Passionflower, Fuchsia, Lemon Verbena and More – Tender Plants are now in for Winter. Except the Fig
It’s a ‘Chicago Hardy’, reputedly among the toughest, this year’s shot at zone denial. The goal is to have it live outdoors all winter, without dying down to the roots.
But our part of the Hudson Valley is still zone 5b, though teetering on the edge of 6, and figs are not hardy north of zone 7. So what makes me think we can pull this off? Pure hubris? My usual oversupply of sunny optimism ? Too much research into fig protection during the Times Q&A days?
Some of each, I have no doubt. But the main reason to give it a try is this house’s uniquely suitable spot, a double protected corner facing southwest.
If you count the fact that the house ( circa 1870) is not exactly a model of tightness, the protection is triple. But double is the important part; the corner has extra backup because the house sides don’t meet.
There’s an airshaft back there on the left, a 2 foot square tube from ground to third story with the outside of a brick chimney on its north side. The chimney is lined, so it doesn’t get heat from within, but it does soak up the sun.
This monstrosity was created when previous owners expanded a bay window into a two story box. Or maybe the box was already there and the airshaft came into being when the almost-adjacent porch was closed in to become a sunroom.
If you look out the left window you’ll notice the west wall of the kitchen is – how shall I put this – rather closer than would be suggested by good design. When the kitchen was still a sunporch it had a window right across from this one, but because the sunporch walls and ceiling were clad in dark brown wainscotting and there was a dark brown rug on the floor…but I digress.
Bill’s grandfather in western Pennsylvania went with the trench method: dig a trench right next to the fig, just big enough to hold the trunk and gently-bent branches. Cut just enough of the roots to permit tipping the tree into the trench. Wrap it into a bundle with burlap or porous landscape fabric. Tuck it in. Surround it with leaves or straw. Cover the fig grave with burlap or landscape fabric and bury it under a large heap of leaves or straw, extending the heap well beyond the trench edges ( making the heap tall enough will automatically extend it). Cover the heap with a waterproof tarp.
Bill feels this is the best way to go, and as he is willing to do the digging far be it from me to say no.
Yet I’m also sort of wedded to my original plan: wrap the fig with several layers of bubble wrap, leaving the top partly open to provide ventilation, then wall off the corner with heavy plastic and then fill the entire enclosure with straw and/or leaves, layering in a few twiggy branches to keep the material from matting down unduly when wet. Brooklyn’s Italian (and formerly Italian) neighborhoods are rich with variations on this theme; when you see fat columns of burlap with straw sticking out they’ve probably got a fig tree in there somewhere.
On the good side, the wrap method would prevent shock from root-pruning and could be undone slowly in stages as the spring warmed up. On the bad, it’s probably even more work than digging a trench in the stony ground – especially given that somebody else would dig the trench.
It’s kind of a tossup for ugly – either a wall of plastic only visible from the side yard or a gravelike hump right under the window.
Fortunately, we still have time to dither, and this is the only fig that still requires protection. The other five are now safely in pots in the cellar.
How did that happen, you are entitled to wonder. Rolling River Nursery, 17 choices on the fig page, very nice people and very good root systems, too. When the Chicago arrived in May it was a 30 inch stick with a tiny shoot at the bottom.
Kind of amazing considering it had nothing but cold and damp for half of its first growing season. Welcome to the Northeast, little fig, acclimate or die.
Note, 11/08/09: In the end we went with the trench. The instructions for doing so have been updated to briefly describe what we actually did. A full set of instructions will be provided after we know that it worked.