Many gardeners in these parts have a fig tree. Or they used to. Big old figs, which we have come to view as a reliable feature of the Washington garden, took it on the chin this winter. This reality is only now apparent, as fig-keepers have waited patiently and forlornly over the past six weeks for buds to stir and the exotically large leaves to grow.
I have several reports of mature figs lifeless, even in sheltered gardens inside the Beltway. That description applies, too, to my own fig tree, which has functioned as a large shrub at the base of an old red oak tree for more than a decade.
In April, sensing it might be in trouble, I took a penknife to its smooth gray bark, scraping it to reveal the cambium level below. The multiple stems were green, promising new growth. But over the next month, the buds that had formed last year remained stubbornly lifeless. I scratched the trunk again. Still, it was green.
So what’s happening? I have a fig that is showing signs of life but putting on a better display of death. It is vital but not vivacious. Sections of two young branches have leafed out. I have also noticed two tiny eruptions of adventitious buds on what might be thought of as its main trunk. It will be mid-June, I guess, before I can get a full sense of regrowth. But unless many more buds appear and grow, the fig is going to look misshapen as I remove the large moribund branches around the burgeoning bits.
The other option is to take off all the old top growth, knowing that suckers will resprout from the roots. (Some have started already.) The naked winter branches die at temperatures around 12 degrees, but the roots are hardy down to zero degrees.
When you let a fig return from the ground (and an already well-established root system), you can trim and groom the vigorous new growth to restore a symmetric and pleasing shape. It will take two to three years before the fig offers a decent crop.
The winter cleanup continues elsewhere. I have just dug out a failed lavender hedge. It was in decline before the winter, but the polar vortex delivered the coup de grace.
Although I had taken pains to prepare the bed first — raising it for good drainage, adding lots of sand, compost and lime — it was a spot that the lavender just didn’t like. It was too airless in summer and too cold in winter.
The first hedge was of an English lavender named Munstead Wood. When that declined, I replaced it with a variety named Buena Vista, which I thought would be tougher. In replacing it, I toyed with planting a little hedge of rue, which is an undervalued decorative herb, but I settled instead on rosemary.
Rosemary is another shrub that was killed, widely, by the winter. The need to replant and the desire for a whole hedge of it align into one of those spring projects that make you believe you are making some headway in the garden.
I had lost a mature rosemary that was five feet high and as much across, but its frigid demise didn’t bother me as much as it would have years ago.
I don’t view rosemary plants here as you might in Europe or California, as large permanent shrubs akin to, say, a false cypress. Gone are the days when I would wrap a rosemary in a large plastic bag for the coldest days of winter. I’m happy to keep one for three or four years, watch it grow a foot or so a year, and then succumb.
The new rosemary hedge consists of four varieties of shifting textures, flavors and hardiness, namely Tuscan Blue, robust, thick, upright; Gorizia, whose large leaves belie its understated flavor; Hill Hardy, twiggy, coarse but the most winter-hardy; and Herb Cottage, described in the catalogue as one that “sparkles with tightly spaced foliage” and a “good, clear scent.” Sold.
Apart from the tapestry of the different textures and hues, the mixed planting will test each for its vigor and hardiness. If one dies, I will allow its neighbor to spread, or I might simply plug in another. One becomes wild and reckless with age.
The plants are young. They establish better that way, but you have to treat them with kid gloves when you plant. I like to coax the roots out gently and by hand if possible so that they know they need to spread. The less root-bound the plant, the more delicate the handling. The crown is planted proud of the soil line, and mulched with gravel. Rosemary hates excessive shade, heavy clay soil and stuffy corners.
Now installed, the plants are just a few inches high and looking rather lonely. In their first year, they will share the bed with a companion. I considered basil or onions but settled on a delicate, wiry annual named tassel flower (Emilia).
Its little red thistle flowers are borne on meandering stems all summer long. You can sow the seed directly or start it in little pots. I’m trying both approaches while pondering how just one winter in 20 can alter our gardens so much.
The tide ebbs and flows, and who knows what the summer will bring? Still, better a bumpy sea than a stagnant pond.
Read past columns by Higgins at washingtonpost.com/home.
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