Challenges of Growing Figs in Colder Zones
Hey, fig lovers, this is Ross the Fig Boss, and today we're diving into a fig master class on cultivating this incredible fruit tree in challenging zones 5, 6, and 7.
Understanding temperature thresholds is key—while most if not all fig varieties can endure a low temperature of 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit, their hardiness rating drops significantly at 5 degrees Fahrenheit, with only 2.5-5% of fig varieties capable of making it through those winter lows without harm. At 0 degrees Fahrenheit, only the hardiest fig varieties can survive. When experiencing temperatures below that, there's not much hope.
That's why in this article I want to offer my expertise in the winter protection of fig trees. It's a game-changer, offering an additional 5 to 10 degrees for survival in even colder zones.
Aside from the winter protection & training methods mentioned in the next section of the article, first consider these critical prerequisites.
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Strategies for Successful Fig Cultivation in Colder Zones:
Microclimates: Plant on sheltered west or south side of structures like houses, greenhouses, or sheds for warmth. Observe where the snow melts first. That’s the warmest winter location.
Thermodynamic Heating: Use large boulders or water barrels as additional heat sources that absorb heat during the day and release it at night.
Maximize sunlight exposure.
Lignification Makes All the Difference:
Lignification is the process of hardening branches to prepare for winter.
Even the hardiest fig varieties can take damage at only 20-25F if they’re not lignified properly.
Proper lignification allows trees to withstand the winter lows of their genetic potential.
The same can be said about young fig trees. They’re rarely prepared for the winter. Why? Because they have the wrong balance of hormones leading to improper lignification. When this occurs, their balance of hormones shifts toward favoring growth. Not fruiting. As a result, they’ll grow too much during the summer months and typically they won’t stop until their first frost.
Why Winter Protection of Fig Trees is Critical: Stopping a Vicious Cycle
It is a requirement to protect fig trees suffering from hormonal balance. Once the apical and lateral buds are preserved, fig trees revert to a balanced state. They’ll fruit earlier, more, produce better fruit quality, and will lignify properly leading to a hardier fig tree.
Strategies for Fig Trees in Each Zone: 5, 6 & 7.
Fig Trees in Zone 7:
Most hardy varieties can survive without winter protection with the proper microclimate and level of lignification.
Consider additional protection as an insurance policy against extreme winters that may occur every few decades.
My favorite method of winter protection is called the “bend and cover” method.
The goal is to insulate the branches, utilizing the earth as a heat source.
Fig Trees in Zone 6:
In zone 6A, train fig trees low to the ground using espalier, low cordon, or Japanese stepover methods.
Like the “bend and cover” method, this low and horizontal training method of fig trees allows for easier covering of the permanent structure of fig trees. Use the same materials mentioned in the strategy for zone 7 as insulation.
Before covering, prune new shoots back that arise from those arms each year, making the arms permanent. This recycling process results in productive fig trees even in Zone 6. The branches can be cut back to the arms, and since they are already close to the ground, covering them without bending becomes an effective strategy.
In zone 7, fig trees can survive unprotected and will form a permanent structure above the winter covering. In zone 6, they cannot. Therefore training fig trees as a low cordon will result in more productive fig trees than the effective zone 7, “bend and cover” method in zone 6.
Fig Trees in Zone 5:
Growing in the ground is challenging due to cold temperatures.
For fig trees planted in the ground, the “cut and cover” method can be used.
In Zone 5, covering fig trees may not be sufficient. Even when bending them to the ground. A suggested alternative is the "cut and cover" method, where all branches are cut back to 2-6 inches, and the root crown of the fig trees is covered with the insulative mulching materials mentioned previously. This method aims to protect the base of the tree and insulate the roots, which can be challenging in Zone 5 climates as soil temperatures need to stay above 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
I have firsthand knowledge of many fig growers located in Zones 5 and 6 that don’t protect their fig trees at all, allowing them to die back to the ground. They often succeed, but their crops are fewer in number, later to ripen, and of lower quality, but larger in fruit size. Fig trees are resilient and will resprout from the roots if the soil is kept warm enough. However, relying on this method can lead to hormonal imbalances favoring growth over fruiting.
To combat this, thinning out new shoots that arise after dieback is required. This ensures that the remaining shoots receive sufficient sunlight, a critical factor for fig trees to fruit. Each tree should thin its suckers to no more than 5-8 (depending on the width of the root crown and age).
Choose varieties that recover well from pruning.
Avoid shady locations with limited sunlight.
Be patient, as it may take several years for fig trees to mature and fruit in zone 5.