The fig, Ficus Carica, is a native of western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest references to it are found in Sumerian records of 2500 BC.
Reputedly, the first fig tree grown in England was introduced by Cardinal Pole and planted in the garden of the Archbishop's Palace at Lambeth by 1525. However, there is a local Sussex tradition that in the twelfth century Thomas à Becket brought fig trees from Italy and planted them in the garden of his palace at Tarring near Worthing, thus sowing the seeds of the local fig industry that reached its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although moderately hardy in the UK, the fig was traditionally said to be best grown in a mild maritime climate. In the walled garden it was generally grown as a fan or espalier against a south wall, but by the mid-nineteenth century specific fig houses were created. In these it was possible to ripen two or even three crops of figs in a season instead of the one produced outside. This was achieved by 'forcing' the trees into growth as early as December when the vents would be closed and minimum temperatures of 60 degrees overnight and 75 degrees during the day would be maintained.
Our regime in the glasshouses is less extravagant than this! We put heat on in late January, maintaining minimum temperatures of 50 degrees overnight and 65 degrees during the day and hope to achieve two reasonable crops.
The fig is a very vigorous tree with a tendency to produce excessive vegetative growth to the detriment of fruiting. To overcome this it was common practice to restrict its root run by growing it in a brick 'box'. Pot culture has the same effect, of course.
The fig will produce three crops of fruit a year in its native habitat of Asia Minor. The first crop is borne on the shoots of the previous year, the second on the growth of the current year, and the third on the sub-laterals which spring from the current season's growth. Realistically only the first two crops are attainable under glass in this country, whilst outdoors only one is the norm. Pruning of the tree is dictated by this pattern, and having established a semi-permanent framework of branches the aim is to produce a succession of short, sturdy shoots bearing embryonic figs at their tips which will overwinter and provide the first crop of the next year. This is achieved by pinching out the tips of a proportion of the young shoots to 4 - 5 leaves by mid-June at the latest, thus encouraging new shoots to develop below that point. Old fruiting stems are cut back to two leaves once the first crop of figs is picked.
The border figs at West Dean are over a hundred years old. They are both of the 'Brown Turkey' variety.