The winter of 2013-2014 was so severe that it killed fig trees back to the ground. Many plants also suffered severe rabbit damage at the base of the young stems with smooth bark. Rabbits eat the smooth brown bark at times when other food sources are scarce.
As we are located at the northern climatic range for growing figs, we need to anticipate winter damage at least once every 10 to 15 years. According to my records, the last time fig plants were killed back to the ground was during the winter of 1997-1998.
If the stems and branches are not exhibiting new growth by early June, the tops of the plants have been killed. However, if you look closely at the ground beneath you should see new shoots emerging from the roots.
Cut the dead stems as close to the ground as possible and use them next winter for starting the fire in your fireplace or wood stove. Fig wood ignites very quickly and makes good kindling.
Allow the new shoots to grow two to three feet tall before thinning. To avoid crowding, allow at least 3 feet of space between new stems. Select only the more vigorous stems to develop and prune out the unwanted ones. Do not simply break them away but use clean, sharp pruners to remove stems close to the roots. If you break the unwanted stems, you are likely to see additional sprouting that you will have to remove later.
This year’s new growth will not produce figs. If you do see figs developing in the axils of the leaves, rub them away with your hands. Allowing the fruit to develop on the new growth will weaken and dwarf the stem.
Allow the new stems to grow five to six feet tall before pruning away the tip of each. Tip pruning will stimulate multiple branching, which will provide more fruit for the coming years and prevent the stems from getting too tall. Preventing the stems of figs from growing above six feet facilitates harvesting.
I have never fertilized my figs in the 20 years that I have been growing them here in Deale. Fertilizing figs makes them difficult to manage. If the summer foliage has a good dark green color, it is best not to fertilize them. The plants will tolerate a wide range of soils and are not sensitive to different soil pH.
Figs are a fruit crop that I recommend to home gardeners because they require little attention and never need to be sprayed. Pruning to facilitate harvesting is all the attention they need.
If rabbits are a problem there are several preventions. Surrounding the area with two-foot-tall chicken wire is the simplest if you have an extensive planting. If you only have a few plants, there are white plastic wraps that expand as the trunk grows. You can also solve the problem by loosely wrapping the trunks with two layers of chicken wire.
There are several varieties of figs offered by mail order nurseries. I grow Brown Turkey (pictured) and Golden Egyptian. I have not seen any differences in hardiness between these two varieties. Both were killed to the ground this winter.