By David Fried
There is magic in the treetops. For once, I have the birds’ eye view. There are hundreds of them. Red plums are turning purple in the late afternoon sunlight. I lean against my ladder and reach my arm to get that one right there. I see its color changing to that deep purple. I’ve got it! This one is in the bag.
About six years ago we planted three rows of plum trees in a new field we call “big daddy.” Today, I was working the row of a plum developed recently in Wisconsin called “black ice.” It is an early plum, and rather tart while sunset orange or red. Then, without much warning, but a hot day or two, it becomes purple and almost blue black and is ready to pick. Ah, the delicious pleasure of giving in to a bite of this plum. Bright red inside and juicy. Each of my shirts gets ruined, one by one, during the weeks of summer when the plums are ripe on the hill.
Why is it that we can get so many plums and others have a hard time? It could be that we have a lot of plums growing here near each other. Next to the “black ice” is a row of “waneta” plums and next to them, a row of “superior” plums. In nature, wild American plums grow in thickets, where a lot of shoots sprout from their roots and make a self-contained island of plums. You can’t even get in there! This is good for the plums as they get the pollination and wind protection they need. We can mimic this observed trait by planting a plum grove made up of at least four to six different plums cultivars rather closely, about eight to 10 feet apart. They will grow and touch and be a lot closer than trees in an apple orchard, but they seem to like this. In any case, it is good for fruiting.
I climb up my ladder noticing which ones are purple, which ones red, which ones two- tone, and which ones with a spot of brown. These are still good if you can pick them now, while that spot is one half an inch or so. You can cook with them now or freeze them whole for cooking another time. If the spot gets any larger, it will not taste very good. American and Japanese plums get this brown rot spot in certain years. The key is to pick them before it spreads in the plum. It is also a good idea to rake up the drops, and the ones that have turned all brown and get them away from your plum trees. Their spores circulate from the ground or from each other and back up and into the ones next to them.
I can’t really believe how many plums there are. I quickly fill a bag, and then another and another. When a plum is perfectly ripe, it will separate from its twig and sit right in that little plum shaped cup in the natural palm of my hand. No pulling or plucking or effort at all. What I have found growing plums over the years is that all I really have to do is smile. And share them.
The best plum cultivars for our area in northern Vermont are Waneta, Toka, Superior, Alderman, La Crescent, Kahinta, Pembina, Golden apricot and Mt. Royal. They often begin to bear fruit early in life (about two to five years) and do not usually grow very tall (about eight to ten feet). Plum trees have quite the flower show in spring and often have beautiful fall foliage. Many of the plums we have today were developed by professor Hansen in South Dakota in the early 1900s by crossing very hardy wild American plums with very tasty Japanese varieties that were not so hardy before his work with them. These plums are so good and so exotic tasting. Many visitors who I hand a plum to cannot believe that something with almost the flavor of mangoes can be grown right here!
Moving the ladder now into the hazelberts. Must harvest a bunch of them, even when they are not all nice and tan yet inside their fragrant husks. They will continue to turn coffee -brown and ripen indoors in a paper bag, far from the chipmunks, squirrels and blue jays. We like them, but they live for them!
From the treetops I see a lot of plum trees being planted. A lot of smiles. A lot of people going to change their shirts.
David Fried is a writer, nurseryman and fruit grower in northern Vermont.