Owen Pidgeon's tips for growing plums in Canberra

Owen Pidgeon
Summer delight: Plums make a great dessert, such as this plum clafoutis.
Summer delight: Plums make a great dessert, such as this plum clafoutis. 

Plums are a delicious late-summer fruit that come in many colours and sizes. A well-established plum tree will continue to grow and produce crops for many years. Their roots will grow down into good, rich deep soils and the trees will produce much better crops with regular, good watering during the fruiting season. They just do not like to be waterlogged. 

Plum trees will grow in heavier soils than peaches and nectarines, but they still need good drainage. They require a cold winter, with most varieties needing 700 chill hours to fruit well, so they are very suitable for regions such as Canberra. 

As with many other well-known fruit, the European plum can be traced back to the Caucasus and north-west Asia. It was cultivated by the Greeks and then exported by the Romans. The historian Pliny recorded varieties from Syria being take to Greece and then to Italy. By the mid-19th century, there were more than 150 varieties on offer to growers in North America, and California became famous for plums, as well as peaches and oranges.

Ancient staple: Plums are a delicious late-summer fruit that come in many colours and sizes.
Ancient staple: Plums are a delicious late-summer fruit that come in many colours and sizes. 

There are two main groupings, the European and the Japanese plums. European plums have firm flesh of a yellow complexion, with either a yellowy green or purple skin. They produce fruiting spurs mainly on two-year-old wood, so they need less pruning than Japanese plums. If you are growing any of this group, prune your trees to a vase shape and trim back any long spindly limbs. All plum trees set fruit better if planted close to other varieties. The Angelina blue plum is a good pollinator for most other plum trees.

Japanese plums are larger in size, with yellow, red or purple skins and red or yellow flesh. The red blood plums are the best for jam making and bottling. Mariposa and Satsuma are two excellent blood plums, which can be served as dessert plums, bottled and preserved or turned into a wonderful plum jam. They ripen over two weeks, so you need to regularly harvest the ripe fruits.

Wickson and Formosa are two light-green, yellow Japanese plum varieties that produce good, early crops. Narrabeen is a large-sized, red-skinned, late-season plum with lovely large fruit that is very juicy.

Santa Rosa is a good mid-season Japanese-type plum that is now coming to maturity. It was bred in Sebastopol in California in the early 1900s and requires only 600 chill hours. The yellow flesh with a tinge of pink, wrapped in bright-red skin, is a little tart, but is great to eat. 

My latest plantings were Mariposa plums, and we shall have the first harvest in early February. The skin colour is deep maroon and the flesh is blood red. It is an improved variety of the Satsuma plum found in an orchard in California in 1934. It is fine textured and juicy sweet when fully ripe.

Blood plums are wonderful to add to a bowl of morning cereal when stewed, and they make excellent crumbles. The deep-red juices permeate the crumble topping and have a slightly tart, delicious flavour. Add ground almonds to any topping mix, as almonds complement plums so well. 

Greengage plums (Reine Claude) are highly sought after by French customers and other Europeans. Varieties include Reine Claude de Bavay, greengage and Cole's golden gage. The skin is greenish yellow and the flesh pale lemon. They are a very sweet plum for eating fresh, ripening later in the harvest season.

Another sub-group of delicious plums are the blue quetsches plums, with dark-purple skins. Angeline, president and early orleans are good varieties to grow. They are very good for making plum jam.

Plum clafoutis is a simple dish to make and it will delight family or visitors when served. As with cherry clafoutis, you can choose between removing the plum seeds or leave them in, as the seeded fruit produces a clafoutis with a slightly different flavour, but remember to warn your diners, if you do leave the seeds in the plums.

Plum clafoutis

500g small plums
1 cup self-raising flour
1 cup castor sugar
pinch of salt
4 eggs
600ml milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
icing sugar

Remove the stalks from the plums and wash them well. Preheat the oven to 180C. Butter a shallow ovenproof dish and lay the plums across the bottom of the dish.

Sift the flour and castor sugar in a medium-sized bowl. Add a pinch of salt. In another small bowl, whisk the eggs and then mix in the milk and the vanilla. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and slowly pour in the milk mix, beating constantly, until the batter is very smooth. Pour the batter over the plums. 

Cook in the oven for about 40 minutes until the batter is firm to touch and golden on the top. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve while still warm.

This week in the garden

  • Plant the seeds of winter vegetables to get them germinated and established before the colder months. Select from brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages.
  • With all the recent rains renewing soil moisture, you will be busy weeding around crops. Sweetcorn, pumpkins, zucchinis and cucumbers will sink their roots into the replenished soils and leap ahead.
  • Plant some quick-growing crops, such as bush beans, radishes, baby carrots and beetroot, to keep home production going.
  • Hill up around potatoes as they begin to flower, so that the tubers are well covered from the sun and can grow to full size in good soil.

Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.