How to rescue a fig tree, prep for spring

Saving a fig tree planted in a pot

Kitty in Gaithersburg writes: “Please help me save my baby fig tree. It is in a 10-inch pot for now, waiting for an old catalpa tree to be removed, after which it will be properly planted. I had a similar fig in a 20-inch pot that froze to death last winter. Should I bury this one in its pot in my compost heap to keep its dear little roots warm? The last time I had a fresh, ripe fig was at my granddad’s home in South Carolina when I was about 10. I am now 79 and would really like to have that delicious experience again before it is too late.

You’re on the right track, Kitty. The pot does need to be buried so that the roots of the plant are underneath the soil line, but it needs to be planted in the ground, not in a compost pile. Pick a spot that’s protected by something like a wall or a fence that will block the winter wind, bury the pot up to its rim, place a wire cage (like a tomato cage) around the plant, and then fill the cage with finely shredded leaves, not whole ones. (Figs are not reliably winter-hardy and need the added protection).

Uncover it in the spring and get that fig in the ground, again, in a protected spot.

All plants in pots need protection

Many people have plants such as fruit trees or blueberries in pots, and don’t realize that the roots will freeze to death if left above ground. But these plants — and figs — do need a “winter chill” to produce fruit.

The answer is to “heel in” the plant until spring. Dig a hole and drop the plant in the hole, pot and all. Surround winter-hardy plants such as fruit trees and blueberries with hardware cloth to keep hungry mice from nibbling away at the trunk. For winter tender plants like figs, make its hardware cloth surrounded by shredded leaves.

Uplift the pots in the spring — and find a place to plant the poor things permanently.

Arlene’s bed’s got legs

Arlene in Silver Spring writes: “I was gifted with a raised bed on legs, perfect for my achy 80-year-old bones. Should I fill it with soil now? Or, wait until spring? Also, this is my ‘year of compost.’ I made it according to your recipe — chopped leaves and coffee grounds last fall — and now it is gorgeous and abundant. I will use as much of it to fill the bed as you advise. What else should I add to create the most nutritious growing medium?”

I love these raised beds on legs; they’re great for gardeners who are tired of endless bending. Don’t use any garden soil in the bed. Fill about half of the bed with your wonderful compost and half with a high-quality bagged potting soil (aka “soil-free mix,” seed-starting soil, etc.).

Be sure to avoid potting soils that contain the so-called “Miracle” of added chemical fertilizers. Your local independent garden center — not the big box store that’s trying to put that family out of business — should have what you need.

Use finished compost now? Or, later?

Arlene, if your compost is in a sealed bin, you can let it sit until spring. But, if it’s out in the open, winter rain and snow can leach away a lot of its nutrients. If that’s the case, fill the bed now with half compost and half potting soil — and plant it!

Buy three of those wonderful foot-tall rosemary Christmas trees and space them out, surrounded by small incandescent lights to make them look pretty and keep them warm on cold winter nights.

Or, fill the planter with pansies and harvest the cold-hardy edible flowers for salads through next July. Or, sow a late run of salad greens for a homegrown Christmas salad!

Leaves falling? It’s composting time!

Arlene is an inspiration to us all with her compost! Congratulations, Arlene! The truth is that many piles take close to a year to completely compost, but that’s great! Use what you have now and then begin to harvest this year’s largesse!

Use a leaf blower set on reverse to suck up, shred and capture the leaves and mix them with lots of spent grounds from a coffee shop as you go. That is the perfect recipe for high-quality compost cooking. Do not include food scraps, wood ash, grass clippings, junk mail or other nonsense. I’ll explain why next week.

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

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