Figs are native to areas with long growing seasons and hot summers. Although they display a surprising amount of cold tolerance, harsh weather severely limits fruit production and growth. A prolonged episode of freezing temperatures can cause the entire plant to die. Although the fig will sprout new shoots from the roots in spring, fruit is generally produced on 2-year-old growth. Zone 5 low temperatures average around -15 degrees, which will kill these plants to the ground. A few fig varieties, however, are adaptable for cold climates and extremes and will produce fruit on new wood. Growing techniques and winter protection will allow certain fig trees to grow successfully in zone 5.
Celeste is a fast growing fig with a shrub like form, reaching 10 to 15 feet tall. It is hardy to 0 degrees, but will freeze back to the ground in colder temperatures. New growth in the spring will often still produce a fruit crop, but for reliable fig production, protect the tree in winter. Celeste figs are very sweet, with dark skins and reddish flesh.
English Brown Turkey Fig
English Brown Turkey routinely handles cold winter temperature extremes and continues to fruit during the growing season. Figs are dark purplish brown, with sweet red pulp. Fruit tastes richer and smoother than most other hardy types. What makes Brown Turkey even more unusual for a temperate fig is the size of its fruit, which can measure up to 3 inches in diameter.
Hardy Chicago Fig
Hardy Chicago is by far the most reliable variety for zone 5 areas. Trees that regularly freeze to the ground will go on to produce abundant fruit during the growing season. Hardy Chicago figs are rather small but very sweet, and the harvest is usually large. Hardy Chicago will grow slowly at first. Once the roots are well established, yearly growth will accelerate considerably.
Figs can be left in the ground unprotected, but a particularly vicious cold snap may kill young trees. For the first few years, shelter fig trees. Wait until fall frosts have defoliated the fig. Build a framework of wood, wire or bamboo around the fig, and pack mulch into the space between the frame and the tree. Cover with a layer of plastic, then one of burlap or canvas. Tie down securely to protect against high winds. After four to five years, you can leave the fig unprotected.
After the last frost in spring, uncover the fig. New growth may need some time to get started. If spring temperatures have been unseasonably warm, leaves may already be sprouting. They will look pale and spindly, but a few days of sunshine will turn them a healthy green. Overwintering figs will grow easier as the trees age and develop more cold tolerance.
You can also grow and overwinter figs in pots. Move the pots indoors with the on-set of cold weather to a cool, sheltered place. Since light is not an issue when the trees are dormant, a garage or a basement is a good storage spot. Oddly enough, potted figs will bear heavier fruit crops than their in-ground counterparts. Root constriction limits top growth, but promotes fruit formation.