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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. Keep an eye out for an article dedicated to this technique (coming soon!).

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: January 19, 2020 at 18:06 pm. Product photos via Nature Hills Nursery. Uncredited photos: 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.

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