Sweet sensations tions
With summer in full swing,
Sue Bradley samples plums ahead of choosing a cultivar to grow in her garden and makes sure she keeps her pots well watered
Life is sweet when there’s a plum tree growing in the garden and August is the perfect time to seek out and taste lots of different cultivars ready to choose some to plant later in the year.
The French are well known for their love of this delicious fruit, both in fresh and dried forms, prizing them for their flavour and nutritional and dietary fibre content. Popular ways to use them include tarts, clafoutis, cakes and breads, along with a variety of savoury dishes.
Pruneaux d’Agen, grown around the towns of Agen and Villeneuve-sur-Lot, are seen as the best in the world. Its cultivating and drying traditions date back to the 12th century, when the monks of the Abbaye de Clairac in the Lot valley returned from their third crusade and were inspired to graft Damas plums from Syria onto local varieties. This produced a fine-skinned fruit, known as Prune d’Ente, well suited to the soil and climate of south-west France.
Generally the plum is one of the easiest fruits to grow and many cultivars are self-fertile, which means it’s not necessary to have another tree nearby. If space is in short supply, select cultivars grown on dwarfing rootstocks that can easily be trained against walls or cultivated as spacesaving spindles.
Plums like a sheltered spot, usually in full sunshine and certainly not in a frost pocket, but there are some that will thrive in cooler conditions. These include Belle de Louvain, a large and oval-shaped cultivar that can even cope with northfacing walls. It has a relatively dry flesh, which makes it great for cooking in pastry or cake mixes that shouldn’t get too wet.
Later-flowering types include Marjorie’s Seedling, a purple plum with good resistance to disease.
One of the biggest problems from growing fruit is harvesting, especially if it all comes at once. Sweet-tasting Jefferson’s plums are ready in September but don’t ripen all at once, which means it’s possible to stagger picking them.
Other forms of plums include the mirabelle, with its small and sweet cherry-sized yellow fruit that can be eaten fresh or used in cooking, particularly in jams and liqueurs, and rich and spicy-flavoured damsons – also known as the Damascene plum due to its Syrian origins – which are usually eaten cooked rather than fresh. They do well in colder climates.
A close relative of the plum is the greengage, the sweet flesh of which can be enjoyed straight off the tree or in dishes. It thrives in cooler climates as long as there is a sunny aspect. Among the most popular cultivars is Reine Claude de Bavay, which originated in Belgium in the latter half of the 19th century and is easier to grow than some other gages.
The cheapest way to buy plum trees is to get them as bare-rooted specimens to plant over the winter months, although make sure the ground is not frozen when they go in. Containerised plants have a wider planting window, but remember that any put in during the summer will need a lot of watering.