GV European correspondent and French horticulture expert Mike Alexander on his experience with the abundant fall fig harvest in southern France.
It is time of plenty in France as the last of the fall crops are being harvested. The ancient 14-acre estate where I do most of my work has one-and-a-half acres dedicated to growing fruit. In places, the soil here is shallow and thin, barely clinging to the limestone ridge that rises to just below the soil surface. The apples, pears and plums tend to produce intermittently and though we sometimes get a bumper crop of cherries, it normally happens only every three years.
Figs, on the other hand, thrive in these tough growing conditions. We have five large trees of differing varieties that have been around so long that their origins have long been lost or forgotten. This time of year, we have so many ripening that it becomes difficult to handle them all. There is only so much jam, chutney and dried fig one can store and we are still eating ours from previous seasons. My client will only eat a few and most of the neighbors have trees of their own, so it is not possible to palm any off on them. My French wife freezes figs in large quantities and uses them in recipes over the following year, but since a local farmer will soon provide us with meat from an entire pig freezer space is at a premium.
Twelve years ago, I knew a lot less about figs than I do now. Every time I passed a tree in the course of my duties I would grab a fig and happily munch away. Figs can be a little unforgiving as I was soon learn. One minute you are strolling along happily nibbling at a dark purple piece of fruit. The next thing you know you only have a limited amount of time to make a shuffling, penguin-like dash for the nearest bathroom.
The one place we are assured of being able to get rid of some of our surplus fruit is the local old-age home. I always donate a few pails full but even they will only take so many. I suppose old folks are even more susceptible to the penguin shuffle than I am.
Fig trees are remarkably hassle-free. Each spring, I prune out any dead wood and generally open up the crown a bit. They don’t normally need feeding, but I always give them a top dressing of manure in recognition of the poor soil and the high volume of fruit they always reward me with.
I also have to do a crown lift on any of the lower branches but this is not something most growers will need to do. My client allows the neighboring farmer to graze his sheep in the orchard and despite having an abundance of lush grass to graze on, they like nothing more than to tear into the lower leaves of my fig trees. Even with the crowns lifted, the sheep tend to stand up on hind legs and rip away any leaves within reach but they can only do minimal damage to this pruning regime.
It would be easy enough to prevent the farmer from grazing his sheep here, but in this part of the world neighborly relations are still an important part of how we live our lives. Soon, he will arrive with a trailer of precious natural fertilizer for me and closer to year’s end he will bring his tractor—the only vehicle around able to navigate the steep trail—down into the woods to help me drag up felled trees, which will be cut and split to heat the property’s centuries-old stone manor house over the winter.
So, it’s you scratch my back and I will scratch yours. Now, are you sure you won’t take a few buckets of these figs off my hands? Well, it was worth a try anyway.
Mike Alexander, GV’s European correspondent, lives in Southern France where he manages a large estate garden. A horticulturist for more than 20 years who has professionally gardened in the UK, France and Africa, he writes regularly on gardening, food and environmental issues for magazines and Web sites in the U.S., France, South Africa and New Zealand.
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