This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
Your correspondent, Mr James M'Millan, in his treatise on hardy fruits last month, gives a lengthy description of the cultivation of the Fig; still the few following remarks I have felt desirous of making may perhaps be of service to some of your readers.
The first house of Figs that ever I saw cultivated in a first-class manner was at Sion House about five years ago. It was a lean-to structure about the size of an ordinary vinery, say 50 feet long by about 18 feet wide. Trees were planted out in it in front and trained up a trellis like Vines; and trees were also planted, if I remember right, at the back wall, and trained up to the top and down the roof again to meet the others. The shoots were all trained at free-and-easy distances apart without any fixed rule to go by; the principal thing seemed to be to give them all an equal share of light and air. The points of the young shoots in this case were all bruised at the fourth or fifth leaf instead of being pinched, as is usually done, which was considered a better plan to prevent so much bleeding. Such a crop of Figs I certainly never before heard of or expected to see; and when in the house I could not imagine whether it mostly proceeded from the soil or from the other superior management. Undoubtedly both must have played their parts well, but I could not see anything particular in the way of training, or anything else to account for the result; yet the fruit was so plentiful that literally they appeared to be strung in some places with the first and second crops like ropes of Onions all along the branches.
The soil certainly must have been most favourable to the highest culture. It was a rich friable loam; and the other management must also have been thoroughly adapted to produce the most successful results, and which was said to be very similar to that usually given to Vines. Well, shortly after seeing this example of most successful management, I was placed in charge of, among other things, a house of Figs. It was a lean-to also, similar in length, though not nearly so wide, as the one mentioned. Figs were planted out and trained up the back wall as before; but the arrangement of the house otherwise was so far different, that a row of plants went along the front in large pots instead of being planted out. The treatment of this house was in every particular as good, as we thought, as could be, being always attended to as far as temperature, watering, destroying red-spider, etc, was concerned: yet, strange to say, no fruit in quantity could be got. The plants showed plenty of fruit at first, and for some time afterwards, but as soon as they came to be about the size of pigeons' eggs they always fell off. This happened for several successive years, though everything was tried that could be thought of to prevent it. However, still yet another plan presented itself for adoption.
That was to allow a more vigorous and rampant growth to the branches. The plants, therefore, for a season were all allowed to grow almost wild; and, strange to say, the first year afterwards fruit in abundance was produced. The soil used, I may say, was of a heavy, sometimes irony-looking loam, being that of the neighbourhood; and the kinds were such as the Brown Turkey, White Marseilles, Lee's Perpetual, Early Violette, a first-rate kind, etc.
During a short stay last autumn in the Isle of Wight, I had the pleasure of seeing, in an old kitchen-garden, an old Fig-tree with perhaps the finest crop of fruit on it I ever saw. It had once been trained to a wall, from which for years its branches had got quite away. The crop was plentiful, rich in appearance, and pleasant to the taste. The rampant character of the branches forcibly reminded me of the Figs I have just described. Robert Mackellar.
These are given a pretty good trial in gardens in various districts, but as yet I have not seen many good fruit ripened, save only along the south coast of England. Some parts of Sussex especially seems to suit the Fig, as there I have gathered large quantities of fine fruit from standard trees, as well as wall-trained specimens. As a rule, garden soil is much too strong for the Fig, this inducing luxuriant growth, which ripens badly, and is easily injured by frost. Here, for instance, a south-west wall is given up to them, and yet, in spite of protection in the shape of good Spruce Fir branches, the whole of the young growth and much of the old wood was killed by the frost last winter; and for years previous but few fruit were secured. The grandest and most fruitful Fig-trees I have yet seen, either under glass or in the open, were trained up a steep concrete railway embankment at the base of one of the cliffs near Dover. They were owned by a fisherman, and were planted in very chalky soil brought in baskets from the cliffs.
This chalky soil induced the formation of remarkably sturdy, short-jointed growth, that annually yielded much valuable fruit, which was sent to London as well as Dover. High tides sometimes washed the soil from the roots, and an unusually high tide completely ruined them. Pears failed under the same culture. The conditions, then, most favourable to the profitable outdoor culture of the Fig are a hot sunny position, none being better than where they are often found - viz., in the angles or curves formed by the junction of south and west walls; and a limited border, well drained, composed of somewhat light and poor soil, with which has been incorporated a liberal quantity of chalk or old mortar-rubbish and broken bricks. If thinly trained, the growth formed under these conditions would be very fruitful and nearly hardy, - all the protection needed in the majority of winters being either Fir branches or Russian mats fixed over the growths after these have been collected somewhat. The Brown Turkey is the most profitable variety to grow; and if a green variety, the small White Marseilles should have the preference. The Negro Largo is a very prolific dark variety, and probably would succeed in the open, in favourable localities. I intend to give it a trial here.
Figs may be planted any time before active growth commences. W. Iggulden.