Whole my life, I’ve grown figs in warmer climates that become cold only for the span of a few days in winter. And I’m actually surprised by how resistant to cold fig trees are when considering that they originated in middle east Asia.
In the US, I’ve successfully grown them in USDA zones 6 and 7 and less successfully in zone 5. And by less successfully, I mean that by my standards, as someone who invested a great deal of his life into cultivating fig trees. My experience made me learn a few tricks that I had never used before. Once applied, fig trees become much easier to grow in the cold.
Here is the short version of what I learned.
Both in-ground and potted fig trees can survive in USDA zone 5. Fig trees require protection from cold winds and frost in the form of wrapping, burying, or being moved to a shelter in the dormant season. Alternatively, fig trees can be grown and fruit completely indoors.
This guide will be about in-ground and partially kept outside potted fig trees. If you want to hear my experience about growing fig trees indoors, you can read my article “Can Edible Figs Grow Indoors.”
Can Fig Fruit Survive in USDA Zone 5?
Before we go into the methods of protecting fig trees from the cold, let’s talk about a more important question; can fig fruit survive in zone 5? PS, the answer might surprise you.
What’s obvious is that you won’t get fruit if your tree dies; therefore, protecting it from the cold is always a priority. Even if the tree freezes and grows back in the spring, it won’t fruit on new branches. It takes at least two-year-old wood to produce figs.
A logical train of thought is to go after the most winter hardy fig trees. But are you growing it to get a beautiful fig tree or to get good figs?
Turns out, pretty much all fig tree varieties can survive in zone 5 with enough protection. However, some of them either have subpar fruit quality or ripen so late that the cold strikes it long before, which leaves us with poor fruit quality, or no fruit at all.
The best solution is to choose a fig variety that ripens early and invest more time and care in protecting it.
Some of the early ripening varieties I’ve tested required careful protection methods, which I will explain later in the article.
Early ripening varieties I’ve successfully grown in zone 5:
- Ronde de Bordeaux
- (LSU) Improved Celeste
- Marseilles Black
Celeste, Mount Etna, Malta Black, or Rouge de Bordeaux also ripen early, but I haven’t tested them in zone 5. Although I’m sure, Celeste is an excellent choice.
When you consider that LSU Improved Celeste and Celeste are some of the hardiest varieties, the choice is simple. Florea is quite hardy as well but can be problematic if it starts to grow breba figs.
You will see most people recommend Hardy Chicago variety, which is the hardiest, but then complain how it didn’t ripen on time. I would put it among the top 5-10 choices, but as hardy as it is, a longer ripening process can backfire.
Growing and Protecting In-Ground Fig Trees in USDA Zone 5
Any experienced fig cultivator will tell you cold winds do more damage to trees than frost and snow.
When planting fig trees, I believe it’s wise to consider a position that won’t expose them to cold winds. Most areas have cold winds from the north, but this can be different for you based on the geographical position.
For example, a garden to the south of your home will have less cold winds than a garden to the north. If you are stuck with a garden to the north, you might consider planting a row of evergreen trees along the northern edge. They will make a shield from the wind.
Positioning will help greatly, but to really protect fig trees in zone 5, you need to either wrap them or bury them in-ground.
Wrapping In-Ground Fig Trees in Winter
Most of the time, wrapping will protect fig trees sufficiently enough. There are two options to choose from. Plastic wraps and a breathable cloth or paper wraps. In my experience, plastic wraps protect from the cold much better, but there are certain things to be careful about.
For a start, I would remove all the leaves from the tree. Leaving leaves inside the wrap only attracts pests and diseases. To make wrapping much easier, I would bend all the branches upward in a circular way and tie them up. When all branches are tied, they should form a spiral. Tying like this puts the least amount of stress on the wood.
You can get breathable plastic bags as well, most likely from your local garden depot. I preferred stretch wrap because I could use how many layers I thought were necessary. The tricky part with a stretch wrap is that you need to wrap it from the bottom up. That way, the layers overlap, so the rain can’t get in. I use heavy-duty duct tape to secure the top.
It’s important not to let water pour down through the wrap. Otherwise, mold will appear all over the tree. When the weather got dry and warmer for a day or two, I would open a big hole in the wrap to let it breathe a bit and then seal it off with the duct tape later. If the weather is dry but still cold, a few small holes can help minimize molding.
It would be best to cover the very bottom of the tree with a thick layer of mulch. That way, you will protect roots and the tree trunk as well.
Burying Fig Trees in The Ground in Winter
Burying a fig tree in the ground will protect it from the cold even more. However, the risks are greater as well. I prefer to bury it right at the spot, so I don’t need to cut all the roots, preferably none.
Before burying a fig tree in the ground, it needs to be stripped of all leaves, tied, and wrapped like I previously explained. This time, the wrap needs to be plastic and should not let any water through.
Then I dig a hole of the same size as a wrapped tree next to it. I let the tree adapt to the wrap for a day or two, and in the meantime, I prepare wood planks or bricks that I will put on the bottom of the hole and the top of the laid-down tree. The hole has to be as deep as the widest part of the tree is, plus an added thickness of wood planks or bricks times three.
Why times 3? Because planks or bricks need to put the tree “in a sandwich,” and then a thick layer of mulch needs to be added on top to cover it all.
I chose bricks every time because wood can become moldy on its own. And that isn’t good if it starts spreading.
Bricks on the bottom protect the tree from wet dirt, while the bricks on top add additional insulation and protect the tree from us damaging it when it’s time to dig it up.
To lay the wrapped fig tree down, I sometimes cut roots on the opposite side of the hole. Although I try to avoid cutting them, I make the cuts as far as possible from the tree trunk if I have no choice.
Once the tree is laid down, I make sure roots are covered with soil while the wrapped treetop is covered with mulch only. Some people use soil to cover the treetop, but I found it too suffocating for the tree.
Once the spring comes, you can straighten the tree upward and unwrap it. I prolong the unwrapping process by first opening a few holes in the wrap. It gives the fig tree time to adjust to the change. We don’t want to give it a weather shock.
I wasn’t comfortable with having my fig trees in the ground. I’ve heard many stories from people who had mice infestations in these holes. They chewed on the branches and destroyed the tree.
Growing And Protecting Potted Fig Trees in USDA Zone 5
Personally, if I lived in zone 5 right now, I would grow potted fig trees. After I learned how much work it is to protect in-ground fig trees each year, I would be more comfortable storing potted trees in the garage. Alternatively, you can build storage for potted fig trees and tools for cheap if you have enough space.
The tricky thing about potted fig trees is that you are committed to sheltering them when there are freezing temperatures. Roots get frost damaged quite easily in containers. So wrapping them is out of the question, unless you want to bury the container in-ground.
Besides the standard fig tree growing procedure, the only difference in zone 5 is that you have to be careful when to bring potted fig trees outside. You want to choose the right moment to avoid frost damage and not wake them up from dormancy too early.
As a precaution, I move them in and out several times, depending on the weather. If I see cold days ahead and have already moved my fig trees outside, I will bring them in. If the growth process has already started, the tree can get injured.
Deciding when to bring potted fig trees inside is simple. Once you pick figs from the tree, you can immediately bring your fig trees inside. Although, if it isn’t too cold yet, I prefer to leave it until leaves fall off.
However, if you are forced to shelter them before figs get ripe, you can use artificial grow lights inside. They will never reach their best quality with grow lights, but at least you won’t lose them altogether.