Archive for November, 2014

Unripe figs grow along a branch

Figs – I’ve never tried growing them but we get numerous calls and e-mail questions about them from people that do. They seem to be quite popular little fruits to grow. Apparently if your only exposure to figs has been Fig Newtons or dried figs, you have been missing out on a real treat by never trying fresh figs.

Fig trees are often found around old homes in the south where they were widely planted.

Fig trees are often found around
old homes in the south where they
were widely planted.

Figs have been grown since ancient times and are actually one of the oldest cultivated crops. They are very easy to grow and relatively disease and pest free. I’m guessing that these attributes plus the bonus of delicious, sweet fruit are the main attractions for growing them.

Most of the fig questions we get are from people who are growing them in colder areas and are wondering either how to protect them over the winter or how to deal with winter dieback in the spring.

The common fig (Ficus carica) is a semi-tropical plant that is winter hardy without protection only as far north as Zone 8. Many varieties can be grown in colder areas if they are provided with winter protection or if they are grown in pots and brought inside during the winter. ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Hardy Chicago’, and ‘Celeste’ are a few of the most cold hardy cultivars and these normally do well in Zone 6 and 7 if they are planted in a sheltered location and provided with some type of winter protection once the leaves drop in the fall.

This fig tree growing in the Shenandoah Valley produces fruit in most years without protection because of its sheltered location.

This fig tree growing in the
Shenandoah Valley bears fruit
most years without protection because
of its sheltered location.

Fig trees grow and produce best when they are provided with lots of sun and moist but well-drained soil. Feed them with a good organic fertilizer like Espoma Holly-tone in the spring and fall. Although they are fairly drought tolerant, they should be watered during dry periods in the summer. They really aren’t too fussy. The main thing is to plant them in a protected spot in colder regions.

In general, a southern or western exposure is best. A really good sheltered location would be along a south facing wall because this not only provides a windbreak but it can absorb heat during the day (especially a brick wall) and radiate it back at night protecting the plants from temperature extremes.

Here’s something else to think about when contemplating a good planting spot for figs and other plants that are prone to winter damage:

In winter, a southern exposure usually becomes shaded by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. This shade causes the air temperature to decrease gradually through the afternoon and evening.

In contrast, an area with a southwestern exposure normally receives no afternoon shade and therefore, when the sun sets, the temperature drop is radical and fast. In this situation, winter injury of plants is more likely to occur (especially with evergreens).

These figs will turn soft and brownish when ripe

These figs will turn soft and
brownish purple when ripe

When they are planted outside in Zones 6 and 7, they need to be protected in some way during the winter. One of the best ways to do this is to surround the tree with black roofing paper and carefully pack straw or oak leaves inside around the branches and stems. Use stakes to hold the cylinder of roofing paper in place. The black roofing paper will not only provide a wind screen, but it also absorbs heat from the sun and keeps the fig warmer in the winter. You can also create an enclosure with wire fencing surrounded with burlap but this won’t absorb heat the way the roofing paper does. It may be necessary to tip back some of the branches to make the tree easier to cover and if the fig is very wide, you can carefully draw the branches together with twine before making your enclosure.

The other option for growing figs in areas where they are not winter hardy is to grow them outside in a pot during the summer and move them inside for the winter. In this case, you might want to choose one of the dwarf varieties like ‘Petite Negri’, although ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Celeste’ also do well in containers and they normally stay under 10′ tall. Plus, they can always be pruned to keep them at a manageable height.

Always prune to an outward facing bud

Always prune to an outward facing bud

Ideally, figs should be pruned in the late winter when they are dormant. Thinning out the center of the tree to allow more light penetration is important. Remove dead, damaged and diseased branches, crossing branches, weak branches, and those that are growing straight up (water sprouts) on the main branches first then, if necessary, cut back the remaining branches to a height that will allow easy harvest of the fruit.

In colder areas, dieback in the winter is very common and once they break into growth, you may find that more pruning is needed to remove this dead wood. Damaged branches should be pruned back to healthy tissue. You can identify healthy tissue because it will bleed some white sap and the tissue under the bark will be green. Cut the branch just above an outward facing bud.

Ripe figs will be soft and will droop on the branches

Ripe figs will be soft and will
droop on the branches

Figs generally produce fruit on both old wood (an early summer crop) and new wood (a late summer crop). It is important to avoid any major summer pruning as this will limit your late summer fig crop. In colder climates, the early crop may be lost if buds freeze over the winter.

Well, there is your short course on growing figs. It might be a fun project to try next spring. Figs are one of the quickest bearing fruit trees, often producing fruit the very first year after planting.

As for figgy pudding, I’ve had traditional English figgy pudding once. It has a unique flavor to say the least!

Not saying I didn’t enjoy it but I prefer pumpkin pie!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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Acer griseum has attractive foliage and interesting bark

Recently, we’ve been talking about transplanting some of our trees and shrubs. I’m not talking about digging them and replanting them in OUR yard but digging them, potting them up, and eventually planting them next summer at my mom’s in Vermont and at my son’s new home in Maine.

This Hosta 'Green Pie Crust' has beautiful fall color. We will definitely divide and share some of these!

Hosta ‘Green Pie Crust’ has
striking fall color. We will definitely
divide and share some of these!

We have some special trees and shrubs at our house and we were thinking it would be nice to share them. Gardeners do this all the time with friends and family or if they are moving to a new home and want to take some of their special plants with them.

In many cases, this isn’t too difficult to do – especially with perennials. Depending on the species, perennials can simply be dug and moved to their new location. Some of course have special timing requirements; for instance peonies should only be moved in the fall after they are dormant and hosta are best dug and moved in the spring. If you can’t get them in the ground right away – no problem, just pot them up. Most perennials will hold for months until the time is convenient for planting.

Certain perennials like daylilies can be dug, divided, and kept as bare root plants in cold storage for quite a while without harm.

Things get a little trickier when it comes to moving trees and shrubs. Generally, trees and shrubs should be transplanted when they are dormant. This could mean late fall, winter, or early spring. Obviously digging cannot happen when the ground is frozen; but plants should also not be dug when the ground is soggy. Digging plants in wet soil can increase the damage to the small roots that are so important for water and nutrient absorption.

We will root prune this young holly in a few weeks and dig it and pot it up in the spring.

We will root prune this young holly
in a few weeks then dig it and
pot it up in the spring.

Most deciduous trees and shrubs can be moved in the fall or spring but evergreens should be moved in the late winter or spring if possible. This is because evergreens lose water through their leaves during the winter and since many of the small water absorbing roots are removed or damaged when a tree or shrub is dug, the remaining root system may not be able to absorb enough water to replace the water that is lost. This can result in excessive winter damage.

Moving trees and shrubs when they are young and small increases the likelihood of success. The older they are, the more extensive their root system and the larger the root ball has to be.

The size of the root ball is determined by the spread of a shrub or the diameter of the trunk at chest height for trees.

  • For shrubs, you should have a minimum of 6″ of root ball for each 12″ in spread. If you can handle a larger root ball, even better.
  • For trees, you should have a minimum of 12″ of root ball for every 1″ in trunk diameter. Trees with a trunk greater than 2″ in diameter will require a huge root ball and will be very difficult to dig and move without professional help.

Here are a few tips for digging trees and shrubs.

Root Pruning

When you are moving an established tree or shrub, you will increase your chance of a successful transplant if you root prune in the spring or fall prior to digging. We will be doing this for the little trees we are planning to dig next spring. Root pruning encourages the formation of new feeder roots and reduces transplant shock when the plant is eventually dug and replanted. Root pruning should only be done when the tree or shrub is dormant; after the leaves of deciduous trees have dropped in the fall or before bud break in the spring.

There are two methods of root pruning – spading and trenching.

This young maple seedling should transplant well

This young maple seedling
should transplant well

Spading is the simplest method and is sufficient for small/young trees and shrubs. It involves using a sharp spade to cut straight down through the soil about 12″ deep around the entire tree or shrub. This should be done a few inches closer to the trunk than the size of the root ball you will eventually dig. This slices through the roots and stimulates the growth of new feeder roots. Be sure that the spade you use is sharp so it makes a clean cut.

Trenching involves more work but is the better method to use when you plan to move larger, more established trees and shrubs. With this method, you basically dig a 12″ – 14″ deep, 6″ – 8″ wide trench around the tree of shrub. The outer edge of the trench will define the outer edge of the root ball. After the trench is completed, backfill the trench with a mixture of the native soil and some good quality compost. Feeder roots will develop and grow into this loose soil. It may take a while to get good root production throughout the trench so you may want to do this a year in advance of moving the tree.

After root pruning (regardless of which method you use), water the tree or shrub well, apply a good organic fertilizer like Espoma Plant-tone or Holly-tone,  and mulch with 3″ of a good quality organic mulch. Be sure to provide water as needed until the plant is dug.

Paperbark maple gets its name from the interesting exfoliating bark.

Paperbark maple gets its name from
the interesting exfoliating bark.

The trees we will be digging are still pretty small so we will just root prune using the spading method. They haven’t dropped their leaves yet so we will need to wait a few weeks before we do this.

Acer griseum (paperbark maple) is one of the trees we are going to transplant. This tree was given to us by a very good friend and there are two nice seedlings that have come up under the tree. Acer griseum is a very attractive small maple that grows to about 20′ – 30′ tall. It has beautiful exfoliating bark that is cinnamon colored and smooth underneath.

Beautiful fall color!

Beautiful fall color!

The leaves are three lobed with a delicate texture and the fall foliage is spectacular turning the tree into a flaming red color in most years. It is one of the last of all the maples to color up in the fall and is a really cool tree to have!

Another one that we want to share is one of the purple-leaved smoketrees, Cotinus coggygria. There are several purple-leaved cultivars and I’m not sure which one this is but it has beautiful foliage color from spring through fall.

The color has now begun to fade but last week this Cotinus foliage was beautiful

The color is now fading but last week
this Cotinus foliage was beautiful

The oval leaves are purple through the summer and turn a nice burnt orange in the fall.

We noticed that a few of the lower branches have self-layered creating several small plants that we will be able to dig up in the spring.

A few small hollies that are the perfect size for transplanting have come up here and there in our woods. We will be digging a few of these as well!

It will be cool to share a few of our favorite trees with our family – luckily they are hardy up there.


Think about sharing some of your own special plants. They are the perfect gift from one gardener to another!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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