Our plum trees were old when I was young, which is slightly more years ago than I care to count just now. Shall we say well over half a century?
They were even older when I met them about forty-four years ago, richly hung with fruit – plums, of course, but I have no idea what kind. Nor did whoever planted them, perhaps, because back then most fruit trees planted here in the valley were grown from seed, whatever tourists had discarded up in Braidwood.
I don't even know if they are European plums, which need pollinating, i.e. another plum tree that blooms at the same time and a compatible variety for pollen exchange, or Japanese plums, which don't need a pollinator, as the two trees sit side by side, so may or may not be having a relationship. But unless a late frost cuts them, they give a plenitude of fruit.
There is nothing as reliable as a plum tree. There are varieties that will grow almost anywhere. Ours have survived drought, heat waves, -9 degrees of frost, two small snow storms, several major floods, the burning off by a mild pyromaniac (now deceased so there is no worry they will sue for defamation), a complete lack of watering except by rain, no fertiliser except the droppings of the many, varied birds who share the fruit and the wallabies who camp under them hoping to eat windfalls.
Plums are the traditional backyard standby. You'll get plum jam, bottled plums to eat with custard in winter, fresh plums to spit the stones at passers-by if you are young and out of sight of grown ups. Plum pie, Chinese plum sauce, plums stewed in red wine with cloves and served with ice cream, plum sponge pudding … I could go on for pages.
Plums can be as small as a raisin or as large as an egg, white, red or yellow fleshed, their skin purple, red, almost white, green, yellow and shades in between. And all are delicious, each in its different way, like the subtlety of the greengage or the sourness of a damson, excellent steeped in gin and sugar.
Plums are also hardy enough to survive being left bare rooted till the end of winter, which means that you can still find reasonably priced ones in nurseries. Do check however that they are not ornamental ones, all blossom and no fruit. Unless, of course, you don't want fruit dropping on your lawn or car or young kids choking on the pips or fermenting fruit attracting fruit fly, especially if they fruit when you are likely to be away on holidays.
This is another thing to check when you choose your varieties – will you be able to cope with the harvest then? Will fruit fly be attracted? Early varieties are less likely to be fruit flied, as are the ones with tougher skins. Ours, all-round, red-skinned, yellow-fleshed plums – again at least a hundred years old – fruit in November, well before fruit fly start spreading in our climate. In warmer areas, fruit fly netting or exclusion bags will keep off both fruit flies and birds who feel they are entitled to their share.
Treat your plum tree well with a generous hole at least twice as wide and deep as the roots; water in at planting; then water again each week and mulch and feed each month. Cosset it for five years, till it is taller than you and fruiting and then, probably, you can neglect it ever afterwards, though feeding, mulching and watering will give you a larger and more reliable crop, while thinning will give bigger plums.
If you choose your plum varieties well you can have a hedge of them, cropping from late November through to late February or even later.
Our plums are blooming now, despite the frosts each morning, a glorious froth of pinkish white. Which means that possibly the frost will nip the young fruit. But the older the tree, the bigger the roots, and the more frost and heat resistance it will have. We may not get a large crop this year but, with luck, we probably will.
There are so many good memories with those trees. Picking them with much-loved friends, long dead; stirring vats of plum jam with other friends; the year I picked them wearing nothing but a sarong, using the sarong to hold the fruit. Gravity won; the sarong and plums dropped to the ground, leaving me nude and a passing motorbike rider skidded and fell off his vehicle. I was younger then …
Perhaps this year I will pick them with my grandkids. Maybe I will mooch up there by myself in the cool twilight, and stew them with cloves and red wine and serve them formally in good china, or stew them plain and freeze them for next winter's pies or crumble. Plum crumble is a delight.
As are all plums. Old reliables, backyard wonders. It is time to plant them now.
This week I am:
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