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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Garden Detective: winterizing fig trees

With proper care, your fig tree will survive

With proper care, your fig tree will survive the winter and bear fruit. Credit: Ed Betz

DEAR JESSICA: I have three fig trees that are each three years old. They are the dark figs. I cover them each year with a layer of burlap, then wrap them in pink fiberglass insulation and finish with a black plastic garbage bag. I leave the top open and put a plastic bucket on top. So far, each year when I uncover them in the spring, most of the previous year's growth is dead. But they grow all new growth from the base and look pretty healthy. Why is the old growth dying? Is it my winterizing procedures?

Also, this year for the first time, each tree finally produced a load of fruit. Unfortunately, very few ripened. It was a battle as to who was going to get the few precious ripe fruit: me, the birds or the ants. As of this writing, each tree has many, many immature, hard green fruits. The trees are all planted along the white PVC fencing in my backyard. They get sun, but not the whole day. What is the possible issue here? -- Tom Felice, East Meadow

DEAR TOM: When fig trees die to the ground, that means the cold killed off the top growth but the roots managed to survive. Many gardeners report never protecting their trees over the winter and still having success. Once, I was too busy to cover my trees and they appeared to die, too, but as you reported, new growth came up. Of course, they didn't produce fruit that year because new growth seldom does. And more often than not, unprotected trees simply die.

I suspect that despite your best efforts, your trees are not adequately protected. Maybe it's because of their location, though the fence should offer some protection. It's never advisable to use plastic for wrapping figs, as it holds in moisture, so that could be part of the problem.

To address your second question, small, hard and green describes my experiences with the first year that fig trees produce fruit. And, of course, dying back to the ground each winter sets them back another year each year.

Fig trees should be wrapped up around Thanksgiving. Here's the proper way to do it:

1 When the tree is young, for the first year or two, it's a good idea to cut it back by half before wrapping. This is safe to do as long as the tree is dormant, which it should be by wrapping time. 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 in such a way that rainwater will roll off it and away from the tree.

7 Once you've completely wrapped your tree, mound up the soil you've removed from 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.

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