About the Figs
In April, one of the tasks that we undertake in the garden is the pruning of all the figs. There are five fig trees in the garden, four in the Rose Garden and one in the White Garden and they were a present to Harold and Vita from Lady Sackville, Vita’s mother. Initially, the figs produced fruit for the Nicolsons and must have been a real luxury especially during the war years. However, as Vita and Harold became older and the fig trees became more established, they began to get rather out of control, reaching the top of the walls and continuing on upwards for another five feet.
By the time Vita employed Pam and Sibylle in 1959 as her Head Gardeners, the figs needed to be taken in hand! When Vita expressed a desire for the figs to be controlled they took this as permission to give them a proper overhaul. When Vita and Harold went away on a cruise, Pam and Sibylle took the opportunity to prune the disorderly figs. Whole branches (some the size of a thigh) were removed and all the new shoots were curled round and tied to the main branches in order to curb their phenomenal growth. When the ‘winter’ secretary saw the carnage she prayed that Vita did not have second sight as she would certainly have been appalled! By the time they had finished, an intricate pattern on the wall had been created which would lead to a cool, green covering of leaves in the summer and autumn without shading out the plants below.
In time, this pattern began to be based on the idea of creating an old fashioned carpet beater and this is still how we train the figs today. Every year, old branches are removed right from the base and then all the new shoots are gently bent round in a circle and tied to the main framework. It is quite a slow process but we think the end result is worth the effort.
And Vita’s response when she returned from her cruise? “Oh, I see you have done something about the figs!”