Crazy Plums

Most stone fruit trees look pretty orderly, even with light pruning; plums, even the most well-cared-for orchards, look a little insane. The trees are definitely more gnarled and seem to grow in all directions at once and straight up at the same time.

Japanese plums, the type most commonly cultivated, do not self-pollinate. There are a few ways to accommodate this. Two or three varieties that will bloom at the same time and will pollinate each other can be planted in alternating rows, sets of alternating rows, or scattered regularly in a checkerboard pattern throughout the orchard.

This orchard demonstrates another solution – pollenizer limbs. Using pollenizer limbs, which are a different variety grafted onto the tree, (with two to three different varieties used throughout the orchard) means the whole orchard can be planted in a single variety of tree. And it makes them look a little mad.

The pollenizer limbs are allowed to grow above the height of the rest of the tree, on the theory that bees, who aid in pollination, may find the higher, more pollen-laden limb first and then make it down to the blooms on the rest of the tree, which won’t yield as much pollen, but the successive visit to the non-self-fruitful blossom may cause pollination to take place. Wind also carries pollen; if it’s high up, the idea is it’ll be carried further before it hits the ground.

So how does that fruit all the way up there get picked? Usually it doesn’t, and it’s knocked off the tree early on in the season so that it doesn’t fall off later and damage another part of the tree or the crop.

If you didn’t know there was a purpose to that limb, you’d probably say who let that happen? They provide a bit of a zany feel to a batch of trees – the ones with the limbs will probably get voted Most Eccentric when Senior Superlatives roll around.

Today’s Agriculture Moment

This is, for those of you who don’t have the pleasure of seeing such a thing on a regular basis, a field of onions. It’s one block from Highway 99 (the 99 to you real Californians) on my way to work.

This is still weird for me, being from Fairfax County, Virginia, where the major crops are laws and influence.

A couple days in a row last fall, I watched this field getting planted (by hand) while waiting at the stoplight. Before that, I had driven by while they were cleaning the field from the previous year. It had been red onions, and they looked very dramatically bright and purple when piled up on the dull and sandy earth.

The Longest Bloom

I was talking to a stone fruit grower this week – a guy in his late 50s at least – who said this bloom is the longest-lasting one in his memory. I had a sense that it was stretched out, but I’m a real newcomer in this business at two years. (A fair number of the people I sit around tables with on a regular basis were literally born into this work.)

Bloom typically starts around President’s Day; it was right on time this year. Most trees are in leaf now – small leaves – but there are definitely still blooms hanging on out there in a few orchard blocks.

An extended bloom period isn’t harmful; a short bloom or a long bloom can yield just as good a crop. What it does affect, though, is the exact window when the fruit must come off the tree.

In a short bloom, pollination is compressed into a smaller window, which means more fruit comes ripe at once. Stone fruit can’t be left to hang on the tree (like oranges) or held in long-term storage (like apples) – it has to be picked and on its way, pronto. So a short bloom means more fruit all at one time, which makes harvesting easier, because it’s all ready at once. However, it also means there’s a lot of fruit available at the same time – a spike in the crop – with all that can entail.

A long bloom means ripeness will be more staggered. Additional passes through the orchard will be needed to harvest the fruit at the right stage, as it’ll be maturing more gradually. That’s more work, but the upside of those multiple passes is that fruit will be coming into the market in the same way it’s being harvested – bit by bit. The gains of more controlled pacing are somewhat offset by the added cost for more rounds through the orchard.

So why the long bloom this year? It’s been cool and rainy. I keep finding myself thinking, “Hey, the weather’s not half bad,” which, when I’m thinking it, usually means the weather is atypical for central Californina.

The cool weather slows the trees down. It also slows down the bees that are necessary to pollinate plums – they don’t fly when it’s below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or raining or if the wind is blowing 15 mph or more, and at least one and sometimes all three of those conditions have been the case for many of the days this month. It’s kept the bees in their hives knitting antennae warmers.

The long bloom also makes for an awfully pretty commute; the last ten miles or so of my drive are lined with orchards and vineyards on both sides. The picture above was taken on my way home from work today.