Japanese Espalier Figs

Hi folks,
For the cold hardy fig growing bunch I thought I would share my experience with the ‘Step Over’ or Japanese espalier system for fig production in non-ideal regions. I’m in KY zone 6, growing in an unheated high tunnel. I do heat it a handful of times during the winter, such as this week when temps are going into the low single digits. Maybe it would be OK but I don’t want to find out! Simply use a barrel stove burning oak wood. Would be interested in other’s experiences and also cold hardy fig recommendations for 2024 and beyond.

So far, Chicago Hardy, Florea, LSU Improved Celeste (JF&E), and Malta Black are all doing great. Green Ischia grows well but production is minimal. Have Smith, Hardy Sicilian, Cole de dame Grise, I-258, and Green Michurnska on trial and establishing in the tunnel. Phased out Olympian, other LSU varieties, Peter’s Honey, VDB, and RDB over time.

You can see the video here:



Moved my 9 varieties of figs indoors Friday. One of them survived -5 on 12-24-22…but I forgot to note which it was…it sprouted from roots after top died completely. The others spent last winter indoors at around 60F. No figs except Celeste.

Niice video…I keep meaning to build a hoop house out of PVC pipe.


Thank you for sharing this. This is the pruning style I’m moving to for ease of protection mainly.


It works!

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Why did you decide to phase out Olympian-lack of production, flavor, disease, some other issue?


Nice! I built a small fruit trench a couple years ago for figs. I’m going to widen it next spring and try this instead of single plantings. I’m glad this is working for you.

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Can you send pics and dimensions?

I’m assuming you think the trench will be warmer in winter through ground heat and also protect plants from WI winds in winter time?

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Olympian produced large, commercial grade fruit with good flavor in the high tunnel. However, the ‘eye’ of the fig is very open and it kept getting infested with fruit flies and rotting. Have not had this issue with any other figs in my trials.


Yeah sure! I plan on making it 4ft wide x 10 or 12 long and ~2ft deep. Right now it’s about 2.5 ft wide x 12 ft long and 3ft deep. I’ve had it about 5 years. Everything survives and grows great, but I want to allow more light in and make it shallower so it warms up faster.

The conduit isn’t structural. I lay a board across it to support some fiberglass insulation before covering it.


Wow, interesting. I could see the Japanese system working great in this setup. Did you dig it by hand and what varieties are you growing?

Where I live it’s so wet it would likely fill up with water and kill the figs!


Ive been putting off covering my figs for a couple of months. They should be in about as deep a dormancy as possible by now, I suppose, though not dealing with them has been more of an act of procrastination than anything. I planted them in the ground inside my unheated high tunnel. Its fairly sizeable, 36 x 48, which helps buffer the temp swings some. I put a couple of inches of 3/4” crushed stone to deter voles tunneling up through.

My covers are 55 gallon plastic (HDPE) barrels. I cut both ends off, cutting carefully at one end such that the spout end fit snuggly inside. If the cover didn’t seat well, I adjusted my cuts to get a nice tight seal. I debated about different types of insulation to place inside. I really like the idea of cellulose insulation treated with sodium tetraborate, since it is said to repel rodents. That would involve some cost, would be messy, and fiddly to do though. I wound up filling the barrels dry leaves as they were already on hand.

Im hopeful that this will protect the trunks of my mostly year old figs. At the least, it should protect the crowns such that they resprout. I dont have any breba types planted out as I was not confident theyd endure such treatment and still produce a breba crop. Ill be sure and update everyone with any news, good or otherwise. Im hopeful that the combination of a high tunnel, planting in ground, insulation, and well fitting airtight cover will prove up to the challenge. Ive learned through my work building high efficiency houses that airtightness makes a huge difference in the performance of a given envelope. Im hoping that knowledge translates into a better more effective fig cover.


That was my original intent to do the Japanese system, but I got carried away planting when I first started growing figs. There’s Chicago Hardy, Black Bethlehem, MBVS, Improved Celeste, and Danny’s Delight (the dark version). The soil is super sandy (0.6% OM) so that obviously helps with the drainage a lot. It also makes the digging much easier. I did do it by hand. Hauling everything away was the hard part.

I’ve had the open eye problem with Chicago Hardy, LSU Gold, to a much lesser extent Improved Celeste, and Olympian. Fruit flies have not been an issue, but other insects have. LSU gold has been the worst with the open eye. My figs are grown outdoors, and all cultivars have a much more pronounced open eye (as well as worse flavor) when we get a lot of rainfall while the figs are ripening. My Olympian produced for the first time last year. Though production was low, the figs were good. I’ll be monitoring it to see how it does. One of these years we’ll have drought conditions during the late summer, and I’ll know for sure if controlling moisture can deal with this problem.