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When is a plum a gage?

It's been a fabulous year for the most ambrosial of tree fruit. Anna Pavord suggests how to keep them happy
Neither selfishness nor greed is a pretty sight, so I got up at crack of dawn to indulge in my greengage binge. It has been a fabulous year for plums, and gages, which even in an indifferent summer are the most ambrosial of all tree fruit, have been particularly good.

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 Cambridge Gages that I pigged out on in the 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 where they were generally known as 'Reine Claudes' after the consort of King Francois I.

Edward Bunyard, the Edwardian nurseryman and fruit bat, 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 and suddenly feel you are drinking rather than eating nectar of the gods, then you have got your teeth in 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: a crop of only seven is a cause for rejoicing. The West Country 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.

The age of the tree makes a difference to flavour, too. Our 'Cambridge Gage' was planted as a fan on the south wall of the kitchen garden in 1976, so has now come of age. Unfortunately, like 'Late Transparent', it is not self-fertile, so you have to plant another gage or plum to pollinate it. In choosing pollinators, you have to go for trees that blossom at the same time. Having lost one of my pollinators, 'Coe's Golden Drop', which died very suddenly on the hoof, I'm thinking now of planting 'Early Transparent Gage' instead.

The Transparents, early and late, 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' and against the stone between the branches. 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 cheat and buy 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.

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, 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 four inches along its branches, pointing not forwards or backwards into the wall, but upwards and downwards where they can lie neatly against the wall. If you have laterals closer than this, thin them.

You make fruit-bearing spurs by pinching back in summer all the new shoots that you are not training in as part of the main framework. 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 you can gradually tie in to replace the gap in the fan.

A reader from Warndon, Worcester, asks about pruning apricots: how, where and when. She has had nine delicious fruits on her tree this year and wants to do whatever is necessary to bump up the crop a little next year. Like gages, apricots benefit from the shelter and warmth of a south- facing wall. Like gages, too, they are best pruned in spring and summer to minimise risk of silverleaf.

If you start with a fan, tie it into a framework of fanned-out bamboo canes, as described above. The pruning is much the same, too, for apricots, like gages, fruit on old wood rather than new. In early spring, you need to rub out any shoots that are shooting straight out at right angles to the wall (this is usually called breastwood) together with those that are nose-diving into the wall.

To encourage the formation of fruiting spurs, pinch back new shoots in late spring or early summer, leaving six or seven leaves in place. The shoots are likely then to be about three inches long. Then when you have gathered the fruit, pinch the laterals back again, so that only three leaves are left.

As with gages, some branches on an apricot tree may gradually become unproductive. If this happens, take the branch out completely and train a new lateral in its place.

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.

The National Fruit Collection at Brogdale, Faversham, Kent, is open daily (9.30am-5pm). Guided walks (pounds 2.50) will continue until the end of November. Specialists at Brogdale will bud or graft wood of rare varieties for pounds 7.50. Grafts are done in March, budding in July. Telephone 01795 535286 for more details.

Greengages are available from Scotts Nurseries, Merriott, Somerset TA16 5PL (01460 72306), J Tweedie Fruit Trees, Maryfield Rd Nursery, Maryfield, Nr Terregles, Dumfries DG2 9TH (01387 720880), R V Roger, The Nurseries, Pickering, North Yorkshire YO18 7HG (01751 472226), Philip House, Family Trees, PO Box 3, Borley, Hampshire SO3 2EA (01329 834812).