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Fresh Figs

I recently moved to Chicago from Houston and I miss fresh picked figs. Is there any way to grow figs in Chicago short of installing a greenhouse? Will sunny windows do? I’m desperate.

Figs (Ficus carica) are handsome plants with smooth gray bark and large lobed leaves which can grow into gnarled trees in warm climates. In Illinois, with winter die-back, they are grown as shrubs. They should be sited where they get some protection from the wind in winter.

You do not need a greenhouse to grow figs, and a sunny window would not be appropriate. Grow a fig cultivar suitable for this climate. While most figs are rated to winter hardiness zone 4, the problem comes because our growing season is too short to ripen fruit, which may take until September or October in a cool summer. Sometimes we have an early frost. If so, pick unripened figs and let them ripen in the house.

Alana Mezo, senior horticulturist for the fruit and vegetable island at the Chicago Botanic Garden, recommends ‘Chicago Hardy’ fig, the variety they grow. They have 10 or 12 plants there growing in a row and, through trial and error, have decided not to protect them over winter because rodents chew roots and stems in wrapped plants and set back their growth. Their figs are multi-stemmed, die back to the ground when unprotected, and get off to a slow start in the spring, delaying fruiting.

However, if you do not have a rodent problem, tie the stems together, wrap burlap around the tied stems, and cover the base with a basketful of leaves. With this protection, your plants will have a head start in spring, and you should have figs ripen a month earlier than unprotected plants, at least by late August.

Another method of winter protection is to root prune in a half semi-circle around the plant, lay it down and cover the plants with leaves over winter.

If you grow a fig in a large container, you can wheel it into an unheated garage and store it over winter. Watch it to see if it needs moisture. Your plant does need a dormant cold period, but not a freeze. This is an “iffy” process according to Mezo.

A fig grower in Highwood claims that rubbing olive oil on the fig hastens ripening, but Mezo has not tried this yet.


Fruit Trees

I am interested in growing fruit trees in my suburban DuPage County yard. Can sweet cherries be grown here? Can you suggest varieties of apples, pears, peaches, apricots and plums that are hardy and disease resistant?

Sweet cherries are not hardy in this area. Some fruit trees are sensitive to winter cold and spring frost damage to the buds. Early flowering apricots are the most sensitive, followed by peaches. Pears and sour cherries bloom later and are less sensitive to late frosts.

Apples are the least sensitive to frost damage. Apple scab and apple maggot are common pests. Fruit trees require a regular schedule of spraying for pest control.

For a backyard fruit tree grower, tree size is important. Dwarf fruit trees bear full-sized fruit earlier than standard sized trees. Most fruit cultivars need two different varieties to cross- pollinate and produce fruit.

Midwest Fruit Explorers is a non-profit amateur backyard fruit-growing group. For more information about fruit growing, see www.midfex.org.


Types of Fruit Trees

I am going to be planting five dwarf fruit trees; two ‘Bartlett’ pears, one ‘Cresthaven’ peach, and two ‘Honeycrisp’ apples. Could you give me some feedback on them?

If you buy young container fruit trees, plant them very early in the spring to lessen transplanting shock (as soon as the soil can be worked and before the buds break). Plant the tree at the level it was in the pot, adding a layer of top mulch.

“Wrap the trunk in paper or plastic tree wrap to prevent deer and rabbit damage. Protect the trunk from voles with fine wire mesh at the base,” says Tim Norris, president of Spring Bluff nursery, Sugar Grove.

‘Bartlett’ pear is subject to fire blight and also needs a pollinator for good fruit production. ‘Patten’ and ‘Parker’ are two pear cultivars Norris recommends. Two different cultivars will give you better cross-pollination.

‘Honeycrisp’ apples are an excellent choice for this area. They grow up to 20 feet tall on semi-dwarf root stock. They can be pollinated by any member of the Malus family, including a nearby flowering crab tree.

‘Cresthaven’ peach, while hardy here, may not bear fruit, depending on how cold the winters are. When the temperature goes down to zero, ‘Cresthaven’ peach loses all its flower buds. Norris suggests growing ‘Reliance’ peach instead. It needs a long growing season. Last spring (2008) was a cool one and peaches did not bear much fruit. Peaches are not long-lived trees. By the time the tree is bearing fruit, you will need to start growing another tree.


Tomatoes

After my father’s tomatoes ripen on the vine, he finds when he cuts into them that there is a hard white core that extends through the fruit.

“This is a common problem,” says Dan Woldhuis, owner, Woldhuis Farms, Grant Park. “Customers bring their tomatoes to me with hard cores.”

Sometimes this is the result of weather that’s too hot and then suddenly cold.

But more likely it is the variety. Change to a soft-skin, less firm tomato such as ‘Celebrity’ to overcome the white core problem. I’ve grown this for many years and sold it at the farmers’ market, but it is too soft for the commercial market and is best for home growers.


Strawberries

I have two strawberry plants in a hanging basket in my yard. I have not had any fruit from them although the vines hang down. I give them plant food once a month and water daily. What am I doing wrong?

Fertilizing your plant with a high nitrogen fertilizer causes excessive leaf growth. Clip the runners so the strength goes into flower and fruit production. In winter, make sure the plant roots do not freeze in the hanging basket, according to Joni Cotton, Hawthorn Gardens, Hawthorn Woods.


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