Fruit, Again, With Nod To Michael Jackson

Blackcaps Redux, This Season

I took a cue from Michael Jackson today when pruning my black raspberry (a.k.a. blackcap) plants. Not that I had to prune them today, or even this time of year. But I couldn’t stand looking at the tangled mass of thorny canes. And, more importantly, the tangled mass would make harvest, slated to begin in a couple of weeks or so, a bloody nightmare.

(Most blackcaps bear only once a year, in early summer, so tidiness would be the main reason to prune conventional blackcaps now. Pruning would also let remaining canes bathe in more light and air, reducing the threat of diseases. My blackcap plants, though, are the two varieties — Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure — that bear twice a year; hence, my pruning now to make picking the soon-to-ripen second crop less intimidating.)

All blackcaps have perennial roots and biennial canes. Typically, the canes just grow their first year, flower and fruit their second year, then die. Niwot and Ohio’s Treasure differ in bearing on both one-year-old canes and on new canes. I picked the early summer crop from canes that grew last year. And now my mouth is watering as I look forward to the late summer crop, which will be borne on canes that just started growing this season.
Pruned blackcaps
Pruning is straightforward. I started by lopping right to ground level all the canes that bore the early summer crop; they’re dying anyway. Step two is reducing the number of new canes, selectively keeping the fattest and healthiest-looking ones, and lopping all others to ground level. Even then, I reduce their number to the best six of them. That’s it. Easy, as long as the thorns are avoided.

My blackcaps are in a row, three feet apart. An iron pipe sunk into the ground next to each plant provides support for each plant’s clump of stems. With pruning finished, I tied a piece of rope to the pipe and then around the clump of stems, a gloved hand cozying the thorny stems into position while my ungloved hand tied the rope, à la Michael Jackson.Tying blackcap with gloved hand

Rotten Plums

I wish that pruning was all that my plum trees needed. With this being such a good year for fruits generally, I was very hopeful for a good crop. And they looked fine up until a week ago, when the fruit started ripening — and rotting.

Brown rot is the culprit, mostly the handiwork of the fungus Monolinia fruticola. Characteristic powdery, gray masses of spores form on the surfaces of rotting fruits, which eventually dry to become “mummies.” Brown rot is not new to me; I’ve experienced it on peaches, nectarines, and plums in the past. It also attacks apricots, cherries, and other “stone fruits” (Prunus genus). Typically, a plant bears well for a couple of years while the fungi are building up, and then full-fledged, annual attacks begin.Brown rot

The usual recommendation to hold the fungus at bay is, first, to remove sources of inoculum by cleaning up all infected fruit in summer and mummies in winter, and pruning away dead, infected twigs. That’s quite a job on a big plum tree.

I sprayed my trees with sulfur many times this past spring. Sulfur is an organically approved fungicide, used by gardeners and farmers for thousands of years, that is effective against brown rot. But only for a few days. Hence my repeated sprays, evidently not repeated enough.

The easiest approach would be for me to grow brown rot resistant varieties.

Plumquest Begins

So now I am embarking on a plumquest, my search for plums that taste good and are resistant to brown rot. Resistant genes must lurk somewhere — actually right in my yard, on the wild plums. They hardly ever show fuzzy grayness; they also don’t taste very good.

I now remember a pertinent page I photocopied many years ago. Shuffling through piles of papers on my desk, I come across the page, from a scientific-looking paper, entitled “Range of known genetic traits in Plum cultivars.” That’s a start, and the list on the page includes one of my favorite plums, the Green Gage, also known as Reine Claude Verte, as resistant. Shiro, which I grow with some success, is only listed as “tolerant.”

My next queststep is on the web, bringing me to a publication entitled “The Cultivated Native Plums and Cherries,” authored by Liberty Hyde Bailey in 1892. I immediately ordered a reprint to make it easier to sort through the many varieties and their gustatory and pest potentials.

Once suitable varieties are identified, the next queststep is to locate trees or, more likely, stems for grafting, to bring here to the farmden. I will report on my plumquest as events unfold.


 Brown Rot Strikes Again

   The plan was for me to be now sinking my teeth into the soft, juicy, rich flesh of my Oullins golden gage plums. The tenuous start this past spring, with a freak late freeze that sent temperatures plummeting into the low teens, had me worried. The trees shook off the cold and, when warmer weather returned, burst into snowballs of white blossoms. Tiny fruitlets that followed those blossoms have swelled to the bountiful crop now dangling from the branches.
    The plan has been foiled — by brown rot disease. Almost every plum, just as its skin starts to shade towards ripeness, becomes spotted with fuzzy, gray droplets that, with good weather (good for the fungus, that is), soon covers the fruit.Brown rotted plum fruit
    Brown rot was not unexpected, and a counterattack was planned. All through spring, before blossoms even unfolded, I doused the plant with insecticide and fungicide sprays. Insecticides help control brown rot by preventing insects, most notably plum curculios, from laying eggs in the developing fruitlets. Even if the egg-laying itself doesn’t cause the fruit to drop, holes left behind provide easy entrance for the brown rot fungus.
    Perhaps I was too lenient, using relatively benign (to us humans, that is), organically approved sprays. ‘Surround’, a commercial formulation of kaolin clay for the insects. And sulfur, a naturally occurring mineral, for the brown rot fungus.Brown rot mummy
    That’s not all. Gathering up infected fruits cuts back the number of new disease spores that waft among the branches looking for new fruits to infect. In fall and winter, those infected fruits are easily recognized as blackened, dry “mummies.” They lose their dryness and come to life, fungal life, with spring’s warmth and moisture. I’ll gather them up also. I’m hoping my ducks develop a taste for the fresh, dropped, rotten fruit; so far, they seem to be picky eaters.
    My late winter pruning of the trees should also have helped reduce brown rot disease. Removing enough stems and limbs to allow those that remain to bathe in light and breezes allows for quicker drying from dew or rain.

The Disease Triangle

    Three conditions must be satisfied for any disease, whether in animals or plants, to take hold: inoculum must be present, the host must be susceptible, and the conditions must be suitable for disease development. Check, check, check for my Oulin plum (a susceptible host plant) getting brown rot here in the Hudson Valley, throughout most of the humid eastern U.S., in fact. We have plenty of wild and cultivated plums and related plants here to provide brown rot inoculum from infected fruits, and the weather is usually just about perfect (for the disease, that is).
    But Oullin isn’t the only great-tasting plum. How about a less susceptible host variety? Fungi are picky eaters, and varieties of plants vary in their susceptibility to specific diseases.(Unfortunately, most gage-type plums, which are heart-shaped, with greenish flesh, are very susceptible to brown rot.)Infected plums on tree
    My plum trees are grafted to multiple varieties. The variety Shiro also finds a home on the tree grafted to Oullin. This year, and in years past, Shiro seems to be somewhat resistant to this disease. And I see that Cummins Nursery has a variety called Jam Session that also is resistant. This past spring I also planted the varieties Alderman and Superior, which are American hybrids with some alleged resistance.
    As consolation, plums are, at least, less susceptible to this scourge than are peaches and apricots.

Flowers to the Rescue?

    I’m planning and planting for flowers for next season and for years to come, with perennials.
    I could, of course, just purchase some potted plants to plug into the ground now or next spring. I could buy seeds and sow them next spring. Instead of those two options, I’m sowing seeds now, a time when, admittedly, there’s not that frenzied urge to plant seeds as in spring.Black-eyed SusanPurple coneflower
    One packet of seeds can — should — result in oodles of plants, plenty to plant and to give away. Sown now, the seeds should grow into plants that will be large enough to weather autumn, then winter’s, cold. Plants should also be large enough to flower next year. Their experience of cold, known as vernalization, will further coax them on to flower. Spring sown perennial flower seeds often don’t flower their first season, no matter what their size, because they have yet to be vernalized.Liatris
    I’m sowing purple coneflower (Echinacea), black-eyed-susan (Rudbeckia), and blazing star (Liatris). They’re all in the daisy family, a family known not only for its good looks but also for providing nectar to attract and help support beneficial insects. If I plant enough, perhaps the increased number of beneficial insects will significantly decrease the number of plum curculios and other plum fruit insects resulting in, because of less insect scarring of fruit, significantly less brown rot of my plums.
    It’s a stretch but the flowers, anyway, are very pretty.

Plums and Pears

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Whoosh! Summer is speeding past. Cicadas have come and gone. Same goes for Japanese beetles. Temperatures have cooled dramatically.
And now it’s raining plums. That’s a good thing, and something not easily achieved in this part of the world without, at least, some sprays. The main threats come from plum curculio, Oriental fruit moth, black knot, and brown knot. The first and the last are my most serious plum pests, curculio causing young fruits to plummet to the ground early in the season and brown rot turning nearly ripe fruit into masses of gray fuzz.
Although a few early season sprays, the last in June, knocked out many curculios and reduced inoculum for later infections of brown rot, pruning is all-important in my arsenal against pests. In late winter, I clipped off or partially back enough branches so that remaining ones would be bathed in light and air for quick drying

— and less diseases — following rain or dew. While pruning, I also kept my eyes out for any thick, tarry coatings (black knot) or dark, sunken areas (valsa canker) on stems; such stems got lopped back 6 inches into healthy wood.

I do all this every year and some years I still get no plums; this year, as I wrote, it’s raining plums. Raining??!! Yes. That’s because we harvest daily by giving branches a slight shake, which brings ripe plums raining down. Once we’ve gathered the good drops into a basket and infested and infected ones into a compost bucket, the chickens move in to clean up any missed drops, which also helps keep pests in check.
The variety is Imperial Épineuse, which originated in France about 1870 and made it stateside in 1883. It’s a prune plum, so can also be dried. The fresh flavor is so good that I’m more than willing to accept a crop 2 out of every 5 years.
A certain amount of luck is involved, especially here, in getting a plum crop because my site is less than ideal as far as temperatures and humidity. I credit this past spring’s perfect temperatures for my current luscious harvest. Fingers crossed for next year.
As I was harvesting the first pears of the season (also a very nice crop this year, thank you) — the variety Harrow Delight — I noticed a lot of columbine plants colonizing the mulched ground beneath the pear trees. As a matter of fact, columbine and an occasional thistle are the main weeds there. These columbines aren’t our dainty, native columbines but, rather, hybrids of cultivated columbines. They’re not flowering now, but the robust leaves are telling.
My columbines aren’t necessarily weeds. They started out as cultivated hybrids that I planted many years ago. Year after year of cross-pollination has jumbled the genes to create new hybrids, natural ones. They’re somewhat different from the originals and from each other but I’ve never seen one that wasn’t attractive. The flowers are long past, of course, having morphed into dry seed heads that rattle down seeds every time I brush them, sowing more plants. The whorl of leaves are still green and lush with the delicate look of maidenhair fern.
At some point, the number of columbines tips the scales into weediness. Some, I see, have the audacity to be edging their way into the vegetable garden. My plan is to maintain a fluid and, hopefully, not too tenuous balance between columbine-the-flower and columbine-the-weed. I can’t imagine ever having to plant columbine again.
Looking up from the columbines, I continue to pick pears — not an easy job. The difficulty comes from trying to figure out when to do it. Pears must be harvested underripe because they ripen from the inside outward. Allowed to fully ripen on the tree, their insides become brown mush. The fruit must, however, be sufficiently along on the road to maturity before harvest if it is to ripen well.
A few clues help tell when to pick: A lightening of the skin’s background color; the raised pores on the skin becoming brown and corky; the stalk separating easily from the stem when the fruit is lifted and twisted. These changes are subtle and require judgement. Last year I harvested too late so this year I’m scrapping judgement and picking by calendar date gleaned from various sources after taking into account their locations.
The story doesn’t end with harvest, though. Before the early pears are ready to eat, they need a few days refrigeration. (Outdoor temperatures are sufficiently cool to chill late-ripening pears.) After that, small batches can be sequentially taken from the refrigerator to finish ripening at  room temperature. A short window, then, presents itself when flavor is at its best. “There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. But what a sensuous 10 minutes.