Fig trees are very sensitive creatures:
- Sensitive to the cold, so they need winter protection;
- Sensitive to drought, so they need regular supplemental water;
- Sensitive to nitrogen, so as long as your tree is growing a foot or two per year you should minimize it;
- Sensitive to nutrition, so you should definitely fertilize with phosphorus and potassium (the last two numbers in the ratio on the package label) at a rate of one pound per year of age or height of tree, up to a maximum of 10 or 12 pounds annually, divided into two feedings (once when buds swell and again at the end of May).
Couple this with the reality that they are Mediterranean plants and we don’t live in a Mediterranean climate, plus the prevalence of many varieties, some of which simply don’t do well on Long Island for many reasons — and some growers simply throw up their hands.
Still, many other plants are capricious, a lot of them more so than the fig, and they are grown regularly and successfully on Long Island, so none of the above should serve as a deterrent.
First, be sure you select a variety that will thrive here. “Brown turkey” and “Celeste” are common choices. Buying a tree or taking a cutting while on vacation in Florida isn’t likely to yield successful results. When in doubt, have a chat with your nursery professional.
Plant during spring in well-draining soil in a protected spot (up against a wall or fence is ideal) with a southern exposure. Test the soil’s pH before planting, as figs require a reading between 6.2 and 7.2. If your soil tests lower, incorporate dolomitic lime according to package directions.
Apply a couple of inches of mulch in a circle around the tree, taking care to start 3-4 inches from the trunk and extending out at least as far as the canopy. Provide a constant supply of moisture throughout the growing season, and fertilize with a 5-10-10 or 0-10-10 slow-release fertilizer twice per season, as indicated above.
Trees must be protected over the winter, or they may die back to the ground — or die entirely. If they die back merely to the ground, new growth will resume in spring, but the plant will focus its energy on regrowing, leaving little to none for fruit production.
The ideal time to wrap a fig tree is during Thanksgiving week. Here’s how (never use any plastic materials for any part of the process):
1. 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 the top of the cylinder is narrower than the bottom 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.
Fruit is produced on the current season’s growth, so during the first few years after planting, trees should be cut back by one-third to one-half their size immediately after unwrapping. This will encourage them to grow into a bushy form, rather than an upright tree, and facilitate care, harvesting and wrapping in the future.
To see my video demonstration of the entire process, visit newsday.com/gardening101.