, Salem, MA

October 11, 2013

North Shore Gardener: Three options for keeping a fig tree through winter

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: I have a brown turkey fig tree in a huge plastic container that I keep on a porch all spring, summer and fall. Now I have to put it away before winter comes. Can I winter this little tree over in an unheated tool shed in my backyard? What do I have to do to it?

A: You have three choices for storing this potted fig:

Bring the pot indoors to a sunny window and grow through the winter — keep it cool!

Move the pot to a very cool but bright place, like a shed, garage, cellar or unheated porch. Do not let it freeze or the leaves will drop. Next spring, gradually increase the light. Take it out when you will feed and water it as usual.

Insulate the whole pot and leave it outside for the winter, building a tent of leaves around the tree for warmth. Hold the leaves in place with chicken wire and/or burlap. We have a reader who does this with his banana tree. The top foliage will die, but the roots will spring to life as temperatures rise in the late spring.

Q: Now that summer is ending, we can turn our thoughts to holidays and decoration, but what can you do with any dry bittersweet? I’ll have it lingering around the house, inside or out — you can’t just throw it in the compost! What can I do with my old bittersweet?

A: Oriental bittersweet that you bought is a very invasive species. Rapidly growing, it twines and strangles everything it grows on or up or over. Its seeds are carried by man and birds and beast to anywhere they can grow, preferably a sunny spot. You are right; do not compost bittersweet!

There are two varieties of bittersweet: Oriental and American. You buy the Oriental variety because it has berries all along the stem and it makes excellent dry decorations. American bittersweet has fewer berries. It grows on a terminal cluster at the end of the stem — not as pretty, but far safer. But you will not find much of the American variety around — arrangers demand the Oriental variety.

Get rid of the bittersweet by bagging it up in a paper bag and letting it dry out, then dispose of it by burning — it is the only way to get rid of this invasive species.

Q: For many years now, I have successfully grown a single tomato plant in my small condo garden, guarded from pests by a group of nearby marigolds. This year, however, the tomato plant was decimated by what I believe was a tomato horn worm (I saw the nasty fellow one night); in just a couple of days, the plant was gone! A friend told me I’d never be able to grow another tomato plant because the larvae stay in the soil forever! Is that true? Is there anything I can do now — and/or next spring — to protect a plant next year?

A: Try using a spray that is labeled for eatables and also for worms and caterpillars. Start spraying now and begin again next spring after the last spring freeze. Another way is to change the entire soil in the container — simple and sure and easy. Wash the pot thoroughly and, if it is plastic, leave it outside for the winter. Or, try placing a few slices of cucumber in a small pie tin in your garden. The chemicals in the cucumber react with the aluminum to give off a scent that is undetectable to humans but drives garden pests crazy and makes them flee the area.

Next year, maybe you can try a few more tomatoes — with your limited space, a hanging container could be a real space-saver and with fewer pests!

Q: I have a question about my New Guinea impatiens that I plant in window boxes on my deck and have for years. In the past few weeks, I have little to no flowers. I had problems in the beginning; I used a potting soil, which I am not a big fan of, and I had fungus gnats and used a systemic granular. I do not see any more, and I fertilize with bloom booster. I am wondering if it could be the extreme heat here in Danvers. Do you have any ideas?

A: Standard impatiens were hit by a fungus this year, which will continue for the next few years. There does not seem to be a cure, so try planting something else in that area for a few years. Begonias might be a good substitute or even a nice green ground cover over the winter. Your New Guineas may have been hit by the heat, especially if they are grown in window boxes. Good luck until next year when you will have fresh plants. I suggest cleaning the boxes and using fresh soil, too. Whenever you buy “fresh” soil, be sure the bags are not damaged. A hole in the bag might be the cause of fungus gnats.

Q: I have a smoke tree that is about 8 feet tall. My friend would like a cutting for her own yard. How does one divide the tree? Also, is there any yearly maintenance that will benefit the tree?

A: Smoke trees are so beautiful — and everything else about them is beautiful. They need little care; the deer will not eat them, and they grow fast, tall and full. I can see why your neighbor wants one, too! If you want to take a cutting of the stem, cut it, then dip it in a rooting hormone, like Hormonex, and pot it in a mix of sterile potting soil and a handful of Perlite, and keep the seedlings inside in a cool, but sunny window for the winter. Next spring, pot it outside in its permanent place and enjoy the joy of giving the plant to your friend.

Are you too anxious for starting a new cutting? Trees will be available next spring at nurseries (I know, because I have called several local nurseries). Prices should be about $25 to $50 each.

This week’s dirt: Drying flowers — do not wait too long to harvest them! Flowers and grasses should be harvested while they are in their prime. They do not get better than when they are picked!


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at