Growing Figs in Cold Climates
Author Lee Reich
New Society Publishers, 115 pages, $24.99
Reviewed by Elizabeth Gabriel
I’ve known Lee’s work for decades since first becoming interested in permaculture and perennial production. His book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden sits on our shelf with a tattered cover, held together with masking tape after referencing it so many times. Since moving from Washington, D.C. - where figs are easy-to-grow street trees - back to the Finger Lakes, I’ve successfully killed at least a dozen figs despite growing Hardy Chicago (the only cold variety I was aware of until reading this book). So I was thrilled when Lee asked TNF to review this new book.
Overall, and as is expected from Lee, he provides a botanically informative book with digestible how-to descriptions about growing methods and pruning that a gardener or farmer can implement. For readers not yet interested in growing figs, he helps a reader fall in love with the possibility as he tells of various wonders about this “subtropical plant, that tolerates subfreezing temperatures” such as: “A fig tree might bear fruit on new, growing shoots; on one-year-old stems; or on both new, growing shoots and on one-year-old stems” and “Figs bear fast, sometimes in the first season after being rooted from cuttings!” The appeal to cultivate these plants continues to grow as he describes the fig's tolerance of abuse and frost damage and as gorgeous photos of prolific fig trees adorn the book.
The book provides excellent visual depictions to show various techniques to prune for a breba crop (crop born on one-year-old stems), main crop and for root pruning. He also briefly explains 5 methods for growing figs in cold climates - something I’ve always wondered - each with a pros and cons list; “(1) container, (2) plant in ground each spring, dig up each fall, (3) swaddle stems, (4) lay down or bury stems, and (5) in ground, in cool or unheated greenhouse or hoop house.”
All this notwithstanding, the book’s surprisingly casual tone and somewhat odd style of requesting permission from the reader (the first paragraph of the book ends with “what’s up?”, followed by two section headings titled “Let me elaborate” and “Let me digress”) within the first few chapters caught me off guard and slightly distracted me from the depth of information the book seems to want to provide - and I’m looking for.
In chapter 4 “What Kind of Cold Do You Have?”, Lee discusses three different types of cold climates; “Region 1: Frigid winters, hot summers; Region 2: Frigid winters, cool summers; and Region 3: Coldish winters, cool summers”. He clearly explains the characteristics between these regions; he mentions (and displays) Hardiness and Heat Zone maps, and explains that the absolute cold and heat temperatures these maps depict don’t tell the whole story because “when cold arrives”, how much cold is also important to plants as well as rainfall and drought. Since he points out the limitations of the Zone maps, this section would be strengthened if Lee provided an overlay map of his “3 cold-climate Fig Regions” with these two Zone maps and average rainfall maps. Further, while it sounds important for a grower to know which Fig Region they are in, I was eagerly waiting for this section to provide guidance about what to do in my region - which variety to grow, which pruning method to choose, etc.- but it does not. (Some of this is offered later in the book, but not all).
What varieties should we in the Northeast plant for production? On page 73, Lee literally says “Sorting out fig varieties is a mess,” and yet he provides a helpful overview of 16 varieties he’s determined to do well in any of the 3 cold Regions because they all set good breba and/or main crops that ripen relatively early, ripen in cool summers, are more tolerant to low temperatures, and taste good. According to this section, Hardy Chicago was a reasonable choice in my Region 1 (although it isn’t mentioned in the subsequent charts provided on pages 83-85), but I think I’ll try a hardy more dwarf variety like Alma, Celeste or Verte next time in my small greenhouse. That raises my final point - an expanded chart with clear headings such as fig variety, breva or main crop potential, fruit size/color/texture, leaf size & shape, tree size, level of hardiness, ripening notes, recommended pruning approaches as per variety, Fig Region and growing method would more easily help a reader make decisions and grow figs successfully; perhaps in the next edition?
The book is definitely useful and I recommend it for hobby growers in the Northeast trying figs for the first time and for those with some experience wanting to fine-tune their pruning styles, and expand their growing methods. Lee also provides a list of sources for buying plants and social media groups to connect with to further your learning.