Go figure

In 2012 I moved a small fig tree (Ficus carica) I’d kept for years in a restricting tub and planted it out in open ground in my back garden, figuring I would get a more generous crop of fruit by letting it spread its roots and express itself. Conditions were ideal – a sunny, south-west facing aspect against a sheltering wall in deep, alkaline, free-draining soil – and sure enough the plant has quadrupled in height, breadth and fruitfulness in two short years. Ultimately it could reach over 10m (35ft) high – in which case it would completely overwhelm my garden and those of my immediate neighbours and probably rip the sewers apart. So really I should be blocking those roots this autumn to stunt its vigorous growth before it gets out of hand…but I’m not going to. Why? Firstly, because I don’t want to reduce the bounteous crop of fine figs; and secondly, because I don’t give a fig (I’ll be dead by then anyway).

Figs don’t need to be cooked or faffed around with. I eat them straight from the tree after giving them a light rinse to remove any sparrow shit, slug snot and beetle bile. This fruit, let’s call it the Splott fig, has a taste nothing like the familiar shop-bought fig grown in the plant’s Mediterranean and Middle East native habitats. Here it is much cooler and wetter, so the almost sickly, sticky sweetness of a hot-climate fig is toned down and instead there’s a subtle, scented suggestion of honeyed juiciness in the bright red, meaty flesh. I leave a few ripe ones for a small gang of starlings that passes this way regularly. Taking it in turns to have a good peck, they collectively devour one fat fig as an occasional treat, but don’t like the velvety, purple outer skin we find perfectly edible. After the murmuration has moved on, all that’s left is the skin, hanging on its stalk like some strange effigy.

Even without the fruit (botanically speaking they’re not fruit at all, but a ‘false fruit’ receptacle for the flowers and seeds), the fig is a wonderfully attractive tree with its silky yet gnarled and knotted grey bark and, of course, the big, triple-lobed, rough, dry leaves. These deep green beauties have become so culturally ingrained, thanks to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden using them to hide their genitals after God taught them to internalise shame and guilt, as well as their role as a prudish implement of censorship imposed on countless nude statues and paintings, that “fig leaf” has come to mean any concealment strategy or duplicitous front.

The fig’s best known human purpose though is as the ultimate laxative. Since time immemorial the bunged-up, the sclerotic and the irregular have reluctantly swallowed a ghastly gulp of syrup of figs – and very soon had cause to be grateful for the juice’s infallible ability to shift intransigent and impacted waste material lodged in the lower bowel (or, to use a colloquial figure of speech, shed some ballast). Don’t fight it: a spoonful of syrup helps the midden dung go down. I hasten to add that I only know this second-hand; being a highly advanced alien (planet Ztsolæ in the Xacriqo galaxy), I’ve evolved beyond such crude physiological determinism and jettison what little detritus I generate via my nose: tiny, hard, caper-like drupes that can easily be scattered like rose-petals as I proceed along my primrose path.

If the fig were a footballer it would be Luis Figo, the retired Portuguese midfielder: stylish, flashy and able to unlock the stubbornest defence. If the fig were a piece of music it would be The Marriage of Figaro, comical and fulfilling in a minor key. If the fig were a writer it would be Eva Figes (1932-2012), radical, adult and challenging. If the fig were a weather system it would be fog, moist, macabre and mysterious. If the fig were a decorative domestic ornament it would be a porcelain figurine, to be handled with care lest you drop one. I’m a fig fan.

This will be my last summer of gardening work. I’m getting far too old. My poor feet: I soak them for hours in a bowl of warm water infused with lavender oil, but they still look like two bruised, cracked, swollen, veiny pieces of rotting carrion. Why am I bothering, especially as my total net income after decades on the yard broom has been approximately £0.00p? It’s enough of a task to vigilantly configure my own plot of jungle. It’s time to cease ruining, I mean reviving, the mixed borders of Rumney widows. It’s time to change. And before long, the years of futile toil will fade from memory and come to seem like they were all just a figment of my imagination.