The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for May, 2009

The doomed romance of a pair of plums

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

two plum trees

Plum trees: Alderman on the right and
La Crescent, fallen over, on the left.

Earlier this week we had some high winds, and our La Crescent plum tree came down. This event was overdue, but the tree had made it through the winter to our surprise, and we hoped to get maybe one last hurrah out of it (fruit trees under stress will sometimes give a good crop of fruit), or at least get a good bloom that might pollinate its mate, Alderman. This was not to be. It was the usual “almost but not quite” that goes with plum trees in these parts.

We planted the two trees about 25 years ago. Since then we have had two really abundant harvests from the La Crescent of small meltingly sweet peach blushed yellow fruits; several years with fewer than a dozen ripe La Crescent; and at most six ripe fruits in all that time from the Alderman. As a result, I have to say I can’t recommend planting plum trees that are not self-pollinating in northeastern Vermont if you need reliable fruit from them.

If you consult reputable nursery catalogs, you will find these two varieties listed as pollen type A (for American), and thus recommended as pollinators for one another. But, alas, as with human relationships, there is so much more to it than that.

Alderman plum blooming

Alderman blooming

Plums are insect pollinated. If it’s windy or raining or too cold, bees can’t fly and pollen doesn’t get transferred. And guess what – here in May more days than not are either windy, raining or cold or all three. We hoped that planting the plums on the leeward side of the barn would shelter them somewhat from the prevailing winds, and improve conditions for pollination flights. I don’t know whether it made a difference or not. You see, the thing is, La Crescent would come into bloom, and then just before the petals started dropping, the first blooms would open on Alderman. Some years there was a window of a day or two when both would have a decent amount of open flowers, and some years not even that. The two were simply out of sync.

So a threesome, maybe? After several years of this, we sought another type A to spice it up and increase our odds. During a visit to a local nursery, I asked which variety would be a good candidate.

“Toka is a good pollinator” said the helpful nursery person.

“Why?” said the customer who asks questions nursery people don’t want to hear. “Is it because it has a lot of flowers, or because it blooms over a long period of time, or because the pollen is particularly good at pollinating, or is it particularly attractive to insects, or…?”

“I don’t know, it’s listed as a good pollinator,” says bewildered nursery person.

OK, sorry, not in the script. We bought a Toka anyway, and made a triangle of plum trees.

Toka lasted about five or six years, was bedeviled by aphids and a woodchuck (I suspect), and simply gave up the ghost. It did bloom copiously for its size a few years and may have been responsible for the two excellent harvests we got from La Crescent. I don’t remember exactly.

Plum tree down

Plum tree down

Plum trees are very brittle, and even with wind shelter from the barn, La Crescent had split down the trunk in high winds many years ago. As a mature tree it has also been barraged by snow sliding off the barn roof. (Note to myself – twelve feet is just too close.)

Above or below the graft?The new shoot

After all this breakage, a couple of years ago I left a shoot coming up from about ground level, knowing the mature tree’s years were numbered. Now, if I had really been on the ball, several weeks ago I would have cut some shoots from the top of the tree to graft back onto this shoot, but somehow over the years plum trees have slipped low on the list of April priorities. Too late now, La Crescent is all leafed out, and it’s chainsaw time. I can’t tell whether the shoot is coming from above or below the graft line (if there was a graft line) of the old tree, so we’ll just wait about 5 more years and see if it’s still a La Crescent …and if Alderman is still hanging around when the new one, whatever it is, blooms again. Stay tuned folks…

Meanwhile, I’m glad most of our fruit trees are apples and pears – they are a lot more rewarding as food sources. Still, our Alderman is a beautiful yard tree and I adore the scent of plum blossoms in May.