Life

John Manley's The Casual Gardener: Think before making a plum choice

There's no comparison between the taste of a garden-grown plum and its supermarket counterpart but sometimes they can be a bitter-sweet experience

Plums ripen better on the branch

IF MY own experience of plums was the sole basis of this article it would read like a polemic. I've nothing against the fruit per se – actually far from it – but the trees that bear the plums have been the bane of my existence for nearly 20 years.

You see, long before I became the custodian of the garden I now call my own, a previous occupant planted a handful of plum trees. It was a nice idea – evenly spaced against an old south-facing stone wall, I like to imagine they were trained to grow as cordons up and across the surface at right angles.

However, in the years between the previous occupant departing and me moving in, what were once easily managed small-to-medium sized trees grew to become large and unruly. Maintaining and keeping them in check is an annual chore I could well do without.

And that's not all. Beneath the garden is a subterranean network of 50-year-old plum tree roots, which means that aspiring saplings break the surface with dispiriting regularity in the hope that they too can flourish. These so-called suckers appear in the veg beds, in my borders and even from between the paving slabs in the greenhouse. Not a plant you'd normally hear described as a weed but in my circumstances, the name definitely fits.

Of course, not everybody's experience with plums is as negative and on the whole gardeners sing their praises.

For starters, the fruit from a garden plum tree when compared to a commercially grown one, is vastly superior. With the latter, the fruit is picked before it fully ripens to ensure it travels better and arrives on the supermarket shelves looking like it was picked this morning – but tasting on the sour side. This is because plums don't ripen well once taken from the tree, meaning they are never likely to equal one of their freshly picked counterparts for sweetness and juiciness.

Plums (Prunus domestica) are grafted on to three main types of rootstock, which dictates the eventual size and vigour of the tree. Many varieties of plum can be grown on all three, so ideally you select your rootstock to suit your circumstances. Trees grafted to St Julien A rootstock are bigger (5m) and will tolerate poorer, dry soil; those grown on (the sucker prone) Pixy prefer fertile soil, while VVA-1 (or Krimsk 1) rootstock means a smaller tree (2.5m), bigger fruit, and a preference for fertile soil. Trees for plum-related damsons and gages are also grafted on to the above rootstock.

‘Victoria' is a common, failsafe plum variety and is especially suited for making into jam or tarts rather than eating raw. It can be a heavy cropper with branches often at risk of snapping from the burden of fruit – though this isn't necessarily such a good thing.

An early ripener with a sweet taste is ‘Avalon', which tend to produce a better yield if pollinated by another variety. ‘Burbank's Tangerine' works as a good match, rating highly on the juiciness scale with a hint of apricot to its flavour.

Common problems for the plum family include silver leaf disease, bacterial canker and issues around heavy cropping. To combat the latter, thin your crop once the fruits have formed and can be easily handled.

It's said that the best plum crops follow a late, hard spring of the sort we had this year, though personally I can see little evidence of this in my own cursed trees.

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