New cordon plums

Sometimes things do not go as planned. At the start of the kitchen garden project we planted three plum trees along the boundary fence and began their fan training. One developed many fruiting spurs but, before it could bear a crop, died. On another, one half of the initial Y shape died out and there were signs of problems with the trunk. The third tree appeared reasonably healthy but none have borne a single fruit. I am not sure what disease was to blame; all of our other fruit trees, including the stone fruits, are fine. Silver Leaf is the most likely candidate, although I suspect that the one that only half died may have been due to bacterial canker. This winter we removed all three and replaced them. Interestingly, all had established a good root system and digging them out was hard work.

Fan training is generally recommended for stone fruits, and we have fan trained a number of trees. Cordon training is not generally considered suitable for plums and such fruits. This is, though, a little inconsistent, when one considers the number of columnar fruit trees that are offered for just that purpose. As I pointed out in another article, cordon training of various stone fruits is considered entirely appropriate in a number of the old texts from the 1800s. I have always liked cordons, especially the oblique sort, planted at approximately 45 degrees, which acts to restrain the vigour of the leader and encourage better bud break along its length. They are attractive, allow many varieties to be grown in a small space, and are easy to prune. Thus, I decided to replant a number of plums and gages as cordons and find out just how well – or otherwise – they perform. For stone fruits, which are susceptible to diseases that can enter through pruning wounds, cordons, which require extensive pruning, are somewhat more susceptible; perhaps not a sensible idea where two of the last three trees were suffering.

I bought the same three varieties as before – Kirke’s Blue, Reine Claude Violette (Purple Gage), and Coe’s Golden Drop – along with three more gages I was planning to add to another area of the garden – Oullins Gage, Early Transparent Gage, and Bryanston Gage – and another that was not originally on my list, Early Rivers Prolific. This collection comprises some of the finest traditional varieties of plums and gages, all of which are renowned for the quality of their fruit. All were ordered as maiden whips, some from Keepers Nursery and some from R. V. Roger. Not only do nurseries such as these provide a more extensive range than local garden centres, maiden whips are very much cheaper. The whip, being unpruned and unbranched, is the ideal starting point from which one may develop any of the tree forms of interest.

An arrangement of training wires was already in place from the fan training. One damaged section was repaired and the wires were tightened. Bamboo canes were pushed into the soil, as far as they would go, at an angle of 45 degrees. Although one could plant more closely, I spaced these three feet apart, as measured on the horizontal. The canes were secured firmly to the wires with tie wraps. One could, of course, tie the whips directly to the wires, but this does not hold them as well, and they may be damaged by rubbing. It is, then, better to first secure a stout cane and then tie in the growth to the cane.

The bed where the trees were to be planted had previously been dressed with a thick layer of home made compost so no further organic matter was worked into the planting holes. However, a handful of bone meal, which is helpful for root development, was mixed in at each position. As is the usual case when planting trees, care was made to plant the new trees at the same depth at which they were previously grown. Even though they are supplied as bare root specimens, the soil line is quite clear on the trunk. Importantly, when planting as oblique cordons, the graft must be held properly above soil level, and located with the scion uppermost, in which orientation the joint is most strong. The trees were healed in gently then watered to settle the soil around the roots. The leaders were secured to the canes in two places each using a stretchy plastic tie. This material is a little awkward to tie, but its diameter and elasticity reduce damage as the stems swell.

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Correct alignment of the graft union

It will likely take two years for the leaders to reach the top of the supports, which, at a height of six feet or so, and at an angle of 45 degrees, is a length of around 8.5 feet. It would be nice to see a few first fruits at that point, but it may be four or five years before we find out whether the cordons were a good idea or not.

Finished row of cordon plums

Finished row of cordon plums

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