Tips for Growing Hardy Chicago Fig Trees (Bensonhurst Purple)

In general, fig trees, Ficus carica, are well-known for their preference for mild climates. But northern gardeners won’t be denied a supply of fresh backyard fruit if they grow a ‘Hardy Chicago’ variety, which can withstand fairly cold temperatures if properly cared for.

Also known as ‘Bensonhurst Purple,’ this variety produces purple-brown figs that ripen in late summer. The flavorful fruit is small to medium-sized, and is sometimes compared to the fruit of another popular fig variety, ‘Brown Turkey.’

‘Hardy Chicago’ grows 10-15 feet tall, and has a spread of 9-12 feet at maturity.

A close up of a ripe fig on the branch of a tree with a dark soft focus background. To the centre and bottom of the frame is green and white text.

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This fig can be grown in warmer climates, too, and it does well in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-11.

While Southern fig lovers have an abundance of choices for cultivars that do well in their areas, ‘Hardy Chicago’ is one of just a handful of fig varieties that can survive chilly climes.

Think this fig might be the one for you? Read on to get our tips for growing the ‘Hardy Chicago’ variety. Also, make sure you take a look at our fig growing guide.

Getting Started

Site selection is important for growing ‘Hardy Chicago’ in northern areas.

Choose a location that is protected from chilly winds and will enable the tree to receive eight hours of sun per day. With its wide spread, you’ll want to be sure the spot you choose affords plenty of room for it to stretch out, too.

Figs prefer soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5, and the tree will reward particularly well if you incorporate some compost into the planting area.

You might want to start with a potted plant such as this one from Nature Hills Nursery.

A close up of a dark purple, ripe fruit from the 'Hardy Chicago' variety of fig. Pictured on the branch with large leaves surrounding it on a soft focus dark background.

‘Hardy Chicago’ Tree from Nature Hills Nursery

You’ll receive a 2 to 3-foot tall tree ready for transplanting into the garden from Nature Hills.

Home Depot also has 12- to 18-month old plants available online.

Plan to transplant when the tree is dormant, in early spring or late fall.

After you’ve amended the soil with compost, dig a hole wide enough to accommodate the root ball, and about 2-3 inches deeper, depending on the size of your plant.

Place the root ball in the hole and backfill with the soil you pulled out.

A close up of a branch and foliage of a 'Hardy Chicago' plant in light sunshine on a soft focus background.

‘Hardy Chicago’ Fig via Nature Hills Nursery

Water well and apply a thick layer of mulch such as woodchip or shredded bark, to help the soil retain moisture and reduce evaporation.

Place the mulch around the plant but make sure it’s not touching the stem. Leave a gap of 2-4 inches to prevent moisture building up around the stem that could lead to rot.

Maintenance

Continue to water your young tree twice a week for the first couple of years, until it becomes established.

After that, it’s a good idea to water every three to five days during the growing season, particularly if there is no rainfall. The goal is to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged.

A close up of the leaves of a 'Hardy Chicago' fig showing yellowing and dark, unhealthy spots and edges.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Famartin CC BY-SA 4.0.

You can quit watering an established tree in the fall as it will go dormant in the winter months.

You shouldn’t need to fertilize your fig unless it is slow to develop leaves in spring, in which case you can apply a balanced slow-release fertilizer – NPK 5-5-5 should do the trick.

Alternatively, apply compost in the spring. To do this, remove the mulch and apply 1-2 inches of compost then replace the mulch over the top.

A close up of a ripe 'Hardy Chicago' fig fruit, pictured on a stem in bright sunlight with a soft focus background.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Debouch CC BY-SA 4.0.

Fig trees don’t require a lot of pruning, but a snip here and there to encourage new growth – especially on older trees – isn’t a bad strategy. You’ll also want to cut away any deadwood, of course.

Pruning should be done during the winter months when the tree is dormant.

Winter Care

‘Hardy Chicago’ is among the most cold-tolerant of fig varieties; its stems are hardy down to 10°F and its roots will survive temperatures as low as -20°F.

A close up of tiny new growth on a 'Hardy Chicago' fig plant. Small green leaves contrast with the dark stem with mulch in soft focus in the background.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Famartin CC BY-SA 4.0.

Nevertheless, it’s good to give these trees some extra love when winter winds blow in.

For starters, mulch thickly with woodchip, shredded bark, or straw to the drip line to give the roots extra protection against the cold.

For small trees, you can wrap the branches and trunk with an insulating material, securing it with string. You can then cover the whole tree with a tarp or other waterproof material to provide additional insulation.

You might also consider building a cage around the trunk, and then filling the cage with hay, leaves, or other mulching material.

Read more about preparing fruit trees for winter here.

Takes the Cold and Keeps on Fruiting

‘Hardy Chicago’ fig trees are just the ticket for gardeners who need a tough tree that can take a brutal chill and still reward with bushels of flavorful fruit.

A close up of a hand holding a 'Hardy Chicago' variety of fig, the fruit cut in half showing the red flesh in the center surrounded by lighter flesh on the outside, with purple skin. The background fades to soft focus.

Fairly easy to grow, with minimal water and fertilization requirements once established, ‘Hardy Chicago’ figs make a lovely and nearly carefree addition to the landscape.

Have you grown this beauty? Share your tips in the comments section below.

For more information on growing fruit trees in your orchard, you’ll need these guides next:

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on January 17, 2020. Last updated: March 25, 2021 at 23:32 pm. Product photos via Nature Hills Nursery. Tp[ uncredited photos via Wikimedia Commons. Debouch CC BY-SA 4.0. Other uncredited photos via Shutterstock.

About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

46 thoughts on “Tips for Growing Hardy Chicago Fig Trees (Bensonhurst Purple)”

  1. I think you may have reversed the two temperatures you listed, 10° and 20°. Seems wrong or at least backwards….

    Reply
    • During the winter, ambient air temperatures are typically colder than the soil, and the deeper you go, the more insulated the soil is from cold weather. For these trees, stems are hardy down to a cooler temperature than what the roots are able to survive.

      Reply
  2. I placed my potted Chicago hardy fig trees outside in early Spring and we got hit with frost killing the new leaves. Did this harm the tree? what do you suggest? the temperature went down to 35 degrees.

    Reply
    • Late frosts are the worst! Where are you located, Kim? Hopefully your tree will spring back, but it might take some time. Buds are sensitive to frost, and you might get a smaller yield of fruit this year. But as long as the damage wasn’t too severe, you should be able to restore your tree to health.

      This cultivar is cold hardy, but if you’re growing it outdoors in a cooler climate (or if you want to move your potted plant back outside early in the spring, like you’ve described here), keep an eye on the weather forecast, and provide extra protection if temperatures below 35°F are predicted again this year. A burlap wrap or frost cover can help, or wrapping with a heavy blanket or row covers will provide protection in a pinch. Be careful not to overwater while the weather remains chilly. Placing pots near a south-facing wall can also help with frost and wind protection.

      If you haven’t removed the frost-damaged leaves already, leave them on the tree until the arrival of consistently warmer weather. You don’t want to stress your plants more at this point, and pruning wounds the tree, potentially exposing the living portions to further damage or disease.

      Once the weather warms, check your tree. Are more new leaves sprouting? Beyond the tips, check to see if the branches are still showing signs of life. Scratch the outer layer – do you see green, live wood inside? If not, move further up the branch until you find it. You could also do a “sap test,” tapping into branches near the tip with the sharp point of a knife, and making a small incision in the outer layer. If it oozes whitish sap, this is a good sign!

      Prune lightly to remove the damaged portions. With sterilized pruners, cut the branches with frost-damaged leaves at a 45° angle, just above a leaf node where you see green wood and/or sap that is still flowing.

      Reply
  3. My Chicago fig is 5 years old now I bought it as a shrub and it grows from the ground up every year but no figs. Any suggestions zone 5ab Canada . Thanks

    Reply
    • When you say that it “grows from the ground up,” are you pruning it down to the ground? Removing the buds that have already begun to form will prevent fruit from forming the following spring.

      Reply
    • Hi Blake,

      I recommend planting the tree up a pot size or two from what it’s in now, and then repotting each year as it grows.

      This is because sometimes when trees are planted in containers larger than they need, the soil can stay overly moist – leading to disease for the tree.

      At maturity you can count on potting your tree in a half whisky barrel size planter – about 2 feet across.

      Hardy Chicago Fig is supposed to get 10-15 feet tall with a 9-12 foot spread at maturity, but if grown in a container, it will probably stay a little smaller.

      You can also prune it to stay smaller if you want.

      Hope this helps!

      Reply
  4. I have planted a Chicago fig in a pot earlier this spring. It’s growing like a week with big beautiful leaves, however, I see another growth near the root of the tree, almost like another tree growing out of the base. Is this a sucker shoot? Should I remove it?

    Reply
    • Yes, that sounds like a sucker! You can feel free to remove these. Keep in mind that figs bleed latex, and pruning is generally recommended in the early spring, when trees are dormant.

      Reply
  5. Can I actually plant the tree in the ground in the Chicago area and allow it to grow and not cut it down each year?

    Reply
    • As one of the hardiest cultivars, this type can withstand winter conditions if planted in the ground in the Chicago area! Choose a sheltered location for planting, and plan to provide extra protection to keep the roots warm through the winter season.

      Reply
    • It is, particularly if your container does not have adequate drainage holes, or if the saucer holds standing water. Watering deeply as needed through periods of hot weather in the summer is certainly recommended, but you don’t want to risk drowning the roots or causing them to rot if standing water or oversaturation of the soil becomes a problem.

      Reply
  6. I’ve become obsessed with figs. I bought 2 fig plants, a yellow long neck and a Violette de Bordeaux. For the VDB, 2 small leaves dried up and fell off the first 2 days after potting, a week and a half later so did my long neck. I live in Zone 4b and it’s September but I don’t know if this has anything to do with it. Please help me keep my naked fig plants alive. How should I overwinter them? And can I put them in my indoor greenhouse cabinet I have coming in the mail? I need all the help I can get. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Figs are beautiful plants to become obsessed with! Many plants don’t respond well to the stress of repotting, and they will need some time to adjust to their new location. Avoid overwatering and try to baby them a little for the time being. Placement in full sun for long periods of the day when they are young plants that have recently been repotted can stress them out as well.

      The average first frost in your area is usually expected somewhere between October 1st and October 15th. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, and be prepared to bring your potted figs indoors in advance of the cold weather if you want to overwinter them inside. Since these are recent transplants, they may actually do best if you want to move them to your greenhouse now. That way, you’ll have better control over their environment during this adjustment period.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  7. My hardy fig’s wood dies every winter and then the roots put out new fruiting growth. I have a ton of fruit but it’s late September and it’s not ripening. The same thing happened last year. I’m in southwest PA. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Has it been particularly hot in your area this summer? Many environmental factors can lead to failure of the fruit to ripen, but heat stress and a lack of water during periods of hot weather is at the top of this list. A nutrient imbalance or lack of nutrients can play a role as well, so you might want to consider having the soil tested. You might still have some luck getting ripe fruit this season! I haven’t tried this myself, but some gardeners actually recommend dabbing a bit of olive oil on the ends of the fruits with a cotton ball to encourage ripening.

      Dying back in the winter as you’ve described is common, but you might like to provide some extra winter protection this year to see if that helps.

      Reply
      • Thanks!!! Honestly I never ever water this because the leaves look content! I will try that next year!! And I’ll try giving it some cover this winter and see what happens! And I’ll try the olive oil thing! Why not!?

        Reply
    • This happens to my hardy fig every year (old wood dies and new growth emerges in Spring from ground up) and the fruit doesn’t ripen before the Fall frost gets them. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong either. The plant is well established since I’ve had it for 5-6 years, planted in plenty of south facing Indiana sunlight. I’ve probably gotten less than 10 ripe figs off the plant.

      Reply
      • Sorry to hear it, C! Try boosting the phosphorus and nitrogen content of the soil when fruit is developing, and be careful to avoid overfertilizing with nitrogen. Most of Indiana is in USDA Hardiness Zone 5 or 6, and though many types of figs can survive in these climes, fruit production is often a bit better in areas that have warmer winters, or where plants don’t suffer any heat stress in the summer.

        Thinning the fruit early in the season can also help. A tree that’s covered in fruit might not have enough energy for them to mature and ripen, whereas there may be enough energy for the plant to sustain a smaller yield.

        Another note to add – if November rolls around and the fruit still hasn’t ripened, you should be sure to remove all of the figs that remain on your tree. This will help it to store energy for the winter before the cold season sets in, rather than continuing to divert energy towards the fruit.

        Reply
    • Being from Western PA, you need to have a South – facing location against a building or wall to extend your growing season. Also cover and insulate them fully over the winter. Try the hardiest variety – Chicago hardy. I now live in central PA – a bit warmer and have had success with mine.

      Reply
    • Hi Geri,
      Green figs don’t ripen once off the tree. If they are almost ripe however, they will get softer and sweeter if you store them in a dry place at room temperature.
      Hope this helps!

      Reply
  8. I have had a Chicago hardy fig for five or six years now and nothing but leaves! Beautiful bush type branches, I trim out out the dead canes in the spring and I get long leafy branches with no hint of baby figs. I used to heal over another tender fig a few years ago and then bring it up in the spring and got beautiful figs but I cracked the trunk once when I buried it. I thought the hardy fig would be the answer but no luck. Help!

    Reply
    • Hi Tom,

      That must be very frustrating! Especially since you have already successfully grown fruit from another fig tree in the past.

      It’s hard to know for sure what’s causing your fig tree to fail to produce fruit, but I’m going to suggest some possible causes and you can see if any of them sound likely:

      • You mentioned the tree is 5-6 years old. I’ve actually heard of some fig trees taking 8-10 years before producing fruit. They’re busy building up a healthy root system instead of fruiting.
      • Is the tree planted in your lawn where you might be fertilizing? If so, it could be getting too much nitrogen. Too much nitrogen can cause foliage to look great but prevent fruiting.
      • Extreme heat or drought can sometimes prevent fruiting. This is an issue for those where they didn’t previously need to water their trees, but where weather patterns are changing.
      • Is it getting enough sun? Fig trees need at least 6-8 hours of full sun for fruiting. The sun exposure in our yards can change gradually without us really noticing it, when large trees start providing more shade throughout the day.
      • One last possibility is that although Chicago Hardy Fig is self-pollinating, most self-pollinating fruit trees produce better when a second tree is around.

      Do any of those sound like they might hold the key to your non-fruiting mystery? Let us know – it’s always helpful to hear how our readers have solved problems.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  9. I just planted my Chicago Hardy fig tree this spring. Did get 7-8 figs off of it. I was told to cut all branches to about 3 inches from the ground the first year and then leave about 3 branches the following years. It still has unripened fruit on it. When should I cut it back? PS I live in Kentucky.

    Reply
    • Hi Susan,

      Not knowing exactly what your climate is like there in Kentucky, I’m assuming you bought your tree locally and that the vendor was giving you the best advice for your area.

      There are differing opinions on the best time to prune. Some prefer to prune while the trees are dormant, after their leaves have fallen, while others recommend doing it in early spring.

      I fall into the second group, and prefer to prune in the early spring. One of my botany professors explained that a tree is more able to fight off any infection that occurs at the site of the pruning wound when you prune in early spring after the tree has broken dormancy.

      However, after a quick look at the USDA hardiness zones for Kentucky, it sounds like there’s a high possibility that the stems of your fig tree will be killed back by low temperatures (if they dip down to 10F or below) this winter anyway, in which case you will be trimming back dead wood in the spring and will see new shoots coming up from the roots.

      If you choose to prune this fall, wait for the tree to go dormant and then maybe those unripe fruit will still have time to mature.

      I hope this helps!

      Reply
  10. Hi there, I got a fig tree this year, so he’s about a year old. He’s inside in a pot, and has been doing well all summer, but i’m a little worried about my first winter with him. Should I let him go dormant, if so how would you recommend I do that. Or should I get a grow lamp. Some of his leaves are starting to fall already. Im just a little worried, thank for the help 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Kaitlyn,
      Just to make sure I don’t give you bad advice, are you growing Chicago Hardy fig as a houseplant? I just want to make sure you didn’t end up here on accident with a different kind of fig tree! If you aren’t sure what kind of fig tree you have, please post a photo and we can figure it out together. Thanks!

      Reply
  11. This was my third year growing chicago hardy. In NH zone 6, they have grown nicely larger every year….this year maybe 4 or 5 sweet little figs. Can I expect more in coming years? Should I fertilize? Or is my growing season just too short to get any production?

    Reply
    • Hi Bob,
      Figs can be a little slow to get established and start dedicating more of their energy to fruit production. If yours is already producing some figs, it sounds like it likes the conditions its in.

      Often times fertilizing can have the unwanted effect of getting the tree to grow more leaves and less figs, so if you do decide to fertilize, only do so very lightly as recommended in this article.

      Also, while these trees are self-fertile, oftentimes they will produce more with a second fig tree around, so you could always consider getting your tree a buddy if it doesn’t already have one!

      Hope this helps!

      Reply
  12. I planted a potted fig tree this spring and have about 15 figs on it. I’m in St. Louis and it has been a very cool fall so far. All my figs are green and never ripened. Should I cut off the figs now that November is upon us? I’m afraid my tree won’t fruit next year if I leave them on. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Sorry to hear that they didn’t ripen this year. This sounds like a good idea, Mia. Cutting off the unripened fruit now will encourage the tree to start putting its energy into the roots for winter dormancy.

      Reply
  13. I bought a Hardy Chicago Fig tree this summer. I brought it into my garage a week ago due to cold night temperatures. The leaves have fallen off. I guess it’s too late to plant outdoors. Since it is in the orginal pot, I think it needs a bigger one. Can I wait to repot in spring as it looks dormant right now? Would the unheated garage be too cold? It can get to almost freezing in there?

    Reply
  14. We have a Chicago Fig in our backyard that is at least 50 years old and about 30 feet (3 stories) tall. Some years it seems like it takes forever to leaf in the spring, to the point where I’ve started wondering if it died on us. It hasn’t gotten much love (my father-in-law hates it, and spent many years neglecting it. Fortunately it seems to have thrived on his neglect, and since we’ve moved in with him he’s left it alone.) I’m guessing it needs some love, and that the late leafing is why we never really see the fruit ripen fully?

    We live in Washington, DC (so zone 7) and it’s planted near a south-facing wall.

    Reply
    • Hi Alex! Wow, that is an impressively resilient (and large) tree You’re right — it sounds like your fig tree needs a little love for sure. Try adding a slow-release 5-5-5 fertilizer according to package instructions; this should help improve the overall health of the tree and allow it to produce leaves (and fruits) sooner.

      Reply
  15. I just bought a Hardy Chicago fig from Lowe’s. I live in Anchorage Alaska and there is still a couple feet of snow outside. My plan is to keep it in a pot to bring it in each winter, but I wonder if it would do better at our cabin in Halibut Cove where I have a green house and there are usually not so many moose to nibble at it. Also Halibut Cove is Zone 4 vs Anchorage is zone 3. Do you think the fig has a chance at either site?

    Reply
    • Hi Franny! I’m in Alaska too — and I’m relieved that the snow is finally starting to melt. I believe your fig would do fine in either location as long as you bring it indoors all winter and during any cold snaps in the summer. But moose are definitely a potential issue (they’ve snacked on even the trees of mine with wire cages around them!), so Halibut Cove could be easier on your tree’s health. The greenhouse is a bonus, too. I hope this helps!

      Reply
  16. I purchased a Chicago fig last Spring at Lowe’s. I kept it in a pot all summer and got 4 delicious figs. We put it in the ground last fall. I live in Lake Wylie, S.C. Zone 8A. I was beginning to think it was dead but yesterday saw a bud April 16. What kind of care do I need to give it? No fertilizer? Does it need to be pruned yet? It’s my first time growing figs. I use fish fertilizer on most of my flowers and bone meal.

    Reply
    • Hi Linda! Your fertilizing plan sounds good to me. Now is a good time to add that bone meal, for sure. Pruning is best done during the winter, when the tree is in its dormant stage, so put that in your gardening calendar :). I hope this helps!

      Reply

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