A figgy challenge and other gardening tips

A closeup shot of ripe fig fruits on the tree. (Courtesy Thinkstock)

A figgy challenge for McGrath

Allan in Silver Spring, Maryland, writes: “Over the years, your advice has yielded much success in my garden. Everything from lawn care to pest control — your knowledge is dead on. However, I must take issue with your recent advice regarding fig trees.

You said to drive stakes into the ground and wrap burlap around the stakes, not the tree. I wrap my fig tree every winter.

“Last December, knowing an exceptionally brutal cold snap was coming, I wrapped each branch in burlap and then the entire tree in old quilts. The tree struggled to come back in the spring but then found its stride and produced 30 pounds of figs. So, I disagree with you on how to wrap the tree. Please feel free to share your thoughts.

How would you like to be wrapped in freezing wet burlap?

There are many ways to protect a fig, Allan, but I will always warn against the protection touching the actual tree. Think about it — your burlap got wet, heavy and froze solid; same for the quilts, which explains why the tree died back to the ground. (You were lucky to get figs — but a high percentage of horticulture IS luck.)

That’s why I always advocate establishing a perimeter around the tree to support the protection that will help block the cold winter winds that are the biggest cause of die-back.

You can’t keep the tree warm over winter, but you can artificially create a protected area for it.

There are more ways to protect a fig tree over winter …

… than there are Evil Squirrels in Dupont Circle!

  • If your tree is in a courtyard in town or protected from winter winds by walls or structures in or near the heat sink of a city, it can probably get through winter on its own.
  • In the suburbs, drive stakes into the ground around the tree and wrap burlap around the stakes to prevent winter kill by wind.
  • Some fig enthusiasts will build a full-size wooden frame around the tree and wrap burlap around the structure to ensure survival. (Either leave the top exposed or make the roof slanted.)
  • Ah, but hard-core Italian fig-lovers will rock the tree out of the ground in November, push it down into a trench, cover the tree with soil and old carpeting, and then resurrect it in the spring — a sure way to get two crops every summer!

Apple blossom time — in October?!

Peter in Linden writes: “I have a strange occurrence to report. A month or so ago my two apple trees started losing their leaves and then looked as bare as they do in winter. Then about a week ago, they started leafing out; now they’re starting to flower! Obviously, they won’t make fruit this late in the season. Will they be able to go dormant and leaf and flower again next spring? I worry that they’re putting out too much energy and won’t make it till spring.”

Oh, they’ll survive, Peter. Apple trees are pretty hardy plants. They’ll probably even produce some new flowers and a reduced amount of fruit, but it won’t be a bumper crop. Our wacky weather made them think that winter was here, and then a sudden spring had sprung.

This is happening all over the mid-Atlantic states — spring blooming plants producing out-of-season flowers in the fall. The most important thing for you to do now is nothing. Let the plants figure it out.

(Oh, and wait until there are little fruits on the tree to do any pruning next spring. You don’t want to prune away a single, surviving flower.)

Let the tomatoes split; you two stay together

Anne in Takoma Park writes: “Can you tell me why our tomatoes all split open as they ripened this year? I say it’s from the enormous amount of rain we’ve had, but my husband doesn’t believe me.”

And you thought this would be the first time in history the husband was right, Anne? Sheesh!

Anyway, yes — ginormous amounts of rain will cause most varieties to split. The fruit simply fills up with more water than the skin can contain. Pick these split fruits right away and use them to make tomato sauce.

In the future, you might want to read catalog descriptions carefully and choose varieties that are said to “resist cracking and splitting.” Such tomatoes are bred to have thicker skins. As am I.

Mike McGrath was editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and WTOP Garden Editor since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at MikeMcG@PTD.net.


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