Diarmuid Gavin: A plum job
How to grow this juicy, versatile fruit
Autumn is the season of harvest - the vegetable beds are full of greens and root crops - but also exciting are the fruits coming to fruition! I've just spent a week boating along the River Lot in southwest France, and every hamlet where we moored up for the evening seemed to have communal gardens teeming with produce. Juicy grapes hung from vines waiting to be pressed and turned into Malbec. Odd cucumber-shaped squashes were being harvested and turned into vegetable- based cakes, and pumpkins wore their orange colour proudly as they absorbed some late sunny rays.
At home, our fruit trees are laden with goodies plumping up by the day. It's always at this time of the year that I hope for an extended season of sun to ensure that they ripen on the branch, ready for eating, cooking or storage.
I've long grown apples, pears and cherries, but seeing all this fruity inspiration has begun to make me consider what else I should grow... So now I'm beginning to put my mind towards plums. They're a versatile and delicious fruit and can be turned into jams, chutneys, crumbles, pies, wine and ice-cream.
Planning is very important if you're going to develop a fruit garden. It takes thought and time to consider the choices available and weigh up what's appropriate for the needs of your household. What fruit will you use or what will you end up letting rot or giving away? This week, my exercise is making decisions about the type of plum I'd like to grow and recommend.
There are a few different types of plum: dessert plums, which are sweet and juicy; culinary plums, which need cooking to make them palatable; greengage, which are the smaller, yellow-greenish fruits, and damsons, which are good for jam-making.
Gardeners can sometimes be reluctant to grow plums - they flower early so blossoms are prone to frost, therefore it's best to plant them in the sunniest, warmest part of the garden. Avoid known frost pockets and areas of cold wind and, if necessary, cover with horticultural fleece in winter to protect them.
Alternatively, you can grow varieties that blossom a little later, such as Prunus domestica 'Marjorie's Seedling', which is a lovely purple culinary plum. 'Blue Tit', a blue-skinned plum, is also suitable for more northerly regions, as well as the classic, much-loved 'Victoria'.
Choose a self-pollinating variety such as 'Victoria' and 'Czar' unless you have neighbours who also grow plums.
Before planting, prepare the ground well. Plums are thirsty and hungry plants so they need a well-nourished, moisture-retentive and free-draining soil - they don't like to be waterlogged. So, regular readers of this page will know this means plenty of compost and/or well-rotted manure and mulching in spring to help keep moisture in the soil during dry spells.
You can plant container-grown all year round but, as the bare-root season approaches, this is the less expensive option and the plants will establish more quickly. Order now for planting in November through to March. And be patient - it will take a couple of years for your first crop.
Plum trees can easily outgrow a small garden so choose one grown on dwarf rootstock such as 'Pixy' or 'VVA-1', which will restrict the size to 8-10ft. Alternatively, you can grow them in a fan shape against a sunny wall.
Thin the fruit in May and June to ensure fat plums. This means leaving an inch or so between each fruit, discarding smaller fruitlets. As plums get ripe, they become heavy and, without thinning branches, can snap under their own weight.
If you need to prune, do so only in June and July but never in winter, as silver leaf disease - which they are prone to - can enter through the cut this way.
Other pests include bullfinches, who love to pick off and eat dormant buds in winter, so you may need to net your tree if this is a problem.
Wasp traps in summer can help if wasps are a nuisance. Fruit with white pustules are indicative of fungus (brown rot) so remove them from the tree and windfalls on the ground. 'Czar' has some resistance to this fungus.
Finally, watch out for caterpillars, who will try to eat your juicy produce. Hanging pheromone traps can catch moths and prevent them breeding these little maggots - and, again, remove any infected fruit from the ground to disrupt their reproductive cycle.