage of fig tree hardiness to harvest figs even in cold climates. Learn how to prune fig trees for a bountiful crop and how to prep a fig tree for winter.
Many years ago, when I first became interested in gardening, I planted a fig tree. That wouldn’t be notable, except I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, where winters regularly sent the mercury plummeting to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. I had a lot to learn about figs — and gardening in general — but I did have the wherewithal to plant that tree in a large flowerpot indoors.
In the decades that followed, I’ve learned a lot about gardening and growing figs “out in the field” as a fruit researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Cornell University.
I never did get fruit from that first fig tree, but thanks to what I’ve learned from my research and work, I still grow them here in the slightly less frigid winters of the Hudson Valley of New York, and I’m able to harvest plenty of fresh figs.
Fig Tree Hardiness
Aren’t figs tropical plants? Yes, figs do thrive in and are native to warm winter climates, specifically the arid, sunny climates of western Asia. But they’re subtropical plants, so figs can tolerate winter temperatures as low as 10 to 20 degrees.
Besides having the ability to survive cold, but not frigid, winters on their own, fig plants have a number of quirks that make them adaptable to being grown in all sorts of cold climates.
A Sturdy Tree
Most significant is a fig tree’s ability to bear fruits on new, growing stems. This contrasts with the bearing habit of apples, peaches, and other temperate fruits, which bear fruits only on 1-year-old, or older, stems. Being able to bear on new shoots — even if whole stems have been cut back or frozen from winter cold — lets a fig tree send out new sprouts that bear fruit that same season.
The ability to form fruits on new shoots is also what prompts some gardeners to tout the winter hardiness of their in-ground fig plants. I’ve seen figs planted in the ground in my garden and then forgotten die to the ground from winter cold and then sprout the following spring. Fruits develop on those new shoots, but none ripens. So, yes, the plants are winter-hardy, but that’s moot if you want the plant for its ripe fruit.
There’s more that recommends figs for growing in cold climates beyond general fig tree hardiness. In cool or cold winter climates, fig plants lose their leaves. Without leaves, a plant doesn’t need light in winter. This feature is important, as you’ll see, for getting a fig plant through cold winters.
Figs are tolerant of abuse. They recover quickly and well from having their stems and roots hacked back for winter storage.
How to Prune Fig Trees
How a fig tree is pruned can determine how it grows and bears fruit, and how soon it begins to bear fruit. As for how to prune fig trees, prune when the plant is dormant and leafless.
Figs respond to pruning just like other plants do. Shorten a stem to some degree — a “heading cut” — and you’ll coax new sprouts from the remaining portions of the stem, especially right near the cut. The more drastic the heading cut, the more vigorous the ensuing stem growth, and the fewer new sprouts. A heading cut is useful where you want more branching on a plant or where you want vigorous new stems to grow.
Lop a stem all the way back to its origin — a “thinning cut” — and there won’t be a local response. A thinning cut is useful where stems are congested and need elbow room or for getting rid of excess aspiring trunks-to-be if a single-trunked plant is what you want.
Figs that ripen on new shoots do so sequentially, mostly from the oldest parts of a growing stem to the newest. The closer to the ground a growing stem originates, the longer it will take for those first figs to ripen. (That’s why fig trees that die to the ground in a cold winter climate will sprout from their roots and bear fruit, but the fruits won’t have time to ripen.)
Bearing on new growth makes pruning easy. I maintain one, possibly two or three, permanent trunks, each no shorter than a couple of feet tall. When growth begins, I save only the sprouts that originate at or near the tops of the trunks and remove all others. Each fall, I lop all new growth back to the trunk or trunks. Come spring, I prune off any sprouts originating low on the trunk or from ground level.
In addition to bearing fruits on new shoots, a few varieties of fig also bear fruits on 1-year-old stems. This allows for harvesting two crops in one season! The first crop, known as the “breba crop,” ripens early in the season on 1-year-old wood over a short period. The so-called “main crop,” on new shoots, ripens later in the season and continues to the end of the season, as long as growing conditions permit.
Most fig plants need rather severe pruning, but not so severe that new sprouts originate too low on the plant, or else fruit won’t have time to ripen.
How to prune fig trees that bear a ‘breba’ crop is only a slightly different process. When pruning leave some older stems, but make heading cuts for new sprouts for next year’s brebas. Some varieties bear both a breba and a main crop, ripening at different times. In this case, split the difference: Remove or shorten more of the 1-year-old stems than you would if you wanted only a breba crop.
How to Prep a Fig Tree for Winter Indoors
Often, people who grow figs in cold climates do as I did with my first fig plant: plant it in a pot and move the plant to a protected area for winter. I still grow some figs that way and get fruit. Because a fig can bear fruit on new stems, I prune my potted plants in late fall to make it easier to fit them through doorways and down steps to their winter home in my basement.
How big or small a pot does the fig need? Your choice, depending on how much you can lift. The larger the pot, the larger the plant and the more figs it can bear. Once your fig is in the largest pot you can handle, refresh the soil, and give roots new room to grow by root-pruning every year or two.
Although root-pruning looks brutal, the plants tolerate it well, growing happily each spring following the operation. The best time for root-pruning and repotting is when the plants are leafless. Tip the plant out of its pot, slice off a few inches of soil from around the root ball (more for a larger root ball), and then put the plant back in its pot with fresh potting soil filling in the space around the edge of the pot.
Remember, figs are subtropical plants; as such, they like and do better with some winter cold. The ideal winter home for a potted fig is cool (30 to 45 degrees) but not freezing. You might find that spot in your unheated garage, basement, mudroom, attic, or cool sunroom. The leafless tree doesn’t need light in winter. Depending on the temperature and humidity of its winter home, the potted plant will need little, perhaps even no, watering.
A similar approach to getting a fig plant through a cold winter is to plant it in the ground and dig it up in late fall. Wrap its root ball in a plastic bag, and keep it cool just as you would a potted fig. Once warm temperatures settle in spring, plant your fig, hopefully still dormant and leafless, in the ground and water well. The advantage of this method over the potted method is that the far-reaching roots will make the plant self-sufficient during the growing season. And greater root growth will translate into more stem growth and a greater harvest.
One method is to grow the plant in a large, plastic flowerpot with holes drilled in its sides. Once planted outdoors in its pot, the plant’s roots will grow out into the surrounding soil. When it comes time to dig the plant up, cut all roots back to the outside of the pot and lift the pot out of the ground.
How to Prep a Fig Tree for Winter Outdoors
Another method for growing figs outdoors year-round, even where winters are frigid, is to plant it in the ground and prune or remove some branches. Tie the remaining branches together, slide a shovel into the ground to sever roots on one side of the plant (remember, figs are tolerant of abuse), and then slowly tip the whole plant to the ground away from the cut roots. For even more protection from cold, grow the plant in a trench and then tip the whole plant to the bottom of the trench.
In either case, once the plant is down, anchor it there and cover it with some leaves, blankets, or other insulation, and some plastic to keep out water.
Where outdoor temperatures don’t dip much below zero degrees, plant your fig outdoors in the ground and leave it upright. Help the plant face winter’s cold by pruning enough branches so remaining branches can be tied together and swaddled in some sort of protection, such as burlap, an old winter coat, insulation, or a blanket. The colder your winters, the more protection your figs will need from cold and wind. Top this outdoor “sculpture” with a bucket or something else to shed rainfall.
Before the above methods, leave the plant unprotected long enough to experience some cold, typically until mid- to late autumn.
Ideally, move the plant outdoors or uncover it before it awakens and starts growing new stems in spring. Then, its buds can gradually unfold into new shoots and leaves in sync with spring’s warming temperatures.
If your plant awakens before new growth is ready to face the great outdoors, don’t move it outdoors all at once. Tender, new leaves will burn when presented with frosty temperatures, drying winds, or bright sunlight. Harden the plant off just as you would tomato seedlings, gradually exposing them to the outdoors.
Of course, the ultimate home for a fig in cold climates is in a slightly heated greenhouse or unheated hoop house. In very cold climates, a fig in a hoop house could be draped with a blanket or insulation for winter. In my greenhouse, I train my figs to a short, low trunk, off which grow two permanent side arms. Each spring, I train fruit-bearing shoots vertically from the side arms. Late each autumn, I cut back all stems to the permanent side arms. It’s decorative, productive, and easy to manage. I’m trying it outdoors, with low, horizontal arms easily covered for cold protection.
Harvest Figs Even in Cold Climates
There are many ways to harvest fresh, sweet figs from your tree, depending on how cold your winters get, how hot your summers get, which varieties you grow, and what’s most convenient for you.
A fully ripe fig is a fragile, perishable delicacy, so much so that you’ll rarely find fully ripe ones for sale. And fully ripe is when the fruit must be harvested for the best flavor; no further ripening will occur once a fruit has been separated from a branch.
Fruits ready for harvest droop, soften, and sometimes have a “tear” in their eye. The flesh within the tender skin is glistening and moist, the whole fruit perfect as is or offset with the flavors of dark chocolate or goat cheese.
Lee Reich is a scientist, “farmdener” (more than a gardener, less than a farmer), and writer, most recently of the book Growing Figs in Cold Climates. In addition to providing a year-round harvest of fruits and vegetables, his farmden provides a testing ground for innovative techniques in soil care, pruning, and growing fruits and vegetables, and it serves as an educational site for workshops and training.