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Weather permitting, growing hardy figs in Ohio feasible
 
By Doug Graves
Ohio Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The fig has been grown as a fruit crop for many centuries. Many people all over the world have enjoyed the edible fig, with Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Algeria, Greece, Syria and the United States topping the list of fig-producing nations.
California-grown figs are available in grocery retailers from May through November. Figs are not grown commercially in states like Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, but for those willing to protect the plant from bitter, unpredictable weather, cultivating them can be accomplished.
“While it is encouraging to see fresh figs available for sale at some grocery stores in the United States, Americans are more familiar with fig cookies than fresh figs,” said Gary Gao, small fruit Extension specialist with Ohio State University. “Fig production is concentrated in California since most edible fig cultivars are not cold hardy and can be killed to the ground when temperatures are 20 degrees or below.”
Gao, along with research associate Ryan Slaughter, performed demonstration plantings (one in an open field, the other in a high tunnel) in cultivars at OSU South Centers near Piketon in 2017 in an attempt to test how hardy figs would perform in Ohio. This short-term study continued through 2020.
“Certain cold hardy cultivars can be planted since these hardy figs can produce fruits on new shoots,” Gao said. “Gardeners and others should keep in mind that a large percentage of the fruits may not fully ripen at the end of the growing season. Still, the fig plants still look very interesting and make a good addition to the home landscape.”
Gao suggested growers test a small planting first to check their productivity and the market demand for the fruit. He suggested using a high tunnel to produce an earlier harvest and to extend the growing season into the autumn.
“The fig plants in our trials near Piketon began ripening around early September and kept ripening up into November using high tunnels,” Gao said. “Hardy figs produce more fruits, an earlier harvest and a longer harvest in a high tunnel production. Growers need to weigh the high costs of using high tunnels when growing figs.”
When growing figs in the open field without protection from the high tunnel, Gao and Slaughter noticed the fruit ripening in early October, continuing until mid-October when air temperatures were hovering the 32-degree mark, resulting in significant loss in fruit yield and shedding leaves.
“There are hundreds of fig cultivars available in the commercial trade, but most of them are not well suited for Ohio due to their lack of cold hardiness, long fruit ripening and unique pollination requirements.” Gao said. “Brown Turkey and Hardy Chicago are the only two suggested cultivars since our preliminary experience with them was positive. Brown Turkey can produce two distinct crops in a long, warm growing season. When grown outside without protection, Brown Turkey may prove to be a challenge because fruits may not fully ripen until early October.”
During Gao’s trials, the fresh fig fruits were large and flavorful, with the average size of approximately 40 grams.
Gao advised that potential hardy fig growers in Ohio should exercise caution when purchasing Brown Turkey fig plants from a nursery as some California Brown Turkeys may not be the same hardy Brown Turkey figs sold in Ohio. Growers should trial a small number of plants to make sure they get the true hardy version of Brown Turkey before purchasing a larger number of plants.
“The Hardy Chicago cultivar is likely more suitable for Ohio growing conditions, although its fruits are much smaller than those of Brown Turkey, averaging only 18 grams per fig at maturity,” Gao said. “Under average outside growing conditions, they ripen approximately three weeks before Brown Turkey. In southern Ohio, you can expect to harvest fruits from this cultivar beginning in early- to mid-September until a killing freeze occurs. Like Brown Turkey, a high tunnel can help ripen the fruit sooner for an earlier harvest, and protect the developing fruits for higher yields and a later harvest.”
The flavor of Hardy Chicago, Gao said, is exceptional and has a resemblance to a peach.
Gao said fig plants develop extensive, relatively shallow fibrous root systems and should not be planted near drainpipes, sewer lines or other underground infrastructure potentially affected by invasive roots. They prefer soils that are slightly acidic, loamy, well-drained and high in organic matter.
In considering spacing for the fig plant, Gao recommended a plant spacing of five to six feet.
Other cultivars in their trial at South Centers in Piketon included Celeste, Fantasia, Hunt, Latizia, Lola Martin, Olympian, Violette de Bordeaux and White Marseilles.
In Nova, Ohio, Tim and Beth Malinich received a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Educations (SARE) grant to experiment with overwintering methods for raising figs on their small fruit farm. Their farm is in the northern part of the state. They learned that figs could, in fact, be overwintered successfully with protection, and they continue to grow and direct market fruits like elderberries, currants, pears and peaches in addition to figs.
“Figs are a niche crop with a definite market to a smaller number of buyers,” Tim said. “It makes a nice addition to the market, pick-your-own or otherwise.”
Last season, Vicky Tewes, of Thistlehair Farm in Union, Ky., grew robust fig trees in large pots, and the plants bore enough fruit to make batches of jam and plenty of delicious baked goods. According to Tewes, one can cook them into jams, roast them until they’re caramelized, dehydrate them, pair with goat cheese and arugula in salad, eat them for breakfasts with yogurt and honey, or make a pan sauce with a little wine to glaze chicken or pork.
3/25/2024