The Resilient Fig

One of Bruno's wrapped fig trees

The springtime ritual of unwrapping the fig tree usually brings a sense of anticipation and excitement for Bruno Garofalo of Pittsburgh. He is especially eager to unwrap his two prize fig trees that he brought with him as small shoots from Italy in the lining of his coat in 1961. He buried them each fall until they became too large, and then he began to wrap them in layers of pink fiberglass insulation, foam padding, and large plastic tarps to keep out moisture and harsh winter wind. The video at the end of this post shows how he does this.

Dead looking fig tree

Upon unwrapping this spring, an unpleasant surprise greeted Bruno. For the first time in 53 years, his trees showed no signs of life.

Lifeless fig branches

Instead of appearing silver gray and supple with tiny emerging leaf buds, the upper branches were dry and brown, becoming even darker brown to black toward the tips.

Dry, broken branch

Smaller branches were dry and brittle and snapped easily when bent.

Disappointed Bruno looking at his tree

Bruno was in disbelief that a tree protected so well didn’t survive the winter.

Bruno inspecting the dead looking fig tree

He inspected several of his other trees which he had decided not to wrap for the past several years because the winters were so mild. They showed no signs of life either.

Bark cut away to show dead wood underneath

He nicked this tree in several places to determine if any part was alive. This tree revealed only brown wood instead of the usual light green.

Bruno inspecting beneath the soil

Bruno dug around the base looking for roots that may have survived.

Buried shoot reveals life

He pulled up this root when he saw the tiny green leaves poking up out of the soil. This could be re-buried as is and will continue to grow or could be cut off at the base, retaining the new root fibers, then re-planted.

A tiny bud on one branch

Upon close inspection of one of his wrapped trees he discovered a few tiny green buds. He will prune this tree heavily to just above the new growth.

New shoots coming up from the base of the fig tree

The other wrapped tree revealed new shoots only around its base where dirt had been mounded up around the trunk during the winter. This tree he will cut to only a few inches above the ground, allowing one or two of the new shoots to grow into a new tree. If he lets all of the new shoots grow, they will develop into a multi-stemmed bush and will continue to send up more shoots each year.

To learn more about Bruno Garofalo click here.

For more in-depth training, consider attending one of our fig tree growing classes, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Growing Fig Trees”, offered periodically in several cities. Because of the devastating effect of the recent winter we have added information to the class about how to save and rejuvenate a fig tree that has been damaged by the cold. See the Events page for a location near you.

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Comments

Aaron Tobul

The same sad story holds in Beechview. The only trees that came through were the ones that were buried.

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Mary Menniti

Yes, Aaron, Pittsburgh trees needed to have much more protection than usual this year. I am currently in NYC where trees that were left unprotected through the winter are also badly damaged. I’m investigating whether trees that were wrapped survived the winter here. Many people have told me that years ago trees were always wrapped, but more recently trees thrived without winter protection.

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James S Puliti

In spite of my covering my fig tree, and wiltproofing it prior to covering, I was totally didappointed in the outcome. I do have suckers growing from the bottom, so will try to root them. Ironicly, last year was one of my best harvest.
Sorry for Bruno, he had a magnificent tree, and it appeared to be covered very well .
C’est La Vie???

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Mary Menniti

Yes, it is sad to see Bruno’s trees so lifeless. Please keep us posted about how you decide to protect your new trees this winter.

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Pat Belculfine

Mary, Just got done checking my tree and finally, I am seeing small, tiny figs forming. They’re later this year, but luckily, my buried tree survived very well – no dead branches – and tree in full bloom.

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Rob Brugnoli

Wow so sorry to see his tree didn’t survive. I can see the sadness in his face for sure. I buried three trees and they all miraculously survived. And incredibly one tree has figs on. Not sure why, maybe someone can explain.
Ciao
Rob

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Mary Menniti

Rob, it seems that trees that were buried benefited from the fact that the ground doesn’t freeze much below the surface. This is why a building footer works. It creates a foundation that will not be affected by freeze and thaw like at the ground surface. Also, any warmth coming from the ground is trapped by covering the hole that the tree rests in with several inches of soil, leaves or garden debris.

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Rich Tenney

I live in Oakland. My landlady has five figs trees in the backyard. They had a bumper crop last summer, but sadly none made it thru the winter. She cut them down a couple weeks ago and many small trees are forming along the bases. There’s always next year!

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Mary Menniti

Last year was an amazing year for figs. Many people are still going to miss them this year, but we hope that by next season most will be enjoying a least a few.

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Jim Bucci

Mary, My fig bush in Hopewell Twp did survive the winter, and it was wrapped not buried. Very lucky, based on the other comments in this post. The bush is about 6-feet tall and wide. I wrapped it with burlap, fiberglass insulation and a tarp (like I learned in your Fig Class in Sewickley a couple of years ago). The figs have just started to ripen, and are delicious!

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Mary Menniti

Wow, you’re one of the lucky few whose wrapped tree survived the brutal Pittsburgh winter! I’m glad the class came in handy! Bet the figs were delicious.

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Fran Tunno

I love this story. My father and brothers always wrapped the fig tree in my parent’s back yard. Sadly, we just sold the family home last year because both my parents passed away. Now the garden is gone and I don’t know how the fig tree fared. Good news though, my brother took several shoots from it, and is creating new fig trees from my dad’s old one. Life goes on.

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Phil Kobal

Hello fig lovers,
Very good information. I grow my fig trees in containers and I stored them in my garage for the winter months.I live in Northern Ohio.
Thank you
Phil

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Ryan

It is really sad to see such a beautiful tree die back to the roots. May Bruno’s new shoots fair better. I have an in-ground fig tree here in Chicago. It survived the last two winters that both had -20 F nights. To protect my figs, I tied the branches together, built a chicken wire cage around the tree, packed it with straw, and covered the top with a tarp. Every branch had about 18 inches of insulation. Before packing the straw, I ran a heat cable up the center of the tree. The cable is controlled by a thermostat that is also buried in the center of the straw pile. The thermostat turns the cable on whenever the center of the stack cools below about 40 F. Each winter, I am a little worried that the cable will have a problem and start the straw on fire. Perhaps I should use fiberglass instead. I only plug the tree in during the coldest weeks, from mid-December to early March.

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