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Growing Green: Add fig, pawpaw to your garden

You likely will not find the unusual fruits pawpaws and fresh figs in your local supermarket or grocery store. About the only way for you to enjoy their unique flavors is to grow them yourself.

Add beauty and edibility to your landscape with North America’s largest native edible fruit, Asimina triloba, also known as the pawpaw. The American pawpaw is a small deciduous tree native to the eastern United States and Canada, producing a large, yellowish-green to brown fruit.

While its bright flavor might remind you of something tropical, it is indigenous to North America. In Pennsylvania, pawpaws are primarily found in the southeast portion of the state.

The pawpaw, Asimina triloba, belongs to the Annonaceae or the Custard Apple family, which are widespread throughout the tropics. The pawpaw is the only member of this family to be found in the temperate regions of North America. It is a native plant that reaches as far north as southern New York and New England.

In nature, it is a small understory tree. It will grow to about 10-feet-fall when given sunlight and space. Pawpaws like well-drained soil. They need only moderate soil fertility. They are most productive in full sun, but will tolerate some shade.

The pawpaw tree produces an oblong fruit that weighs six to 12 ounces. The fruit has a deep yellow, creamy textured flesh, and a taste described as a cross between a banana, mango and pineapple. It contains large seeds that are easily removed.

They mature over several weeks starting at the end of August through September. The true indicator of when the fruit is ready to pick is that it will feel soft when gently squeezed. Pawpaw fruit needs to be eaten within a few days of harvest.

The pawpaw flowers are pollinated by flies, not bees. Fruit production can be erratic from year to year. This makes them a tough crop to grow on a commercial scale. Reports are that deer do not prefer to eat pawpaw trees or the fruit. Birds and other forest animals will feed on ripe pawpaw fruit.

Another unusual fruit to grow is the fig. Fresh figs are some of the world’s tastiest and most expensive fruits. Most people think the Lehigh Valley climate is too cold to grow them, but many varieties will grow and produce well. Ficus carica, “Chicago Hardy,” is not only one of the cold-hardiest varieties, it’s a variety that also rates highly in taste comparisons.

Plants grow into small trees or large bushes, produce large, green, scalloped leaves, and ripen sweet, brown figs gradually over weeks from September into fall. Fruits are ready to pick just as they soften. The fruit has a short shelf life of three to five days.

Plants grow 10- to 15-feet-tall and almost as wide but can and should be kept smaller with pruning. Size also can be managed by training branches up a support or espaliering them.

Best winter protection is against a west- or south-facing brick or stone wall. They also can be grown in courtyards or similar wind-protected areas or even out in the open if protected inside a winter wrap.

After frost browns leaves in fall, prune back branches to five- or 6-feet-tall and about four feet around. Then hammer stakes around the plant, wrap burlap or a tarp around the stakes, and stuff the resulting “cylinder” with fallen leaves to insulate the branches over winter.

Remove the protection in late April. Another option is growing in a large pot that’s moved inside a garage or shed in winter.

Cold winters may kill all or part of the stems. Remove dead wood in spring once you see which wood is pushing new growth and which is not.

Even with complete diebacks, “Chicago Hardy” will push up new shoots from the base and go on to fruit later that season. Eight or 10 inches of mulch over the roots heading into winter also helps. Remove all but two to three inches of it in spring.

Figs fruit best in full sun. Plant in late spring or early summer, ideally in well-drained soil. Keep plants consistently damp the whole first season. Figs are drought-tough once roots are established. Scatter a balanced, organic, granular fertilizer over the surrounding bed early each spring.

“Growing Green” is contributed by Lehigh County Extension Office Staff and Master Gardeners. Information: Lehigh County Extension Office, 610-391-9840; Northampton County Extension Office, 610-813-6613.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY DIANE DORN The pawpaw is a native North American fruit tree that produces a unique fruit with familiar taste.