The Leith House Plum Orchards were planted by Garry Maufe between 1976 and 1978 and is now run by his daughter Nina Plumbe and her partner Clive Sheward. 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 forAaphids 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 tumuli 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, but no Gold or Silver.
The soil in these 2 fields is fairly heavy with a high proportion of clay. This is good for moisture retention but bad for draining, especially where we drive between the rows as this becomes packed down.
As you walk around the orchard you will find a few gaps with missing trees. This is because we have varieties of plums here that are not grown universally and it can take up to two years before we can get a replacement. 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 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.
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 we 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. We also have kestrels, jays and many other wild birds. Chiffchaff nest in the orchard among others.
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 and rosebay willowherb. 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.
In May / June we mark the trees that have silver leaf and remove them 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 and 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.
We sincerely hope you will enjoy your visit and appreciate the quality of the plums that you will find difficult to replicate elsewhere.