Figs


It’s not too late to get your dormant pruning done
As fruit trees mature, they must undergo two pruning phases. When the tree is young, the first phase consists of cuts to select the primary scaffold and heading and thinning cuts to create the secondary scaffold. In trees over 5 years old, the second phase begins, in which fruiting wood is maintained and renewed by thinning and heading fruiting and non-fruiting wood. Thinning cuts refer to the complete removal of branches and are applied to promote space for aeration, light penetration and fruit maturation. Heading cuts refer to the removal of portions of branches and are applied to force and direct branching and spur development and to restrict overall size of the tree.
In both phases, general pruning principles apply. First, remove all dead, dying and diseased wood. Second, remove all branches and limbs that grow toward the center of the tree. This promotes aeration and light penetration to the fruiting wood. Third, thin branches and limbs that cross or touch so that abrasions do not develop. Finally, remove any suckers growing off the rootstock above or below the ground.
You will find that heavy pruning encourages the formation of water sprouts and vegetative growth at the expense of fruiting woods. Light pruning, on the other hand, encourages heavy fruit set which results in smaller fruit of poorer quality and possible broken branches. Since home growers must also keep trees to manageable sizes, strive for a balance between heavy pruning and renewing fruiting wood.
In order to achieve this, you should know where your tree bears its fruit.
ALMONDS produce on spurs that remain productive for up to 5 years. Remove water sprouts and head and thin as necessary. As the tree matures, remove older, unproductive spurs to generate new spur growth.
APPLES produce fruiting spurs on wood 2 years and older that are productive for 6 to 10 years. Thin out branches to admit sufficient light to all parts of the tree; this will encourage new spurs to develop. Remove older, unproductive spurs as the tree matures. You may also need to thin spurs. Up to two-thirds new growth can be cut back annually.
APRICOTS bear the bulk of their fruit on 2 year old wood. All new growth can be cut back approximately by two-thirds. This wood will grow fruit spurs the second year and produce fruit the third year.
CHERRIES are borne on long-lived spurs that are productive for 10 to 12 years. When trees are young, head back main limbs one-third to create branching. Continue heading to create more branching and thus, more spurs. Because spurs are long-lived, thinning cuts tend to predominate pruning in phase two.
FIGS produce fruit on 1 year old wood and the upcoming season’s growth. They require little specialized pruning; head back to keep tree to manageable size and thin to keep aerated.
PEACHES AND NECTARINES produce fruit on last year’s growth. Remove about 50 percent of current season’s growth annually. On younger trees prune whips back to 12 to 24 inches. Use thinning cuts to promote aeration.
PEARS bear fruit on spurs on 3 to 10 year old wood. Main limbs are usually headed each year and side limbs are lightly headed or left unheaded, producing spurs and fruit in future years. As in apples, remove older, unproductive spurs and thin middle-aged spurs. Up to two-thirds new growth can be cut back annually.
PERSIMMONS bear on the current season’s shoots. Pruning consists of thinning shoots to promote growth for next season’s crop and heading cuts to keep fruit within reach.
JAPANESE PLUMS AND ITALIAN PLUMS (PRUNES) bear on fruit spurs which live 5 to 8 years. For varieties that bear heavy crops, remove one-half of the shoots each year. Other varieties, like Santa Rosa, bear moderate to light crops so remove only one-quarter of the shoots.
WALNUTS produce fruit on spurs on 5 year old wood that remains productive for up to 15 years. For the mature tree, a pruning program can consist of applying the general pruning principles described above.

SUMMER PRUNING assists home orchardists with the goal of keeping trees to manageable sizes. Typically, the whip emerging from dormant season heading cuts are themselves headed and thinned in August or after fruit harvest. By removing this growth, you remove leaves which would otherwise generate food for the tree and thus, vegetative growth. Since most rootstocks, even those labeled ‘semi-dwarf,’ are primarily developed for soil and climate adaptation, pest and disease resistance and early bearing, controlling the size of the tree becomes the home orchardist’s responsibility. Many trees, especially Apple, Pear, Apricot, Peach, Nectarine, Persimmon, Fig, and Plum trees, can be kept to 10 to 12 feet utilizing summer pruning. Trees this size are more easily sprayed, pruned in winter.

fruit_tree_pruning

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In the past we have focused on trying to grow figs by insulating them over the winter.  Our problem has been that while the plants live and even get bigger each year, the main trunks and branching freezes back to the ground. In the summer when warm enough, it regrows and develops figs.  Our season isn’t long enough to regrow all the plant, then set and also ripen a crop.  When the first freeze hits we are left with many green, quarter-size figs on the bushes.

This year we decided to change our approach. Instead of trying just to keep branches alive through the winter, thereby fruiting earlier in the season, we are going to try extending the length of the season.  Because our bushes are in a row, this easily lends itself to covering with a “low tunnel”.  A low tunnel , as opposed to the better known and walk-in “high tunnel” or “hoop house” is a miniature hoop structure about 3’-4’ tall that is covered with plastic, usually white instead of clear. This allows diffused sunlight to warm the interior, keeps off the wind and gives a small amount of insulated protection at night, while allowing the covered soil to radiate warmth. These were originally designed to set over a row of vegetable crops to get a jump on spring growth and also in fall to have a longer season.  Usually they have to be monitored during the day and opened if it gets too hot inside.  Since figs love the heat and will mature quicker, we are planning to keep it totally closed.

All hoops in place

 

Checking the weather Friday showed that we were due for our first freeze Saturday night. We needed to work quick to have a chance saving this year’s crop!  Luckily we had the materials we needed already on hand and Saturday morning we got to it.  Our first step was to pound 2’ lengths of rebar into the ground every 3’ or so, in two rows.  One row on each side of the bushes.  The next step was to take 8’ lengths of PVC pipe, bend and place over the rebar, one side to the other.  These are our ”hoops” or “ribs” and are an arch of approximately equal width and height.

Tying the hoops together

Next we took some poly twine and with Russell’s Boy Scout knot tying skills we tied each hoop to the next using a single piece of the twine.  This stops any independent movement of the hoops and makes the whole structure much more rigid.  That was the easy part and took two people about 1 hour to complete for an approximate 30’ length.

 

The next step is where we varied from normal hoop structure.  We had some Agribon-19 floating row cover that was on a huge roll I got for the vegetable garden.   Row cover is made from white premium grade spun-bond polyester and has “pores” large enough to let in 85% of the sunlight, water and air, but small enough to keep out insect pests.  A single layer gives 3-4 degrees of insulation or cold protection.  We opted to put on 2 layers hoping to get even better frost protection maybe down to 26.  Our weather forecasts show that upcoming freezes for the next 3 weeks should not drop this low, but who trusts the weathermen?  After applying the row cover we clipped it at the ends only to hold it on while we did the next layer.  The clips are about 3” long aluminum and like a pipe slit down the side.  They are made to go over ¾” pvc and hold thin plastic.  What a life saver these little gadgets have been!

Lastly we were ready to cover the unit with plastic.  We used clear plastic since we want as much solar gain inside as possible and also because the row cover will diffuse any direct glare.  A ten foot wide piece was selected leaving a foot extra on each side when covered.  Then we took some 16 foot long 2” x 4” ‘s and rolled the bottom plastic on them. Once rolled, we used a staple gun to secure the plastic to the boards.   At the ends we just gathered and bunched the extra film and tied it off with some twine. To look inside all we need do is lift a side towards the middle or open an end up.

We will see if we can extend the season long enough, but probably the middle of November is all we will get.  After the plants go dormant we will bend them down, cover with straw and keep the cover on it.  Keeping wind off, combined with some daytime warming way keep the plants branches from total freeze off. Regardless we should also get a jump on the growing season in the spring and maybe an artificial  “early” spring combined with a ”late” fall would be long enough to mature the fruit even if we have to regrow the branches and stems.

As we start our third growing season at Road’s End Farm it is time to write about some of our observations and results with the many types of fruiting plants that we grow.  As you know our mission is to develop and promote varieties that are suited to culture in the central New Mexico mountains and similar locales.  We want you to be successful by helping you choose varieties that will profitably produce for you.  Our method is simple in that we take our best educated guess from years of growing, listening to others experiences and add some of the latest varieties to the mix.  We then grow these and see which do best or in some cases do poorly.

Of course results may vary depending on the care, location, microclimate etc. that you give a certain plant.  In those cases we will make recommendations for location and culture.  Our plantings are not babied as you might do at home. They are planted in the field with no shade and treated as a commercial crop would be.  In many cases the planting stock we have purchased has been very small, maybe suitable for a 4” container or was a 4-6” bare root plant.  Such is the way of dealing with new or rare varieties, they just may not be available in a size we would prefer.  Often is the time we felt a larger plant would have survived or thrived whereas the smaller one could not adapt. We will discuss these possibilities as we go through our series of posts.

For those of you more detail oriented, the soil ph at our farm is 8.2 which is considered very alkaline.  Our water comes from fractured limestone and also has a high ph and is very “hard”.  February 2010 recorded minus 34f and summer 2011 recorded a high of 102f.   Most research on “hardiness” of plants is focused on the coldest temperature they can live with and very little research has been done on the warmest temperature they can take.  When we make selections to trial we find ourselves choosing from varieties that may do well in the upper great plains or in Russia’s colder areas. In the case of heat we will discuss it when it applies.  I hope to be able to cover at least 1 fruit type a week in an informal and unscientific manner, but this time of year is always short on “spare writing” time so don’t hold me to it.

We have now gone through 2 winters growing figs in the ground at our location 6300’ elevation, but colder and windier than normal for this elevation alone.  Our mission is to trial and grow new and unusual fruit types and varieties to see how they will perform or to see if simple cultural adaptations can make them successful here.  So far figs have been a mixed lot.  We have tried 10 different varieties, covering them in the winter.  We have successfully kept them alive but in all cases they have died back to the ground and re-sprouted from the crown and roots.  The problem with this is that there is insufficient time to regrow branches and also set and fully ripen fruit before the first frosts.

Figs are being successfully overwintered in areas with a similar coldness zone to ours, so we still believe it is possible but need to make some modifications in our culture. On very little evidence we have come to some conclusions:

  1. Start with an older and larger plant.  Most of these are rare or scarce varieties and were grown from cuttings, then put directly out in the field during the summer.  A 2 or 3 year old plant that has branches ¾”-1” diameter and with older and harder wood will take the temperatures better.
  2. Cut back water in September.  Our irrigation system on the farm is all or nothing. We tend to water very late in the year since after the first freeze we withhold water until April.  This does not allow the plant to “harden off” and maintains a succulent growth which is much more susceptible to freeze damage.
  3. Fertilize during the growing season to get faster and larger growth.  Figs like poor soil and do well in containers with little care.  Extra nitrogen in spring and early summer may result in a heavier caliper branching.

Currently our recommendation, unless you want to experiment, is to bring your figs indoors in the winter.  You can grow them in a container on the patio in the summer and either bring in the house for the winter or until fruit is done ripening.  Figs can be wrapped in a blanket or tarp when dormant and kept in a garage, basement or pump house etc. until spring. When dormant they do not require water or light. Choose a building where the temperature does not get below about 25 and they will do just fine.  Bring them in the house in March to break dormancy and you will get a crop before summer end.  Start hardening them off in April to stay totally outdoors by the end of May.  Remember a freeze when they are just starting to grow is more damaging to plants than a worse cold spell if they are dormant. 

This may seem to be a lot of trouble to grow a plant, but once you have tasted tree ripened figs you will agree it is well worth a little extra effort.

Links to more about figs

1st winter covering

Figs ripening

It looks like spring is finally here.  Now we can get to growing all those items we researched and ordered over the long and cold winter. Each year we plan to add some new groupings or varieties of certain fruits to start our trials and breeding programs with. As the breeding or research continues we will probably add 1 or 2 new varieties to each group per year for further study.  The plant world is an ever changing and improving thing and we are fully involved to find and provide the best adapted toNew Mexico and similar climates.

Last year we started 8 different fig varieties.  It is early in the year and with the super freeze this winter our results as yet are not fully known with figs,  however it looks promising that we will have several varieties that can be overwintered in our area with minimal adaptations to environment. The University of California at Davis, National Clonal Germplasm Repository kindly donated 24 new (to us) varieties as cuttings this past spring for our experimentation.  We hope to find at least 4 that are suitable for outdoor production here. 

The next grouping we are working with is Pomegranates, one of the newly designated ”Super Fruits” promoted for all it’s health benefits.  We are working with a few American varieties and some cold hardy Russian types which show great promise.  We hope this summer to add 2 other kinds from Russia or Middle East. 

Juneberries and Honeyberries are 2 groups we also  have added to this year.  In the honeyberries we will be crossing 2 Russian varieties and testing 3 Canadian types which have been newly released from the University of  Sasckachewan program.  Juneberries we will trial 4 proven fruit types to see which is most adaptable.

In tree fruits (and nuts) we are working with various Mountain Ash and their crosses along with Almonds.  In the almonds we are trying varieties imported from the Ukraine and Russia to get a later bloom time that will hopefully escape our erratic springtime freezes.

Seaberries and goji berries are being added to with hopefully some selections available for sale this fall.

As time permits we will expand on our writing and findings in each of these groups

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

 Why grow figs?  If you have ever tasted a fresh ripe fig (and surprisingly few people have) you will know the answer.  I consider them to be one of the best fruits for fresh eating.  Unfortunately figs are soft, do not ripen off the tree and do not store (2-3 days under refrigeration)or ship well. This explains why few people outside of California or the Mediterranean have actually ever tried them, they are high-value fruits of limited demand.  Most of the less than 2% grown for fresh eating are sold regionally and rarely exported, the other 98% are canned, dried or made into a paste for fig newtons.  These products have very little semblance to the fresh fruit.

Figs are considered to be the oldest cultivated fruit crop going back well over 5,000 years. The fig is believed to be indigenous to western Asia and to have been distributed by man throughout the Mediterranean area. Remnants of figs have been found in excavations of sites traced to at least 5,000 B.C. There are about 800 varieties recorded and around 50-100 in the United States.  Below is a poster for sale by http://www.fruitlovers.com/FigPoster.html  which shows 126 varieties of figs.

126 varieties of Figs

With their history you would think more was known about them and that they were a simple crop.  Actually they have a fairly complex nature and relationships between varieties when compared to other fruits.  Some common fig varieties produce only one crop while others produce two crops. The first crop, called the breba crop is in the spring on last season’s growth. The second crop is borne in the fall on the new growth and is known as the main crop. In cold climates the breba crop is often destroyed by spring frosts. The next issue is some figs, Persistent (or Common) require no pollination, some Caducous (or Smyrna) do require pollination and some Intermediate Group (or San Pedro) do not need pollination to set a breba crop but do need it for the main crop (in some environments). To add to the confusion often the fruits are divided further by color, green and yellow figs and dark figs.  The last issue is that of synonyms or name confusion. An example would be the common Brown Turkey –which is also known as: Eastern Brown Turkey, English Brown Turkey, Everbearing, Texas Everbearing.

That pretty much is the tough part and really has very little bearing to most people who are not extreme hobbyists. The good news is that some types of figs can be grown in New Mexico.  Figs like a dry, warm temperature environment which also inhibits many of the diseases from wetter areas.  They also thrive on lots of sunshine which we have in abundance.  A poor quality soil is also considered good as it slows the ultimate tree size and concentrates sugars to the fruit.  A soil ph between 6 and 8 is acceptable. Figs can be grown in containers very well since they like root restriction.   Figs that are completely dormant before severely cold weather arrives can easily tolerate temperatures down to 15° F with little or no damage. Some varieties are hardier and can tolerate even lower temperatures. If the top is winter killed, the plant will probably come back from the base or underground parts.  Fruit production starts early with 2 year old plants often setting a crop.