The Leith House Plum Orchards were planted by Garry Maufe between 1976 and 1978 and is now run by his daughter Nina Plumbe . The orchard has almost 3,000 plum trees with over 35 different varieties, probably the most varied dedicated plum orchard in the country.
The plums ripen over a period of about two months from mid July with the first variety Hermans, until mid September when we finish with Coe’s Golden Drop and Anna Spath.
The trees are lovingly tendered during the remaining ten months and although not strictly speaking organic (we spray for aphids during the month of April ), are very nearly so.
The varieties of Plums offer a wide contrast in colour and taste and many of our customers return almost weekly in order to enjoy the latest ripe variety. The season usually commences slowly but builds to a crescendo in mid August when four or five different varieties may be available at the same time.
Husbandry of the Leith House Plum Orchards
We have 5 ” orchards” here, each being divided from the other by a row of willows. Orchard 1 is in the field where the bungalow stands and the other 4 are in the field over the road. The field over the road is no normal field; it has a tumulus in it. See if you can find it. It was excavated some years ago and a chieftain was found buried there with some of his possessions. They were not of silver or gold. There are no trees on the tumulus any more as English heritage has asked us not to. So they were removed.
The soil in these 2 fields is fairly heavy; there is a high proportion of clay. This is good for moisture retention but bad for draining, especially where we drive in between the rows as this becomes packed down.
Because we have varieties of plums here that are not grown universally it can take a year or two before we can get a replacement ready. You will see as you go round that we have pulled out some trees or that there are stumps where we have cut the tree but not yet pulled the trunk out: this is because the great big teleporter we use would damage too many young plums! It will be done in the autumn when replanting or replacing takes place.
This is not an organic orchard. We just use as few sprays as possible. This year the trees were sprayed for aphids before the plums had formed on the tree. Aphids carry a virus that causes the leaves to curl up. It does not do the tree any good and usually affects the plum crop. You will notice several varieties have been affected because we were too late with the spray. Hopefully that will be the only pesticide we use this year on the plums.
We put out pheromone traps (white trays hanging in a sample of trees) to monitor whether we need to spray for plum moth. The plum moth caterpillar is responsible for the little black bits near the stone of (mostly) Victoria plums. It does not harm the taste of the plum but many people do not like finding them there. It only occurs in the first of the victorias for the caterpillar causes the plum to ripen slightly earlier for some reason. The telltale sign that the caterpillar is in the plum is a hole in the side of it. If we spray this would be the only pesticide sprayed on to the plum. The spray used is not harmful to beneficial insects such as bees, hover flies, ladybirds etc.
When you see a sprayer in use in the orchard it does not necessarily mean that something horrid is going on! We use the sprayer for giving the trees nutrition, i.e. nitrogen, boron, magnesium, zinc or whatever other trace element they might be lacking. After another wet winter they seem to be lacking quite a lot! By foliar feeding the tree it stops the grass from getting all the “food”.
We do not go in for a scorched earth policy under the trees. As a consequence I do a lot of mowing. The benefit of leaving grass round the trunk is in encouraging beneficial insects and creatures. We do not have to spray for red spider because we have enough natural predators that live around the tree. We have a large population of mice and voles that have their nests close to the trunks. They eat the old plums including the kernel from the middle of the plum stone ..In turn they provide food for hedgehogs and owls, both of which we see frequently in the orchards. My dog is excellent at finding hedgehogs! We also have Kestrels,Kites, Jays and many other wild birds. Chiffchaff nest in the orchard among others…anybody know where a chiffchaff puts her nest?
Because spraying is kept to a minimum we have many wild flowers including cowslips and orchids. By August and September they have disappeared but others will be around. We spot spray for nettles, thistles,rosebay willowherb, ivy and docks. Without controlling these under the trees it would be difficult to pick plums in comfort. Leaving grass under the trees does give a lot of extra work but we think the benefit is to everyone’s advantage. This year I strimmed round every tree and knapsack sprayed as many thistles and nettles as I could . More to do ….
In May we mark the trees that have silver leaf or chop them down if necessary. This is a fungal disease carried on infected dead branches. We take out the dead branches and burn them. It is hard to spot every tree! Some varieties seem to suffer more than others.
After harvest we continue tidying up the trees and start replacing where necessary. Come the spring pruning begins. The main target for our pruning is to keep the trees at a height pickers can reach without a ladder. These orchards are never going to look utterly modern or very neat and tidy.
This year it would appear that we have a ‘ not so abundant crop ‘ but it may surprise me yet and the season would appear to be even earlier than last year which was early.We hope all the hard work will produce a large variety of ripe, tasty and ready to eat plums that you will find difficult to find elsewhere.
PLUMBE and MAUFE FARMING March 2019
Tel no 01328 738 311 and 07774996634
E Mail firstname.lastname@example.org