Chicago Hardy Fig TreeFicus carica 'Chicago Hardy'
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Ficus carica 'Chicago Hardy'
Outdoor Growing zone
The Chicago Hardy Fig is the top-choice variety for growing in colder zones. It produces a good crop in late summer and fall, of round, purple-brown fruits with strawberry-pink flesh. The large leaves are divided into three lobes, without the deep divisions seen in some other varieties. This compact bush can grow to 12 feet in warmer zones, but is usually smaller in cold areas. Choose a sunny, sheltered spot, or grow it against a south-facing wall as an espalier. It is great for containers, which can be left outdoors all winter in zone 7, but keep them in a cold garage or shed in colder areas.
For the best crops from your Chicago Hardy Fig, plant it in full sun. It grows and fruits even in zone 5, and should be planted in well-drained soil, or in a porous potting mixture. Once established it is drought resistant, and only needs watering in summer if the leaves begin to turn yellow. It is usually free of pests or diseases, and the only care needed is to remove any dead branches in spring. Wait until buds swell so you can see what is truly dead.
Many people are amazed and delighted when they first taste a fresh fig, and of course they want to grow their own. It can be disappointing to find out that these trees only grow in zone 7 or warmer, but that isn’t the whole story. There are a few select varieties that will grow in colder areas, and the very best of those few is the Chicago Hardy Fig. This is the variety to choose if you live in zones 5 and 6, and it can even be grown in zone 4 with a little care. Wow, this means that wherever you live, you too can enjoy the divine summer pleasure of eating a fully ripened fig straight from your garden, still warm from the summer sun. The Chicago Hardy Fig ripens a good crop between July and September, depending on your zone and the growing conditions. The medium-sized round fruits have a short neck attaching them to the stem, and they are purple-brown on the outside when ripe. Cut one open and enjoy the beautiful color of the inside, red like strawberry jam. The flavor is subtle, delicious and addictive, sweet but not cloying. It’s far superior to, and very different from, the taste of dried figs – there really is no comparison. The leaves too can be used – wrap some salmon in one and throw it on the barbeque – delicious! Dry some and make a delightful tea.
The Chicago Hardy Fig is a deciduous shrub with many thick flexible branches growing from low down. It forms a bush or small tree between 5 and 15 feet tall, depending on the growing zone and amount of winter die-back. The stems are certainly hardy in zone 6 and usually in zone 5, but don’t worry, even with some winter dieback it will still fruit, but on a smaller bush. The leaves can be 10 inches across, divided into 3 rounded lobes. The leaf is not as deeply-divided and lobes as many other fig varieties. In early summer you will see tiny green fruits developing on new stems. These grow over summer, and ripen between July and September, depending on your zone and the growing location. This is a self-pollinating variety that needs no plant, or those special wasps you may have read about, to produce a full crop. The fruit is ripe and ready to eat when the neck becomes soft and the fruit begins to sag on the branch. The fruit is round, with a smooth, purple-brown skin and a dark pink interior. Simply pluck the ripe fruit and eat it fresh – or you can slice it into a salad.
You can grow the Chicago Hardy Fig in the ground, or in a planter. Choose a sheltered spot with plenty of sun – the base of a south-facing wall is ideal. You can let it grow naturally, or, against a wall or fence you can spread out the branches and tie them flat. This will expose the stems to more sun, giving more fruit and helping to ripen it as well. To grow in a planter, choose a large pot with drainage holes, and fill with a mixture of one part garden soil, one part coarse sand or fine gravel, and one part houseplant potting soil. After the tree has dropped all its leaves, stop watering and place it in a cold shed or unheated garage – light is not necessary. Store there until early spring and place it back outside. Don’t try to grow it indoors in a warm room for the winter, as it won’t produce any fruit without some winter cold.
The Chicago Hardy Fig is hardy to zone 5 – certainly the most cold-resistant variety available. It also grows well in warmer zones, all the way into zone 10. Plants in pots can be left outdoors for the winter from zone 7.
For good results and the best chance of a crop, plant the Chicago Hardy Fig in the sunniest place in your garden, but sheltered from winter winds. It grows well in any well-drained soil, and prefers poor, drier soils to rich, moist ones – so no compost is needed when planting. If you have rich soil, planting against a wall, where it is dry, helps, and you can also build a box of paving slabs sunken in the ground. Fill it with 2 parts garden soil and 1 part coarse sand or fine gravel, mixed together. This will reduce vigorous, leafy growth and encourage fruiting.
Pests and diseases don’t normally bother the Chicago Hardy Fig, and it doesn’t need much fertilizer, although plants in pots can be fed occasionally with liquid tomato food. In the ground water new plants at least weekly, but established plants don’t need watering unless you see leaves yellowing or young figs dropping. That is the signal to soak it deeply with plenty of water. Remove any dead branches back to new growth in spring, once it begins to sprout. Beyond that there is no need to prune, although you can cut the tips off tall branches to encourage side-shoots.
Humans have been growing the fig tree, Ficus carica, for thousands of years, originally in countries around the Mediterranean. Plants were brought to America by Spanish missionaries in the West, and mostly by Italian immigrants in the east. In the 1960s there was a famous old fig tree growing in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. It seems it was grown from branches taken from a tree in Sicily, Italy, and brought over by immigrants. At that time plants from that tree were offered for sale as ‘Bensonhurst Purple’ by Chris and Bill DiPaolo, at their Belleclaire Nursery in Plainfield, New York. Branches from that same tree in Sicily were also grown in Chicago, and became known as ‘Chicago Hardy’. Most experts agree these two varieties are the same. The rules of priority mean the official variety name is ‘Bensonhurst Purple’, although most people know it by the common name of Chicago Hardy, or sometimes Hardy Chicago.
The Chicago Hardy Fig is the answer for everyone in zones 5 and 6 who want to enjoy fresh figs right from the bush. If that is you, then place your order right away. This variety always sells out fast, so don’t miss out.