The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Chicago hardy fig

Build a loop of netting to hold in leaves and protect your figOur Chicago Hardy Fig arrived on the same day as our Carpathian walnuts even though it was coming from a different nursery --- clearly, this must be prime fall-planting time in zone 6.  Like rosemary, planting figs outdoors is a dicey proposition in our region, but I'm hopeful that careful variety selection and winter protection will let us harvest our own fruits in a few years.

If various fig-growers on the internet are to be believed, the hardiest fig varieties are Chicago Hardy, Mission, Brown Turkey, Alma, Nordland, and Celeste.  Chicago Hardy won my admiration since it's reputed to be able to produce fruit on new wood even if the top dies back to the ground, which means that as long as the roots don't die, we will get some sort of crop from our fig every year.  In contrast, if you're growing another variety of fig, you will have to wait until the next year (and risk being winter-killed again) before tasting fruits from your fig after a cold winter.

A fig protected for the winterDespite the promise of cold hardiness, I went ahead and protected my fig, staking a loop of trellis fencing around it and then filling the loop up with leaves.  In coldier climates (zone 5), fig growers go to more extremes, sometimes carefully bending the plant over and burying it in a trench of soil.  Other growers simply convert their fig to a potted plant and bring it in for the winter.

As a final note, growers of Chicago Hardy do have one warning I plan to take to heart.  This particular variety of fig fruits much less if unpruned, so be sure to cut stems back to 30 inches every year and clear out all but three main branches.  If all goes as planned, we could be tasting our first homegrown fig as early as 2012.

Keep your chicken coop clean with a homemade chicken waterer.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I'm so glad you posted this!

I had despaired of finding figs that would grow here in Zone 5A near Chicago! All of the tree descriptions I'd seen listed them as being hardy only to Zone 6. With the options of overwintering them in mulch or potting them and bringing them indoors, I may have to try Hardy Chicago, Celeste and English Brown Turkey (via Edible Landscaping in VA)next year and see how they do.

Best wishes with your young figs!

Comment by Yanna Sat Nov 6 14:04:13 2010
You'll definitely want to give the fig some protection so far up north, but it does sound like it will grow for you! I hope you'll check back and let me know how it does in a year or two.
Comment by anna Sat Nov 6 18:59:55 2010

Hi Anna,

My hubby found your link, and I just ordered your poultry waterer kit (thanks!)

I'm curious about the pruning back to 3 stems advice:
- Where did you read/hear this, and - what was the reasoning given for it?
- You also didn't mention the time of year you cut back the stems.

I've had my fig for almost 5 years, and only this past year did I move it to a less sheltered spot, but where it gets more sun. In past years it didn't form fruits early enough for them to ripen before first frosts, but this year I'm hoping we'll be able to eat them. So far we've gotten a couple of handfuls of figs - and they were well worth the effort and wait!

Comment by Mary G. Fri Jul 22 12:28:52 2011

Thanks for trying out our chicken waterers!

To answer your questions, I'm pretty sure I read lots of forums to get that pruning advice. I can't point you to any specific one, but the advice was repeated multiple times by seemingly knowledgeable growers, so I thought I'd try it out.

I think I'll prune to three stems when I uncover the fig in the spring since we have cold winters. That way, I can choose three stems that didn't get damaged by freezes. I might cut the whole plant back to 30 inches in the fall, though, to make it easier to protect.

Also, the one thing I do remember is that this pruning advice was specific for the Chicago Hardy Fig. So, if your fig is another variety, that might not be the thing to do!

Comment by anna Fri Jul 22 13:28:22 2011
Hello, we are also in zone 6 here is western Ky. I planted 4 Chicago hardy figs this year. We have already picked several ripe figs off the tree, it seems so far to be a wonderful little producer. We actually cut off all the branches before we stuck it in the ground, the figs were produced off the main stem.
Comment by Terra Fri Aug 26 10:18:22 2011
Terra --- Our tree was very small when we planted it, so no fruits yet this year, but it's grown a lot and I suspect we'll get some next year. I'll be curious to hear how yours (and mine) survive the winter!
Comment by anna Fri Aug 26 16:06:20 2011
I bought 2 trees this summer and planted them directly in the ground but I just bought two large pots so I can dig them up and bring them inside for the winter. One of my little trees only had a couple of figs this year, but the other one has probably had about 6. They were on the small side, but delicious. I didn't realize that I should cut them back though. I figured the bigger they got, the more fruit you'd have.
Comment by Skye Tue Sep 20 22:51:05 2011

Our tree looks beautiful right now, but no figs for us this year. (It started tiny, though.) Next year, I'll bet!

In general, if you know how to prune a fruit tree, you'll get larger, higher quality fruits, although not necessarily more of them. I'll definitely be pruning my fig in the spring once I'm sure which branches survived the winter.

Comment by anna Wed Sep 21 09:05:51 2011
I purchased a very small Chicago hardy four falls ago. I wintered the baby over in my basement before planting it in the spring. No fruit that first year. It died totally back in winter. I thought it was a goner but up popped two big stems late spring. No figs the second year. Died absolutely back the second winter. Came up in spring, a freeze hit it and it died totally back again. Came up again in summer but no fruit. The third spring it popped back from another total die off and produced a large batch of luscious fat sweet figs (probably about 30). This big harvest came from just two tall thick stems. Those died back the third winter, turned black and dead. But this past summer a big plant emerged with lots of branches. Tons of baby figs but it was late in fruiting and not near as many ripened before weather changed to cold. Also, they were much smaller in general than last year. So I tend to think the pruning must be needed. We put the little gal to sleep for winter with an entire bag of mulch on her roots, we will chop her remaining branches down to 30 inches and build up leaves around her, and we will check out her sprouts next spring and see which ones look hardiest before we prune out the rest down to three good ones. I bought another baby fig this fall at an organic farm in Paoli, IN called Brambleberry. Got a turkey fig as well. Will keep both babies in my basement til spring. We live at the southernmost tip of Indiana in Evansville. Paoli is higher ground, about 10 degrees cooler most of the year and they grow them fine in that region. Best luck in your efforts to grow figs. They are a beautiful plant and there is nothing quite like a fresh fig. I do notice they like to be fed and watered.
Comment by Katherine Toon Tue Nov 8 13:54:04 2011
From your experience (and ours this year), it does sound like pruning is essential, especially if you have winter dieback. I suspect that if I had summer-pruned our tree down to three stalks (or maybe even one!), it might have had time to ripen up the tiny figs it produced this fall. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Comment by anna Tue Nov 8 17:27:37 2011

Hi. I just wanted to let you know that we've been successfully growing Brown Turkey figs in a suburbs of Buffalo NY for 30 years or so. Here in zone 5, we've got to bury the trees each fall. We dig around the roots several feet deep, and then a long trench off to one side. We then lean the tree over (usually tying it with rope to contain the multiple trunks... they resemble shrubs here), throw in leaves and mulch, put some old boards on to protect the trunks/stems/branches, and then cover the whole thing over with several feet of soil. Exhuming them in the spring takes a bit of care to avoid breaking them. The whole thing is pretty labor intensive, but we've gotten tons of fresh figs, in a continuous crop starting in late summer (ripening on the tree). Trees grow to about 6 - 7 feet, very shrub-like with lots of stems. We've never pruned this variety back to three stems... the only pruning we do is to remove the dead branches and stems that don't survive the winter. One other tip: don't place them anywhere near a Black Walnut tree... when we put in a black walnut tree within about 100', those trees stopped producing fruit (some compound that's released in the soil, "jacalone" or something like that, which inhibits fig production and possibly tomatoes as well). (Also, I have no idea what distance from a walnut tree is "safe", but 100' is not enough).

We've also tried potting them over the winter and bringing indoors, but haven't had as much luck getting figs that way. The trees survived but didn't produce fruit. Last year I put a couple of them in 2.5' pots and let them go dormant in the garage... I don't know if we'll get fruit from those trees this year (2012) or not, but they survived (and are budding out in the unusually warm winter/spring here now). If I remember I'll post back here next fall to let you know if I get any fruit from them.

Lastly, I'm about to try some Chicago Hardy varieties... am just ordering them now. If it's true that I can avoid all this burying / unburying, that'd be a huge improvement! I may just pile hay and mulch around them within some sort of containment for some bit of protection anyway (that technique didn't work with the Brown Turkey variety here though... I lost those trees to the freeze). I'm hopeful it'll work.

It's a long post... but I wanted to let you know that figs can be grown in zone 5 successfully, albeit with quite a bit of labor. Hopefully Chicago Hardy will reduce the amount of work.


Comment by Mike Sun Mar 25 00:39:53 2012
Mike --- It sounds like you really like figs! I'm not sure I'd go to quite so much trouble for figs, but I've actually only tasted a couple of subpar fresh ones --- once our bush produces, it might be a different matter. I can see buds swelling on our plant in this warm spell, so it looks like it made it through the winter. If it doesn't get nipped too hard, maybe we'll get our first fruits this year!
Comment by anna Sun Mar 25 16:01:18 2012
Summer '11 was the first time we had seen Chicago Hardy figs available at our local nursery in NE Ohio. By Summer's end I had 12 of them, perhaps a little excessive. I left 8 in the ground over winter, heavily mulched--actually completely covered with leaves--and one wrapped in a cylinder of chicken wire filled with leaves. All seem to have survived and are already showing signs of new growth (in March!). I potted up 4 and overwintered them in the garage; these received a modest amount of light in an area consistently several degrees warmer than outside. These are fluorishing, with the largest already fully leafed out. I have enough of them to warrant trying and comparing different approaches; so, I'll be pruning some and not others just to see the effects. Also, we harvested a few figs just weeks after first planting them. They were smallish and not quite as full-flavored as I had hoped. But, they were very new plants. I was told to expect the best production after they were established for three years. By the way, a local newspaper ran a story last year about a fellow in Ohio who has had a productive Black Mission Fig for thirty years! Hhe goes through quite a routins to prune wrap and overwinter the thing, but it now extends more than thirth feet and reaches 8 or 9 feet in height. In Ohio. Of course, now I have to try that, too. Thanks for the post.
Comment by John Mon Mar 26 11:19:19 2012
John --- I love that you're trying all different methods, and have enough plants to compare and contrast! I hope you'll post back in a few months once you know which overwintering methods do better.
Comment by anna Mon Mar 26 11:31:25 2012

Will do! And sorry for the typos in that post.

I forgot to add that each Chicago Hardy is expected, when mature, to produce 70-80 figs. I believe that puts me on track to have upwards of 800 to 900 figs each year. I may not have thought this out well enough in advance, especially as I'm the only one in the house who likes them.

Comment by John Mon Mar 26 13:12:16 2012

No need to apologize about typos. I make them too. :-)

Interesting data on the number of figs per mature plant. You can always dry the excess --- that's my favorite way to eat figs. Three dried figs per day doesn't sound like much at all....

Comment by anna Mon Mar 26 19:23:35 2012
I am glad I found this post! Today DH and Kiddo took me to the nearby Lowes and picked out some perennial flowers and a chicago hardy fig for me for Mother's day. Hopefully with care we'll be harvesting figs in a few seasons:D
Comment by MamaHomesteader Sat May 12 12:07:05 2012
MamaHomesteader --- Good luck with your new figs! We're hoping for our first fruits this year.
Comment by anna Sat May 12 14:07:20 2012

You can NEVER have too many figs I had a chicago hardy and made jelly, everyone absolutely loved it!

Comment by Deb Mon Jul 30 09:26:16 2012
Deb --- I totally agree. I'm watching our figs grow this year year with baited breath. It looks like a lot on our one tree, but I don't think it'll really take long to eat them!
Comment by anna Mon Jul 30 09:50:23 2012
I grow hardy chicago fig in zone 7 NC and it is very cold hardy and this fig is delicious dried or for any other use.
Comment by Derek Morris Tue Jun 14 14:26:36 2016
I got a Chicago Hardy fig three years ago. I live in zone 6, WV. I figured potting it wouldn't work as I have no semi-heated space for it; I do have a small greenhouse but it isn't heated and I don't figure the wild temperature swings on sunny winter days would be good. I put it in my orchard with a ring of hardware cloth around it, and for winter--this will be the third--I fill the cylinder (which is about 30" high) with dead leaves and then wrap it in an old sheet. Both winters, it died to the ground, both springs it finally showed itself when I was ready to give up on it in May. All three years, the fall extent was what you say I should prune it to: three branches and 30". No sign of fruit. I had concluded that it never would, and was considering moving it to a container as I could put a semidwarf fruit tree in the space it's taking up; but I see here that it fruits on new wood, that someone with similar experience then got lots of fruit some years. Another thing is that I'm adding new trees to my orchard because the berries have all done poorly and the low end of the orchard is where everything that did poorly is located...and below, there are black walnut trees. Since they're lower, there are no dropping leaves or hulls, but the evil trees could be sneaking their roots uphill underground. So, all this is useful, thanks.
Comment by Mary Wildfire Thu Jan 12 09:01:26 2017
Did it make it through winter? I am curious to how it handled the cold. If the roots aren't established in the first year of planting it will def need protection.
Comment by NIkki M Sat Sep 21 14:33:57 2019

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