how to overwinter a potted fig

THE FRUIT EXPERT LEE REICH came to my open garden day this June, which was a happy surprise—and also a moment of terror. “Nice fig tree,” he said, and for a moment there, I felt so proud. “But what will you do with it this winter?” Uh-oh, a leading fruit guru who gardens in the same zone as I do thinks the tree’s a goner. Gulp. Now nights are getting colder, and it’s time for me to start the process to (hopefully) prove Lee wrong. So how will I overwinter a potted fig tree in Zone 5B?

After Lee’s early warning signal, I studied up–both in his most recent book, “Grow Fruit Naturally,” and elsewhere. Since my fig is in a pot, not the ground, and I’m in Zone 5, I can’t take the tack that I used to see where I grew up, in Zone 6-bordering-on-7ish: wrapping the tree in tar paper and/or burlap, then stuffing the whole enclosure with leaves.

Even more dramatic, I remember some growers actually digging around the fig’s root zone on one side, then tipping the tree over into a trench they’d dug alongside, and burying it. Wow, even more work that the tar paper-burlap-leaf deal.

So what to do? At least I got this much right: I bought a small, hardy variety (at least as hardy as figs get): ‘Brown Turkey,’ which will fruit mostly on new wood (meaning if I have to prune off any dieback, or simply have to trim to get it in and out of storage, I’d still have a shot at fruit).

With near-frost expected I stopped watering a week or two ago; I want to signal to the plant that it’s almost time to nap, and also don’t even know how I can move this baby into shelter semi-dry, let alone if the giant pot is sodden. (Above, how the fig looked the other day, pre-frost, with an ornamental sweet potato vine spilling out of its giant pot.)

The other signals to sleep are coming from Mother Nature, in the form of shorter days and cold temperature. Letting a light frost or two hit the plant is OK; I actually want the leaves to drop off before I stash my fig, a sign that it is ready to sleep.

In the next week or two or three, weather-dependent, I’ll get ready to roll my by-then leafless, fruitless fig on my trusty hand cart into a space where it will stay dry and dark (more important in late winter, I think, so the plant doesn’t wake up too soon) and just above freezing all winter. Thirty to 50 degrees F would be ideal, and again, if I still lived in a more favorable spot, an unheated garage might do fine. Here, the barn is just too cold if winter temperatures dip drastically.

The basement is my only real choice, and getting it down there will be, shall we say, interesting. (If you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know what happened.) I fear it may be too warm at both ends of the storage season, so I’m leaving it outside until the last minute (Lee says the figs can even take 20s for a bit).  As for the logistics of getting it downstairs:

“Another option, since you have to root-prune and repot the plant every year or two to provide room for new roots to grow,” says Lee, “is to take the plant out of the pot, hack back the roots, and put the remaining root ball into a plastic bag, loosely tied. That plant will be lighter and easier to move, especially if stems also are pruned. In late winter, pot up the root ball and you’re good to go.”

Before moving it into its new quarters, I’ll inspect carefully for any pests that might want to roll along with us; some experts advise spraying with horticultural oil after doing that.

Wherever you store your plant, remember: mice love to gnaw at tender bark and shoots, so even deciduous plants in storage, though not needing water or light, can still attract rodent pests.

I’ll check whether it needs a little water in late winter, then bring the plant out to a sheltered spot a couple of weeks before final frost, prune it to encourage more new growth (which will bear the fruit) and water it properly when it seems ready to stir, and keep an eye out for coldsnaps before moving it back into place (forces willing!) come sometime in May.

When I read how Lee Reich solved his fig hardiness issues, I had to smile. Lucky Lee: He has a cool greenhouse, that he keeps no lower than 37 degrees F (well, unless the propane heater fails, as it did last winter at one point). Some of his figs are planted right in the ground inside the greenhouse, where he also grows his wintertime greens. (Others are in his basement.) Maybe I can just drive my baby across the Hudson and tuck it away in the care of a pro?

Or maybe I should have thrown all caution to the wind, and planted my ‘Brown Turkey’ in the ground alongside a warm stone wall, then wrapped it come fall, and pruned off winter damage around March, then grown it as a cutback shrub. In 2011’s wacky non-winter, a friend right nearby didn’t even have dieback on her fig that was grown just that way.

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42 comments
October 14, 2012

comments

  1. Sharon says

    I have a 3 year Chicago hardy fig (from Logees) planted in the ground from day one. (zone 5) First year I mulched with 3′ of salt marsh hay over the top of 2′ plant which was surrounded with a wire cage and covered with black plastic to keep dry. In the spring I removed and plant shot up 5 feet with several branches. 2nd year, I mulched and covered around the base, used plastic again and left branches exposed. no cage. (It was a warm winter in CT last year). This spring uncovered again. Fig was multi-branched, beautiful leaves and 8-9 feet tall with lots of figs. Only three figs ripened before Frost of October 12th browned the leaves. I have been very successful wintering now if I can just get the figs to ripen!!!

    • says

      Hi, Sharon. I agree — I can keep the plant’s roots alive outside in a microclimate spot here, I think, but I want FIGS. :) Inside it is going…we shall see. Fingers crossed.

  2. Margaret Bonner says

    Picking up on this as we enter the spring season, I wanted to mention a few fig trees I have overwintered in my greenhouse (I’m in same zone as you and Lee … 5B. I also had my fuel run out and a 2 week stint at the end of January while I was off in Belize, when my greenhouse was out of a heat supplement. My stash consisted of Brown Turkey, plus an unknown variety of others (supplied by my niece who lives in San Diego and sent my cuttings through the mail). My Brown Turkey made it, and three others of unknown variety. Two others failed. Temperatures were below freezing. Bottom line….figs with some protection seem to be hardier than their zones indicate. And the resultant fruit (which is already coming out in the greenhouse this season) is so luscious.

  3. Stella says

    This is my first year of a fig adventure. (We live in zone 6b). I got a small ‘brown turkey’ that i potted up and put outside for the summer, only 6″ high,with great expectations that it would flourish, and perhaps transplant in the ground near a sunny stone wall, but after my local deer herd decided to nibble off the top in August, I brought the pot indoors. Now it’s joined with some houseplants in a sunny, but cool NW window for the winter. Should I move it to a cooler spot over winter ? I started a Meyer lemon the same way about 6 years ago, potted it up and now it’s about 4′ high with lots of fruit ( after a summer in the backyard). I bring it indoors for the winter in a sunny SE window. Some leaves yellow & drop, but the fruit ripens and we start the cycle every spring and the tree is thriving.. Any help would be greatly appreciated. thanks.

  4. Jean says

    I live in the Chicago area and have 3 figs. Two in large pots and one in a barrel. This year was the best, lots of really sweet figs. I have been moving them to a corner in the garage for the winter for 15 years now. I do not water them during the dormant period but they always start sprouting in March or April then I water them. I move them outside in late April, and fertilize them with Miracle Grow. I prune them before bringing them in but not much.

  5. Heidi says

    I also am new to fig-ing, but I brought mine inside while it still has leaves. Should I put it back outside until all the leaves drop?

    Thanks!!

  6. Tama says

    I wonder how the fig did this winter of 2013 to 2014. I’m wanting to put my fig outside but don’t know if it’s safe yet.

    • margaret says

      Mine are still inside, Tama. Wacky winter that doesn’t seem to have really settled yet. I like it to be a bit more stable before they go out!

  7. effie fiander says

    My fig tree is in a pot which i keep inside, my friend planted and started for me 3 years ago,
    can i put it outside during the summer months ?

    • margaret says

      Definitely, Effie — I assume you mean an edible fig? It wants to be outdoors as much as possible. Some varieties are even hardy in Zone 5 (you may be colder than that).

  8. Mark L says

    At our church/school in upstate NY (zone 5) we have a brown turkey fig that is at least 4 years old. It has been inside a classroom each winter, produced figs, but not grown in size.
    I have put it outside for the summer, re-potted it, and intend to overwinter it in an attached unheated shed area so it can go dormant. I transplanted it to a plastic pot but wondering if that was a mistake as it may be retaining too much moisture for the size tree that it is. Should I have used a clay pot instead?

    • margaret says

      I think you’re fine, Mark, as long as the drainage hole or holes is sufficient for the size of the pot. Both of mine are in big resin (fiberglass or plastic) pots.

  9. Judy says

    I’m happy to find this web site and all the fig hints. I’ve got two 3-year-old potted figs- Chicago Hardy and Mission – in Zone 6A. I brought them into the unheated basement for the past winters, but they break dormancy by early March so all the leaves (and little figs) fall off before it’s time to go back outside. I’m hoping covering them in black plastic will prevent that this year. The problem I have now is that they’re getting to be too big to get down the cellar stairs. I’m looking for (top) pruning advice.

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