Enjoy the plummiest time of the year

Juicy plums are ripe for the picking in Phoenix Park

Juicy plums are ripe for the picking in Phoenix Park

AS THE two gardeners in charge of the walled OPW Victorian kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park have just discovered, life doesn’t get much better than the taste of a perfectly ripe plum picked fresh from the tree, its dusky-red skin dusted with a silvery bloom and its sweet, yellow flesh still warm from the early autumn sunshine. Never mind that the particular variety of plum they have been savouring is the self-fertile Victoria, which food writer Jane Grigson famously dismissed as “bland and boring”, or that, because the garden’s plum trees are still youngsters, the harvest is as yet a modest one.

“I think they’re absolutely delicious,” says Brian Quinn, and his fellow OPW gardener, Meeda Downey, is in full agreement.

The eight baby Victoria plum trees were planted along the garden’s shadier, east-facing wall just two years ago, and this is the first year that any of have produced fruit.


“They’re still very young trees and so we weren’t expecting much of a harvest from them, explains Downey. “But even so, we’ve been able to pick a handful of ripe plums almost every morning for the past few weeks. And along with the Victoria variety, we’ve got a few Kirke’s blue plum trees growing on the opposite wall, which are also fruiting this year for the first time. They’re even tastier again.”

As it happens, Kirke’s blue – unlike the trusty but much-maligned Victoria – is particularly renowned for the tastiness of its sweet, juicy plums. In Forgotten Fruits, Christopher Stocks describes them as being “among the best-flavoured dark dessert plums, with juicy flesh and a free stone”, while the catalogue of the famous UK-based Brogdale fruit research station lists Kirke’s blue as having “an unsurpassed reputation for flavour”. Things are less clear when it comes to this particular plum’s history, however, for although the variety was first popularised by the English nurseryman Joseph Kirke in the 1820s, its exact origins are uncertain.

It’s a similar story for the dual-purpose (cooking and eating) Victoria plum whose early history has also been lost to us. “The best-known of all plums also turns out to be one of the most mysterious,” writes Stocks, adding that the variety was once also known as Sharpe’s emperor or Denver’s Victoria, and that despite its reputation as the most British of British plums it was quite possibly surreptitiously imported from France by the captain of a trading vessel.

Whatever about the exact origins of these two old varieties of plum tree, it can be said with certainty that both Victoria and Kirke’s blue have been in cultivation since at least the early Victorian era.

So it is possible, even likely, that at least one of these varieties may have grown in the OPW’s walled kitchen garden during its 19th-century heyday.

My money is on Victoria. The fact that it is very vigorous, highly productive, more tolerant of cool summers as well as being self-fertile (it doesn’t require a second, compatible plum tree growing nearby to act as its pollinating partner) means that this variety has long been the most popular choice for gardeners.

Along with a perceived lack of flavour, its only other downside is that the Victoria plum can often be over-productive, to the point where its branches are so heavily laden with fruit in late summer that they are inclined to snap.

This disfigures the tree and it becomes a possible site of infection as regards the much-feared silver leaf, a fungal disease that invades fresh wounds and then produces a deadly toxin that generally proves fatal to the tree.

Organised gardeners traditionally get around this by thinning “set” fruit in early summer to a spacing of roughly 5cm. In olden days, before wire was easily and cheaply available, any fan-trained plum trees would have been supported against garden walls using nails and strips of old cotton to support their heavy branches.

“We’re going to start wiring the walls in the next few weeks,” explains Quinn, adding that ideally these should have been in place already but the gardeners just didn’t have time.

“Once the horizontal wires are in place, then we will start to train the trees in a fan-shape, tying the individual branches to lengths of bamboo and then fixing them in position against the wires.

“But we won’t be pruning them until late spring or early summer of next year, when the sap is rising. That way, you are far less likely to run the risk of them getting silver leaf.”

Along with the Victoria and Kirke’s blue plum trees, Quinn and Downey will start to train the other fruit trees growing against the warm, west-facing wall of the garden. These include: the early-fruiting plum Early Rivers, a hardy, dual-purpose, heavy fruiting variety also known as Rivers’ early prolific; the Merryweather damson, a classic variety with large, juicy black fruits; and the bullace, which is also known as the wild damson and is similar to a sloe.

If all goes well, by next year the OPW gardeners should have an even more bountiful plum harvest, although it will be some years before the trees reach full maturity.

Meanwhile, if you are one of those gardeners who has been lucky enough to have inherited an old plum tree but aren’t sure as to the exact variety, Brogdale (brogdalecollections.co.uk) offers a fruit identification service for a smallish charge of £16 (€18).

And if you’re luckier still and have been enjoying a glut of fresh plums over the past few weeks, then you might consider the rich pleasures of plum brandy, chutney, jam, wine, cake or the classic that is plum tart.

Alternatively, if you are considering planting a plum tree in your garden for the first time this autumn, choose a sunny, protected spot with a fertile, moist but free-draining soil and ideally with the protection of a wall or fence behind it.

Be mindful both of the possible need for pollination partners and of the rootstock that the tree has been grafted on to.

St Julien A will give you a tree of roughly four metres high but there are also more dwarf rootstocks such as pixy that should result in a tree of roughly three metres. If you are stuck for space, you can even grow some of the self-fertile varieties such as Victoria, blue tit and opal in containers. Irish suppliers of young plum trees include McNamara’s Nursery (Dunsfort, Midleton, Co Cork 021-4613733) and Future Forests (futureforests.net)

Nicky Kyle (nickykylegardening.com) will be selling some of her winter polytunnel vegetable plants at Listoke Gardens, Ballymakenny Road, Drogheda, Co Louth, on Saturday and Sunday from 11am-6pm in a plant sale being held by Listoke owner Patricia Barrow in aid of Somalian famine relief. (Listoke Gardens was one of the locations used here for filming Asterix and Obelix starring Gerard Depardieu).

The plant sale will also include many herbaceous plants from top Irish nurseries brought in by the production company during filming. Entrance fee per car is €5.

The OPW’s Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Café and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4pm.

WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now

Sow: outdoors in pots or modules, for later planting in the tunnel or greenhouse – or direct sow there now if not too hot: cabbages (greyhound and leafy non-hearting spring types), carrots (Nantes and other early finger types, in long modules), kales such as cavalo nero, dwarf green curled and ragged Jack for baby leaves, lettuces (non-hearting leafy types, winter Gem and winter butterheads), lamb's lettuce, endives, Swiss chards and leaf beets, beetroot, peas, American landcress, leaf chicories, rocket, oriental greens such as mizuna, pak choi, mustards, summer turnips, summer spinach, salad onions, leafy salad mixes, coriander, chervil, parsley and broad-leaved sorrel.

Covering with a fine mesh-covered frame or cloche will give seedlings protection from pests, strong winds or heavy rain. Be extra careful with watering and ventilation of seedlings in the damp autumn air. Plant potato tubers in pots before mid-September to bring inside later for a Christmas crop.

Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seed bed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop, possibly to cover with cloches or frames later in autumn: early summer cauliflowers, early Nantes-type carrots for a late autumn crop, cabbage, leaf chicories, endives, salad onions, , lamb’s lettuce, winter lettuces, kales, rocket, summer spinach, Swiss chard and leaf beets, oriental greens, Chinese kale and fast-maturing salad leaf mixes.

Do:Continue weeding, watering young module or container plants. Plant out well-established, module-raised plants, spray late maincrop potatoes against blight, keep glasshouse and polytunnel well-ventilated, feed tomatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers with a liquid-feed high in potash, check that protective netting is firmly in place, check supports for tall plants, prune out old, fruited canes of summer raspberries and tie in foliage to supports.

All sowing details are printed courtesy of Nicky Kyle at nickykylegardening.com

Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon

Fionnuala Fallon is an Irish Times contributor specialising in gardening