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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: prepping fig trees for winter

Marie Simmons, author of

Marie Simmons, author of "Fig Heaven," in her garden in Richmond, Calif. Photo Credit: AP, 2004

DEAR JESSICA: I grew up with a father who for years painstakingly prepped our fig tree for winter. After years and years of this, he said, "No more; let's see what happens." We still had the most delicious figs, and the one tree multiplied into a bush that covered the entire back of the garage! I am a novice, therefore I am covering my tree. This is my problem: I have tied it, covered it in burlap and brown paper and dug a ditch around the base as you recommend in your online video. Alas, I am having difficulty finding tar paper. The hardware stores are all out of stock because people need it for rebuilding after Sandy. I keep searching for it. Do you have any suggestions? -- Gloria Maffettone, Uniondale

DEAR GLORIA: In the absence of tar paper, you certainly can make do with a blue tarp. Wrap it over the burlap and paper you've already installed, tying securely from the bottom up. Never use clear or black plastic, which would allow too much heat to build up on sunny days. Here are my complete instructions for protecting a fig tree over winter:

1. When the tree is young, for the first year or two, it's a good idea to cut it back by one-third to one-half before wrapping. This is safe to do as long as the tree is dormant, which by wrapping time (typically around Thanksgiving) it should be. If your tree is large, pull all branches inward and tie them together with soft but strong rope. Be sure the rope and branches are completely dry before wrapping. Wait a few days after rainfall, if necessary.

2. Wrap the tree completely from top to bottom with burlap, securing the burlap to itself with pins or staples to keep it from falling off. Be careful not to pin or staple the burlap to the tree.

3. Next, wrap some heavy brown paper, typically sold in rolls, around the burlap and tie it into place.

4. Remove some soil from around the base of the tree.

5. Surround the bottom half of the tree with cardboard. Tie it into place, too.

6. Tar paper is next. Surround the tree with it so that rainwater will roll off it and away from the tree.

7. Once you've completely wrapped your tree, mound up soil around the base.

8. Top it off with a pail to deflect rainwater. Unwrap your fig tree on a cloudy day in April, just after the last frost.


DEAR JESSICA: I have a question about mulch left behind from stump grinding. During Sandy, I lost a few trees and recently had the stumps ground. Now I am left with a huge pile of red oak mulch sawdust. Can I use that in my gardens? -- Bill Yost, Bayport

DEAR BILL: You should leave that big pile where it is, at least until spring. It will settle gradually to fill the hole left behind by the underground portion of the stump. And as organic matter, it also will shrink as it decomposes. If you remove the above-ground mound of mulch now to level the pile with the soil, the portion filling the hole will slowly sink, and chances are good you'll find yourself buying topsoil to fill in the hole next year. In spring, tamp the mound down a few times over the course of a couple of weeks, and when it appears firm and stable you can use any excess for mulch.

DEAR JESSICA: I loosely tied my arborvitae branches to prevent heavy snow pulling them down. Is that OK? -- Debbie Buglisi, Port Washington

DEAR DEBBIE: Tying arborvitaes can be beneficial as long as they are tied loosely. Be sure to use jute twine, as it's soft and won't injure trees as wire would. Start at the bottom and work your way up, taking care not to tie too tightly, which might crack branches. When you're done, the trees should still have a natural shape. You still should check the trees after snowfall and brush snow off from in between branches to remove weight and prevent ice from forming. Remove the twine in spring before new growth begins.

GARDEN CLUB OF THE WEEK Horticultural Alliance of the Hamptons

Meets: Monthly on Sundays

Location: Bridgehampton Community House, 843 County Rd. 79, Bridgehampton

Dues: $45 individual, $75 family (lectures $10 for non-members)

Contact: 631-537-2223,

The alliance maintains an extensive library of books and DVDs on the ground floor of the Bridgehampton Community House, which is open for limited hours on weekends. Although it is open to the public for reference, only members may check out materials. The alliance, which is devoted to helping East End gardeners in their horticultural endeavors, holds meetings and lectures, and members also gather periodically for group tours.

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