As a child, Mary Menniti spent a lot of time with her Italian grandfather, who visited their rural home to tend his figs.
“He came from a lifestyle of surviving on what he could grow and brought that knowledge to New Castle,” she says.
Even then, she could tell there was a special connection between her grandfather and those figs. They grew easily in Italy but are one of the plants that need a lot of work to thrive in Pennsylvania.
“It represented self-sufficiency to them,” she says, “because the fig was something they could depend on.”
In Italy, the tree is almost a weed, producing thousands of fruits that could be used either fresh or dried. “Sometimes during hard times, a dried fig with a nut inside might be the only thing a family could eat for dinner,” Menniti says.
She’s crossing the nation chronicling Italian-American gardens (theitaliangardenproject.com), and one of the first things those gardeners want to show off is their fig trees.
“It’s not just a phenomenon; it’s almost a fanaticism,” she says about fig growing. There’s a deep nostalgic feeling wrapped up in those figs. Many trees come from cuttings brought here by relatives.
Getting them through the winter can be problematic, but Menniti has learned from the experts who have been growing figs for decades. There are newer, hardier cultivars such as ‘Brown Turkey’ and ‘Chicago Hardy,’ but even they will be helped by protection to survive.
“Fig trees are incredibly resilient,” Menniti says, “especially ones that are a couple years old.”
One way to overwinter them is in a container. When the leaves have fallen off after a couple frosts, bring it inside to go dormant before a hard freeze. An unheated garage is a perfect place. Even then, it should be wrapped with burlap or a blanket. Make sure the container is up off a concrete floor.
“You don’t want it to get colder than 10 degrees,” she says. Every month, give the pot a little water, just to keep it from completely drying out.
Around April, the pot can be dragged out when temperatures allow; if the plant has leafed out, it can’t take a frost. When the chance of frost has passed, the plant can be left outside again all season until the end of fall.
When grown in the ground, the process is more complicated, but the trees will be much bigger.
“You either wrap it or bury it,” Menniti says. Buried trees are the most likely to survive in the coldest winters. Like many marginally hardy plants, figs can be killed to the ground and will sprout from the roots the next year. The idea is to keep it from dying back, so the plant can put on fruit sooner and therefore ripen in time to be harvested.
Burying and wrapping follow the same timeline as container plants. Wrapping involves tying the supple branches together, making the tree columnar. Then surrounding the tree with something to insulate it against the cold. One word of caution: Plastic can’t touch the tree, and there needs to be some air flow during the warmer months of winter.
To bury the tree, dig a trench large enough to lower the tree in without it being at the bottom of the hole; around 3 feet deep usually is a good starting point. Sever the roots on one side and push the tree over into the trench. No dirt should touch the tree, and some growers surround them with a heavy fabric.
Place a piece of plywood on top of the tree and then mulch over the wood. Straw, leaves or garden debris are good choices. Leave a little space for air to circulate until the coldest months of winter.
In the spring, slowly acclimate the tree to the weather and stand it upright sometime in May. Watch the weather carefully to avoid a late frost.
“I really see these trees as heirlooms,” Menniti says. “They are very important to the Italian-American experience. They are symbolic to who these immigrants were. They were people of the earth who thought about the importance of food for survival and self-sufficiency.”