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.

The fig in late September, slightly taller than 6 feet. It arrived in May as a single 30 inch stick with a tiny shoot at the bottom.

The fig in late September, slightly taller than 5 feet, planted as close as possible to a very cosy corner.

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.

The verbena (temporarily) in the living room bay

The verbena (temporarily) in the living room bay

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.

And like its buddies it got as far as figs before the frost nailed it.

And like its buddies it got as far as figs before the frost nailed it.

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.

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  • Lynn Said,

    My new fig died way back quite a bit with late freezes in spring here in Virginia. But did produce enough new wood to make about 4 fruits. 1 for me and 3 for the squirrels as it turned out. It is only about 3ft tall and is a yellow fruited variety. Not as delicious as I was hoping but it was awfully rainy and as I said I only had the one… Am NOT looking forward to a summer of bird netting as it is planted outside my kitchen window and will hopefully one day provide shade. Am pondering protection.. I think burlap around stakes should be enough? without the straw? We are pretty reliably zone 7 and it is on the south side of the house moderately sheltered.

  • Lynn Said,

    Just reread what you said about the trench method! That is really wacky. It seems the root pruning would have to be pretty severe. I wonder if it is somehow beneficial?

    Also – what kind of verbena is that???

  • Leslie Said,

    Hi Lynn –

    I can see where the trench would sound strange to someone who gardens in Virginia and thus has never had cause to look into rose protection strategies. The whole bend into trench drama is on that list too.

    Or maybe not the part about the roots. I confess I can’t remember at the moment, probably because it’s not something I’d bother with.

    For a rose. For figs, on the other hand, I’d do almost anything. We ended up needing to shorten ( and cover) about a third of the root circumference, and that might not be a third of the roots. The cut side is the house side and it seems reasonable to suppose more roots went out towards the world of water and nourishment.

    I doubt root pruning is beneficial, but it must be survivable because a couple of our figs are divisions that have already been through one winter in the cellar.

    It’s hard to know how much protection to suggest in your case – a bit of winter dieback is likely if temperatures go much below 20, but freezes that come late, after active growth has resumed, are often more damaging and those are almost impossible to defend against.

    Burlap around stakes will prevent windburn but that’s about all. For winter protection you could try a couple layers of bubble wrap under the staked burlap if you’d prefer that to straw, but I’d still suggest something that meets the ground and makes insulating air chambers for the first few years. If the thing gets big enough to provide shade you will as you point out have to protect the figs, not the tree.

    One warning: if you go the bubble wrap route, be sure there’s ventilation and don’t forget a sunblock ( the burlap will be fine for that).

    Whoops, forgot the other question. It’s a lemon verbena, Aloysia triphylla, and it usually winters in the basement too.

  • Lynn Said,

    Thanks so much. I admit I am doubtful about the bubble wrap since we get so many warm days interspersed with the cold. Can’t wait to see how your tree does this year. I see the post about the trench! Apparently pomegranates grow here – if only I can find a place…

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