Plummy school lunches

So the children are safely delivered back to school, the evening meal has been brought forward an hour or two, breakfasts are once again perfunctory with tired children hunched over bowls of cereal gazing at the back of the cereal boxes, snarling if questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are asked. For the moment it’s all about transitioning into the autumn routine with as little collateral damage to family life as possible, given the abrupt change from the lolling summer to crammed school-day scheduling. And those school lunches; what one ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ put in the lunch boxes is becoming a whole area of study in itself. I have, over the years tried going to the very healthy end of the spectrum and have prepared salad boxes, soups, pasta and couscous dishes for their lunches but it’s a sure route to madness and the children very seldom have time during their breaks for the palaver involving forks, spoons and spillages, so I’m back to the stalwart sandwhich, oatmeal-style bar and a piece of fruit lunches. Thankfully the children like plums as our ‘Opal’ plum tree is currently giving a modest but steady yield of which I picked four perfectly ripened plums this morning and popped them into the lunch boxes.

The two mainstays – ‘Victoria’ or ‘Opal’?

Firstly there is without-a-doubt no comparison between the flavour of shop bought plums and freshly picked home grown plums. A sun ripened garden plum has a gentle sweet flavour that seems so right and balanced. It’s a smooth palatable experience as opposed to the sharp flavour of a shop bought plum which has been picked before ripening. There is no way a ripe plum could survive the packing and being jostled around in those plastic containers, the fruit is too tender, so as consumers we never get to savour the real plum taste other than the shop bought bitter flavour. Biting into a plum shouldn’t feel sharply intense or create a furry sensation at the back of your tongue. If grown and picked at home, it’s a fruit that can be enjoyed by a sensitive palate which is why they are such a success in my children’s lunch boxes. I think there are things to consider regarding flavour versus yield when choosing between the ‘Opal’ and ‘Victoria’ plum. ‘Opal’ have the superior delectable flavour over ‘Victoria’ but ‘Victoria’ win on yield. My own practical experience of growing plum trees has been hands-off insofar as I’ve added three plum trees to our orchard which already had apples, pears and damson trees. My first plum tree, which fruited prolifically was a ‘Victoria’. In my naivety I only planted one but I was lucky as it would have cross pollinated with the damson trees as they too are a member of the Prunus Domestica family. I didn’t record the ‘Victoria’s’ success and failures but it did follow a feast or famine pattern over the years until its branches snapped under their weight of its fruit. Over fruiting trees will often have a restful year after a bumper crop in order to recuperate. The way to overcome this is by pruning the set fruit in June and not allowing the tree to become over burdened. I had little head-space at that time for keeping up with a pruning regime and as the tree was out of sight, it was generally out of mind also until this time of year came trotting along. We’d then gorge on plums enthusiastically until the wasps won the battle of consumption. It’s only in recent years that I’ve given time to my fruit trees again as I make the definitive distinction between the flavour and health benefits of home-grown fruits versus commercially grown fruit.

The ‘Victoria’ didn’t survive my benign neglect and as would be predicted by any one who grows plum trees her branches steadily broke off during my absence of attention. In the end a ‘scorching’ incident inflicted by a garden bonfire which was lit to close to her finished off the poor tree – I was a novice back then! Preferring the flavour of the ‘Opal’ plum and wanting to try something new I stagger planted two Opal trees thereafter. I have to admit I then left them alone “(nearly forgotten) until I happened upon the first three plums a couple of Augusts ago – their position on the tree’s branches etched into my memory – I liken it to waiting for our pullet hens to start laying, you think it wont happen, give up believing in nature and then one day there’s a perfect mini egg gifted in the hen house. So be patient with the ‘Opal’. I suggest planting two as ‘Opal’ trees do better with neighbouring pollinators, that is unless you can persuade your human neighbour to plant a pollinating companion or you already have another tree from the Prunus Domestica family. Several varieties of plum trees are self-fertile but they produce more if they can cross pollinate. My younger ‘Opal’ tree hasn’t begun fruiting yet but they do say that it can take up to four years to produce a crop. Prunus Domectica ‘Opal’ are not as heavy bearing as ‘Victoria’ but I’m happy with a shyer-producing and better flavoured plum. The wasps don’t seem to be as attracted to the modest yield of the Opal as they were to the chock-a-block Victoria yield, they must have bigger fish to fry with the ripe figs which is a whole other fruiting story for another day.

Succession planting.

Knowing which fruit trees to plant can take trial and error, like all elements of gardening It’s very satisfying if the fruits of your success are enjoyed by members of your family and friends alike so my advice is plant what you like to eat, this applies to your vegetables also. Plum trees are suited to our climate. They do need a sheltered spot that isn’t prone to heavy frost as they flower early and can get caught out. If you have a walled town garden I think a plum tree would thrive in it, plus you get to enjoy its flowering season in Spring – they really are a very decorative tree. The most succulent fruit will come from fan-trained trees planted against south-facing walls so if you have one of those also, even better. Just make sure that the soil underneath is moist and clear of any foundation stone, you may have to add well rotted farmyard manure to increase nitrogen content. A fan-trained tree is better on a shorter root stock so that it spreads wide and doesn’t grow too high. Plum ‘Pixy’ or ‘St Julian A’ are recommended for this purpose. As for expanding my collection of plum trees I am going to plant a ‘Coe’s Golden Drop’ this winter. It doesn’t give huge yields like a ‘Victoria’, and it most definitely needs a pollinating companion such as ‘Green Gage’ . It’s a late season tree, with plums harvested in mid to late September so I plan for it to begin where the ‘Opal’ ends which, all going to plan should insure that we’ll be eating fresh sweet plums into the beginning of October. As for supper tonight I think plum crumble is the order of the day – Delicious.

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