Plum job: A juicy guide to greengages and plums

Neither selfishness nor greed is a pretty sight, so I got up at crack of dawn to indulge in the first greengage binge of the year. When we moved here, we planted an orchard of pears and plummish things and the trees are now beginning to bear good crops. It was too early for wasps to be about; only the blackbirds singing in the hawthorn and the buzzards wheeling overhead could tut-tut at the amount of juice squidging down my chin. I did feel a bit guilty, thinking of the children sleeping serene but gageless in their beds. But not for long.

It has been a fabulous year for plums and gages. Even in an indifferent summer, gages produce the most ambrosial of all tree fruit, and this year they have been particularly good. At least, with us, they have. A friend in Northamptonshire says all possibility of fruit on her trees was wiped out by a cruelly-timed spring frost.

What makes a plum a greengage? It is certainly not the colour, for there are purple greengages in the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent and the Bryanston Gages that I pigged out on at dawn were the colour of amber. The name came from a Sir Thomas Gage of Hengrave Hall in Suffolk, who at the end of the 18th century imported the first gages from France. There they were generally known as 'Reine Claudes' after the consort of King Francois I. She must have had a taste for them.

Edward Bunyard, the Edwardian nurseryman, thought the distinction between the two fruits only an English one, based on taste rather than any other criterion. If you bite into a plum-shaped fruit and suddenly feel you are drinking rather than eating nectar of the gods, then it is a greengage.

The flavour of fruit can be influenced by many different factors. Wine buffs make a great thing of this, but it is not only grapes that need a particular type of soil or manure or site. The flavour of a gage is also linked to the size of the crop. The more there are, the less good the flavour. I've never had that problem. The West Country, where we live, is not the best place to grow plums. They like a regime closer to that of their Armenian homeland: hot summers, hard winters and a late, short spring.

Situation is important, too. Gages need shelter from wind and as much protection as possible from late frosts. Late flowering varieties such as 'Late Transparent' have a better chance of escaping frost than a variety such as 'Reine Claude de Bavay' which flowers early. The most succulent fruit comes from fan-trained trees planted against south-facing walls. Gages are by nature neat, small trees, rarely more than 10-12ft tall, so they are ideally suited to this kind of treatment. I used to grow them like this in our old garden. In the new one, we have no suitable walls, so they are free-standing trees.

The age of the tree makes a difference to flavour, too. Ours are still relatively young and I chose the trees (the orchard has six pear trees and six plums/gages) to give as wide a season of cropping as possible. 'Early Transparent Gage' and 'Denniston's Superb' are generally ready by mid- to late-August. 'Bryanston Gage' (found near Bryanston in Dorset around 1800) and 'Reine Claude de Bavay' come in September. But you also need to know which plums are self-fertile and which are not. If they are not, you have to plant another gage or plum as a pollinator. And when you are choosing pollinators, you have to go for trees that blossom at the same time. This is not as complicated as it sounds; the catalogues of most good nurseries (I use Thornhayes in Devon) give the flowering period (listed from 1-5) of the trees they sell.

'Bryanston Gage', for instance, is not self-fertile and flowers in period 3. So I planted the well-known plum 'Victoria' to pollinate it. 'Victoria' is self-fertile, but even self-fertile plums and gages crop better if they are cross pollinated. We've also got 'Denniston's Superb' and 'Early Transparent Gage' that flower in period 2, which means their blossom, although a little earlier, usually overlaps with a period 3 gage.

The Transparents (there are Early and Late varieties) have pale apricot-coloured flesh which is almost translucent. Some varieties become spotted with claret as they ripen. Don't be tempted to pick them too early. The skin round the stalk should be very slightly shrivelled and puckered before you home in. Unfortunately, wasps are likely to have got there before you. Red Admiral butterflies love them, too. There were 17 one day sunning themselves with wings outstretched on the trunk of the 'Cambridge Gage'. Why do they always rest with their heads downwards?

Rather than follow byzantine instructions on how to turn a maiden (a one-year old tree) into a fan, I always cheated and bought one ready trained. Most good fruit nurseries can supply them. Pruning a fan is made easier if, in the first instance, you tie the main branches of the tree on to bamboo canes which you fix to the wall in a fan-like shape, mirroring the shape of the tree itself. There may be six, seven or eight. In the new orchard, I simply limbed up the free-standing young trees until the trunks were clear to about five feet.

Prune plums and gages in summer. If you do it in winter, there is a greater risk that the tree will be infected with spores of silverleaf, a debilitating disease for which there is no cure. Before you start any pruning, be clear in your mind why you are doing it. It makes the job a whole lot simpler. Plums and gages, for instance, fruit on growth made the previous year and also on short spurs that build up on older wood.

The ideal plum tree would have side shoots or laterals bobbing up every 10cm (4in) along its branches. If the laterals on your trees are closer than this, thin them. You make fruit-bearing spurs by pinching back in summer all the new shoots that you can reach. Reduce them to six or seven leaves. When you have picked the gages, shorten these shoots even more by cutting them back to three leaves only.

As the wood of plums and gages gets older, it gets lazy about producing laterals. If you have a very bare branch, cut it out completely when you have finished picking your fruit and choose a new shoot that will grow on to replace the gap. This pruning and training is more critical with a fan-trained tree that needs to be kept flat. After a while, a free-standing tree can be left to decide its own destiny. You just take out dead wood and thin overcrowded growth.

Despite the fact that you can buy containerised trees all the year round, I still prefer to plant bare root trees in autumn, as soon as possible after Guy Fawkes day. A tree grown in a container does not have room to develop a decent root system. The roots get into the habit, like circus horses, of going round and round in circles. Where the ground is heavy or hard, there will be little incentive for them to break the tendency. The tree, consequently, will never become stable or properly established.

If you plant in November, rather than spring, the tree will have time to get its roots sorted out before it has to think about furnishing the upper canopy. Earth temperatures fall more slowly than air temperatures and roots will usually make new growth right up until the end of the year. This is useful for the tree when it suddenly needs in spring to pull up food and water for its new shoots. It is asking rather a lot to expect it to sort out roots, shoots and perhaps blossom all at the same time.

Greengages are available from Thornhayes Nursery, St Andrews Wood, Dulford, Cullompton, Devon EX15 2DF, 01884 266746, thornhayes-nursery.co.uk; Keepers Nursery, Gallants Court, Gallants Lane, East Farleigh, Maidstone, Kent ME15 0LE, 01622 726465, keepers-nursery.co.uk. Catalogue 2 x 1st class stamps or free by e-mail. Both nurseries do mail order

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