By Christopher Matthews
Fruit trees are great windows into the growing season. In fact, our trees are a primary way for me to process the weather for any given spring-summer-fall period. No year is ever the same, and the trees literally bear this out.
We “inherited” our trees – three apple, two pear and one plum – when we bought our farmhouse nine years ago. Like a duck to water, I took to them right away; I guess some latent gene from my Tennessee farm heritage and upbringing kicked in (on my mother’s side, we loved, grew and preserved tree fruits) once we got the property upstate, not to mention the summer job I had before college at the University of Tennessee agricultural research station, in the horticulture department. There I graded different varieties of peaches, from small yellow clings, to large white cling-frees, on how they performed under different insect and fungicide regimes (including “organic”, i.e. no treatments, as the base line control variable).
I don’t spray our trees with chemicals, but I do faithfully prune the trees late winter/early spring, and I thin the early fruit and cull during the growing year (assuming there is fruit!), in particular diseased or damaged fruit. Call it hands-on organic.
I find that the trees have their own personalities and quirks. And none more than our red plum tree, a.k.a. the Santa Rosa plum.
The name connotes California, and warmer weather, and, true to form, it’s by far the earliest tree around to bloom. Which can be problematic in the Hudson Valley, where late frosts during April are common. Three years ago, I harvested exactly one ripe plum, the result of a poor fruit set from a mid-April freeze. In other years, I’ve seen great fruit sets, only to see the ripening fruit devoured by birds and an ever-expanding plague of Japanese beetles. Last year, the incessant rains knocked off tons of fruit, and made a fungal mess of the survivors. And, regardless of year, I’m never at the house when the main crop comes in!
This year, however, has been my first bona fide Year of the Plum. The bloom was copious and long, which, coupled with benign early spring weather, resulted in a large fruit set. This was followed by a long dry spell, with almost no rain from mid-May to July. Surprisingly, this suited the tree well, but as the Santa Rosa is the number one plum tree in Arizona, perhaps it isn’t that strange. The drought’s chief benefit: subduing the voracious Japanese beetles, trapped from emerging by the hard, dry ground. Free from the beetle competition, and after the plums began to take on red hues, we finally got some nourishing rain, which improved the generally small size of the Santa Rosas. Now the plums are coming in fast and furiously, and we’ve taken our biggest haul ever.
Still, a large number will ripen up beyond our grasp this week (as I sit at my desk) and become dessert for the clever birds, who know exactly when to strike.
Some years don’t change!