WHAT ARE THE forward-looking steps in your fall garden routine—the most important tasks you take now to get your garden tucked in, that really focus on success next year? Over at the part-farm, part-garden of Lee Reich in the Hudson Valley of New York State, his emphasis is on building soil health, and also on stashing his tender potted figs, so they’re primed for another productive fruiting season in the year to come.
Lee Reich has degrees in horticulture, soil science and chemistry, and is the author of many books, including the just out one called “Growing Figs in Cold Climates” . He’s a long time no-till organic gardener, and an expert pruner, and a grower of many unusual fruits, and someone I’ve turned to for advice for my own garden countless times over many years. He offered some tips to help us tuck in smarter–and also some on mixing your own potting soil, if you are seeking alternatives to peat-based mixes.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of Lee’s new book by commenting in the box farther down the page.
Read along as you listen to the Oct. 25, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
fall tips for cleanup and overwintering figs, with lee reich
Margaret Roach: Hi, Lee. You ready to give me some more advice?
Lee Reich: Yeah, anytime.
Margaret: Congratulations on “Growing Figs in Cold Climates: A Complete Guide,” very useful to people like me with potted figs to tuck away. So thank you.
Lee: Well, you’re welcome. And I’m really happy with the book.
Margaret: Yeah. So we did a “New York Times” story together recently, based on how to grow overwinter figs in pots, one of the techniques you cover in that book. And we’ll talk about that in a little bit, but first I really want to do some fall stuff, because everybody who’s got a garden has to do some fall stuff, whether they’ve got a fig or not [laughter]. I’m already starting. We haven’t had any frost yet on my side of the river, I’m already into some fall chores, though. What’s your most important focus that’s really on your must list?
Lee: I guess the Number 1 thing I like to do, and it’s mostly vegetables, is cleanup. Certain parts of the garden, not the vegetable garden, but other parts of the garden, I don’t like to clean up too thoroughly, because there’s a lot of beneficial insects and fungi and things like that, that really like the debris and overwintering sites, and some things look nice also. But the vegetable garden, in order to keep diseases down and pests down, I like to thoroughly clean it up. And the other reason I like to thoroughly clean it up is because then in spring, all I got to do is go out and plant. I don’t have to do anything else, pretty much.
Margaret: Right. And you’re a no-till gardener in that vegetable garden, right? And maybe just tell us a little bit about that.
Lee: Yeah. For over 30 years—I stopped counting a few years ago, but it’s over 30 still [laughter]. And for over 30 years, well, over 30 years ago I stopped tilling. And the main impetus for that was to minimize weeds, because weed seeds are buried in the soil and when you till, they get exposed to light and then they sprout. So that was the main reason.
But also it’s a whole different.. I think it’s better for the plants, it’s better for the fungi, it’s better for the earthworms. And so I stopped tilling and then every year, basically the only… Well, first of all, the vegetable garden is in beds, permanent beds. And every year, what I do is I lay a 1-inch depth of compost, finished compost, on each vegetable bed, and this provides all the fertility, all the plants need. And this is very intensively planted. It starts very early in the season and things are still growing now.
And so the whole season long, that provides all the fertility the plants need. It stomps out any small weeds and it insulates the soil and it feeds the soil microorganism. So it has a lot of benefits, besides just keeping weeds down.
Margaret: Right. So you’re topdressing the beds and you’re doing that in fall or spring? I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure when you said.
Lee: I could do it anytime, but I like to do in the fall, because this way in spring, I can just plant and it seems like there’s so many other things to do in spring, that anything I can get out of the way… And one thing I’ve been doing in addition is I plant cover crops [below]. Anytime before early October, if I plant a cover crop that can not overwinter, but can go late into the fall.
And what I use is oats, because oats winter kills. So that meshes with my no-till system, because I don’t have to till it up in the spring.
So what happens is that oats grow their lush greens into December and through December and around the end of January, they just winter kill and they flop down dead like a mulch, in place, which also looks sort of nice because it’s got these tawny stems just lying on the ground. And in the spring, I could plant right into them, but what I prefer to do is just sort of rake it up, which is very easy, because they’re not connected to the roots anymore.
But the best thing about the cover crops is like right now, I can look over at my garden, it’s just lush green, it’s like strips of lawn. Each bed is like a strip of high lawn and it just looks so nice. It’s a very nice green color.
Margaret: Right, as opposed to empty beds. And I love the expression for cover crops,”green manure” [laughter]. I always loved that expression. Green fertility. Yeah. So you talked about cleanup and very good garden hygiene in the fall, really cleaning up the vegetable bed. Are there certain crops you really target very fastidiously for that, or it’s wholesale? And then what do you do with the debris? If you had, like we had a lot of rain this year, some people had a lot of fungal diseases and tomatoes and so forth. Do you compost all the debris no matter? What’s the rule on that?
Lee: Well, first of all, I’d say the one crop that I’m most fastidious with is tomatoes. Just because there’s certain leaf spot diseases, specifically three leaf spot diseases, and two of them overwinter in the ground. So I clean up every leaf I can find on the ground, every tomato. And then between that and then covering it with the compost, that keeps a lot of the spores in the soil, any that might be left.
And then all the debris, whether it’s from the vegetable garden or my fruit plantings, everything goes into my compost soil. I know that if you read in some places, or most places they say, “Well, if you have anything that’s diseased, don’t put it in your compost.”
Well, I contend that if you looked at any part of any plant closely enough, there’d be something inimical in that, and it would have some pest or disease lurking there, and you’d put nothing in the compost. So I put everything in my compost. I’ve done this for decades and I’ve never had a problem as a result.
Margaret: Right. And is your compost kind of cooking along fast and hot, or is it passive? It’s in bins, I think, right?
Lee: I have to admit that my composts [below] do get quite hot, typically. I just built one and my compost is like 145 degrees, but the thing is a compost doesn’t have to be hot to kill all these organisms. It takes some combination of time and temperature. If you don’t get a hot compost and you leave it long enough, it’ll also kill the pathogens. And if you have a high temperature, you can do it more quickly. So one way another, they’ll mostly be wiped out and I would not worry about them.
And I think just for the environmental benefit of… I can’t see putting these diseased plant parts in a plastic bag and putting them in a landfill. I have this thing about landfills. I’m not a big fan. [More from Lee on composting.]
Margaret: Right. And you’ve proven again, you say over decades, it works. I mean, for you, it’s working, and it’s not increasing your disease load the next year or anything like that. Yeah.
But leaving it lying in the beds would be a bad thing. That’s definitely… The good garden hygiene is really essential, I think. And especially in fall, even with pests, with insect pests. Nothing like leaving your brassicas and your cucurbits, the squashes up, and those pests that just can’t wait to find a nice cozy place near their favorite plants to overwinter [laughter] or whatever. It’s not good, you know?
Margaret: Yeah. So you don’t want to leave that to be, or when they awaken in the spring to have the food source right there, some old shriveled, whatever. Right? It’s just bad business, I think, to leave a mess in the fall.
Lee: Yeah. The other reason I have to say why I do this is because it looks nicer also. Yeah, I like a certain messiness in the garden, but I also like a certain neatness, and it’s just nice to look over the garden to see everything in order.
Margaret: It seems like a sense of closure in a way to the season. Do you know what I mean? It has a sense of finishing, and completing, and leaving it in good condition and so forth.
Lee: Yeah. Well, actually, one of my favorite quotes is from a book from the late 1800s. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Charles Dudley Warner, “My Summer in a Garden”?
Lee: Oh, it’s a great book. It’s very well written and he takes a little swipe at politics at the time. He was a friend of Mark Twain. Anyway, I just found this quote quickly, he wrote that, “The closing scenes are not necessarily funereal. A garden should be got ready for winter as well as for summer. When one goes into winter quarters, he wants everything neat and trim.”
The whole thing about not being funereal and melancholy in the fall, having everything in order, or at least part of the garden—I have to say my perennial flower garden is very much not in order.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Oh. So fruit is a big thing for you and the first time I met you was when I think, I wrote a story about one of your earlier books, “Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention,” which then I think got republished under another title later on and so forth. But fruit, fruit, fruit, you kind of woke us all up, a lot of gardeners all over the place, up to the idea that we could grow more than a strawberry or an apple or whatever.
And figs are one of the things that I associate with you because you’ve helped me over the years to figure out how to make mine [above, ripening] work. And I just have one old one in a big pot and so forth.
So I thought maybe we’d talk about that a little bit for people. We just did a story about it, as I said, in “The New York Times,” in the garden column. And it was fun because in this new book, you do give multiple approaches that people can use. Some take a lot more work. The one that we talked about in the story was growing them in a pot because that’s the easiest, in a way.
But one thing I really learned talking to you this time was, and from reading the book is, don’t put tender plants—shrubs like this, or trees, in the case of the fig—don’t put them in storage too soon in the fall. Right? It’s not time at all. You don’t put yours away till mid-December or something, even though you’re in a cold zone, right?
Lee: Yeah. People don’t realize that first of all, figs are not tropical fruits, they’re subtropical fruits. They can take down to 20 degrees or possibly even lower. In a pot, maybe not that cold, because the roots would be exposed to more cold weather. So I’d leave mine out as long as possible. And typically around here, and this is Zone 5 in the Hudson Valley, till late December. I mean, you want them to experience that cold, because that really helps toughen them up for winter. And you want them to get as fully dormant as possible. You want them to lose their leaves—go to sleep, so to speak—and then they’re ready to take winter and stay asleep hopefully long enough.
Margaret: Right. And you can do a number of things with a potted fig. I just drag mine on a hand cart into the unheated barn, but it is insulated and it’s protected from wind and ice and so forth. And they just sleep in there. And it gets pretty damn cold in there.
But as you taught me when we talked recently, it’s a combination of protection and pruning, that’s the success to us Northern gardeners trying to get a fig to be productive. It’s not just keeping it, not getting down to zero or whatever in the winter. And it’s not just pruning. It’s those two things, yes?
Lee: Right. Right. I mean, fig is such a… Maybe this is what attracted me—oh no, couldn’t be this, because I didn’t know anything about figs when I started growing them—but I was attracted to growing them. But now, one thing that really fascinates me with the fig is how unique it is. And this is crucial for pruning, is that figs bear fruit on two different possible ways.
One is a new growing shoot, which is not common for fruits that we grow around here. The apple bears on branches a few years old, and peaches on at least one year old, but a fig will bear on a new growing shoot. The shoot starts growing this season and it bears. And they will also, in some varieties, bear on one-year-old wood. Most of the varieties that people grow in the north bear—or at least some figs—bear on two crops, a new and one-year-old.
But most of the figs that people grow in Northern climates bear on new growing shoots at the very least, and the easiest way to manage them if you grow them in pots is to cut the plant back. This also makes it easier to move the pot indoors and outdoors, wherever you’re protecting it.
But the one thing that people don’t realize sometimes is you can’t cut it back as much as you want, because the more it’s cut back, the longer it takes before it starts bearing. And if it takes too long to start bearing, then the fruit won’t ripen in the season.
So you have to leave, by my estimate, a couple of feet of old growth. And the very easiest way to grow a fig tree in a pot and prune it correctly is to train it to a single stem, have that stem be 2 feet high, and every year at the end of the season, cut back all growth to that stem and these are coming up from ground level everywhere. Just have a single stub, a 2-foot high stub, so it makes it very easy to prune, too, and very easy to move around. It just has a different look, fig tree can also be grown with a shrubby form. It’s not going to have that shrubby look then.
So Margaret, are you going to retrain, reconfigure your fig now?
Margaret: I’m so torn, because mine is more shrubby. So by being in a pot all these years, a very, very, very large pot, but it’s dwarfed it. And I do take it out every couple years and root-prune it as well. And that’s another important thing we can tell people about. So mine looks like a shrub, a big shrub, and I love the look of it. It’s beautiful, and fig leaves are beautiful. It’s very ornamental.
So I hate to do it as just a stub and then have the shoots come off it, but I know that would give me more of this current-year wood that potentially, because it’s coming off older wood, the trunk that’s left behind would potentially have plenty of time to develop and ripen lots of fruit, more than I’m getting now. And so I’m tempted to almost get a second one, and have it be my producer. You know what I mean [laughter]?
Lee: But you could actually have almost the best of both worlds by, on your shrubby one, any spindly growths, especially growing out sideways, you just cut that back, because that’s not going to do anything next year. And then any really robust growth, save that at least 2 feet long and don’t save too many or there won’t be enough energy to really pump a lot of fruit out from that. And then the moderate growths, you can leave some and remove some.
Margaret: And so pruning can happen—and this was another thing that you reminded me of in our recent discussions—it can happen anytime from after leaf drop, before storage to when it first comes out in late winter, early spring. Right? I mean, we have a choice of when we do it?
Lee: Yeah. The advantage of doing it now—not now, but before you put it into storage—is it’s easier to move around. I know because when I used to take mine down to the basement, it’s a very narrow stairway, so I couldn’t let stems grow too far and wide, so I would cut them back. But I would also tie them together so that they wouldn’t spread as much, just to move them around.
Margaret: Right. And as I just mentioned, the root pruning. So there’s this top-growth pruning. And we’re trying in the Northern climates where we may not have enough time or where with a lot of the varieties were going to grow—you’re better off going for that main crop. Not that crop on the older wood, maybe, but cutting back more, and having more of these new shoots and going for the main-season crop on the new wood.
So if we’re doing that, the other kind of pruning we need to do is—because the plant’s going to exhaust its resources even in a really big pot, the underground resources…
Lee: Right. The roots will get too cramped plus there won’t be any nutrients, sufficient nutrients, left. So you have to refresh the soil once in a while, which you can do by putting it into a bigger pot, or you can just root-prune, you slice off the roots all around the root ball and pack new soil on there.
Margaret: And do you do that with a saw, or what is it that you use? Because we’re talking woody roots in there, right?
Lee: Right. Well, I used to use an old bread knife, which didn’t work that well. And then I can’t remember, there’s a name for this tool, but people usually call it Sawzall. A Sawzall with a metal blade and it takes two seconds. [Above, Lee at work on a fig.]
Lee: [Laughter.] It’s very untraditional.
Lee: But that works well. One thing you said that I just want to mention also, you mentioned that the way I talked about pruning, in Northern climates, you go for the main crop. If you are protecting the plant, moving it to shelter over the winter, and you have one that bears the first crop, which is the crop on one-year-old wood, which is called the breba crop, you actually could get an earlier crop with that, much earlier than you do the main crop.
So if you happen to have that variety and you save sufficient amount of one-year-old wood, you could get a more reliable early crop, but then you have to save a lot more wood. And then you have to prune it in a way that saves some of that wood, but also stimulate growth for next season’s new wood.
Margaret: Right. Right. So that’s a little more sophisticated, strategic-
Lee: Right. And you have to locate a variety—not that it’s that rare, but lots of times people don’t know what variety they’re really growing or people make up names for varieties—so you have to get a variety that specifically does bear a good breba crop, first crop.
Margaret: I have a completely stray question, not about figs and not exactly about… [laughter]. A surprise question. But it makes me think of it because a reader just asked it of me the other day. He, as I had, had read something about peat moss, not wanting to use peat moss, I think it was in an English newspaper, newspaper garden column. And you make your own potting medium.
So here we are, we’re going to re-pot this fig and root-prune it and make room for some new medium. So in the last couple minutes, I just wanted to ask you, I know peat is one of the things that you include in your own potting mix that you make. It’s not the primary ingredient, you have other ingredients. If we shouldn’t be using peat, are there any other things that people can use? You have a soil science degree and again, you mix your own soils and so forth. Any suggestions about that at all?
Lee: Yeah. Well it’s sort of funny because when I first started studying soils and started gardening, I looked up everything—there’s so many recipes for potting mixes, with all sorts of things.
There are certain things that you need a potting mix for. It has to provide a place for the roots to hold up the plants. It has to provide nutrients, it has to provide air. Ideally, it also provides organic matter to hold moisture. And there’s a lot of ways you can achieve that. So I came up with my mix, which happens, I based it on some other mixes I had read about and it works really well.
And so the simplest thing instead of peat, is coir, which is a byproduct of the coconut industry. So this is a sustainable, so they say, product.
So I have tried that and I have to say—and this is not heavy scientific experiment, just my, what’s it called—my anecdotal data. But I haven’t had good success with coir. So I really don’t use that anymore.
But quickly, if I just had to put together a mix, and I didn’t want to go through dipping into my peat container, I can use compost, because compost is an organic matter, which is what peat supplies. And you get a feel for it if you do it a lot, even in your hands of: O.K., this is going to have a good balance of air and moisture-holding.
So I’ve made mixes out of just compost and perlite, which probably also is not sustainable. You can make a mix out of compost and probably sand or compost and soil. I know that a local grower here, for all his seedlings, he uses just pure compost. I don’t know how that works. I don’t think it would work for long term, because compost being old, organic matter, over time disappears.
So you can use all sorts of, basically the idea is you have some sort of organic matter, which could be compost, peat, leaf mold is another thing. And you want some mineral product, which I use perlite, but you could also use calcined montmorillonite clay, which is also known as kitty litter, or one type of kitty litter. You could use coarse sand.
And I like to… I know potting mixes that you buy don’t have real soil in them, but I think there’s a certain benefit to having real soil-
Margaret: A little bit. Yeah.
Lee: … in a potting mix. So I use one-quarter of soil, but I wouldn’t use more than one-quarter soil. So there’s a lot of ways to make a mix that works.
Margaret: O.K. Well thank you, Lee Reich and congratulations again on “Growing Figs in Cold Climates.” I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks so much.
Lee: Yeah. Good talking to you.
(All photos except ripening figs from Lee Reich; used with permission.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 25, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).