In discussions with hobbyists and amateur fruit growers nationally, there is a wide range of methods to growing figs in cold weather regions.  Our experience in the Sandia mountains at 7300’ elevation shows that many varieties of figs will survive our low winter temperatures.  The problem is that they are only “root hardy” at least when young. That means that they will die back to the roots over winter and regrow from the crown each year.  While the plant lives and even thrives it does not have time to regrow all trunks and branches and also set a fruit crop in the growing season.  The key will be to select the hardiest types and keep the trunks and hopefully the branches from freezing deep enough to kill them.  There are many instances of fig trees growing that are very old in different spots across New Mexico.  The favorite plants were brought here and established by immigrant families as far north as Bernalillo.  This suggests and is confirmed by many across the country that once established, say after 3 years, that the fig is much hardier that often thought. 

We are growing 10 different hardy varieties with 2 types grown from cuttings of trees growing in New Mexico.  Most of our stock was planted in May and June of 2010. They established well and put on a few new leaves through the summer but growth was slow until the end of August.  In mid September all varieties suddenly woke up and started a lot of new growth.  By the first of October several varieties had many figs on them even though some of the plants were only about 2 feet tall.  Even though our first real freeze was very late in the season it still was not enough time to ripen any of them.  If they had started to fruit about a month to six weeks sooner we would have had a tremendous crop for young plants, so their first year was very encouraging.  It is unusual to get a plant to establish and fruit all in the same season as it is planted.

In discussions about insulating the trunks and branches for the winter, 3 basic ways have been noted.  One is to build a small fence around the plant about 3’ tall by 3’ diameter and fill with leaves or straw totally covering the plant.  The next way is to gather the branches and trunks together, wrap in a blanket that is then covered and wrapped in a tarp to waterproof it.  (see picture by GEORGE WEIGEL) The third way mentioned is to bend the trunks and branches down to the ground and cover with dirt or straw.  This method seems impractical and would result in mainly broken trunks and branches as they aren’t limber enough to bend that way on any but the smallest plants.  We thought about and searched for a solution that was inexpensive, quick to implement and could easily be repeated each of the first 3 winters.  What we finally chose for the larger plants was to take a 55 gallon plastic drum and cut out the bottom.  Then we cut all around the top except for 2” which made a natural hinge.  We placed it over the plant and pounded a 4’ piece of rebar in as a stake to keep the drum from blowing over. Once in place it was an easy matter to fill the drum with straw while keeping the plant trunks centered.  On the smaller 18” plants we covered them with a 25 gal bucket turned upside down and stuffed with straw.

Since figs seem to tolerate 15 – 20 degrees with no plant or trunk damage, we are trying to gain 10 degrees or so of insulation.  As I write this (Jan 1st.)the temperature has fallen to 8 degrees outside so this year should be a good test.  Unfortunately we will have to wait until next spring to see if we are successful. The fig will naturally send up several trunks from the ground and usually these are pruned to a single one for a standard tree form.  We plan to grow them more like a lilac shrub with 3 or 4 trunks.  This way if we lose one or two trunks to frost damage we will still have some and we won’t have lost the whole tree.  We believe that once the fig has grown 2 or 3 seasons it will be established and hardy enough that covering will be unneeded.  As this project/experiment progresses we will keep posting about it