Midsummer, and a Damson in Distress

by frankbeswick

Around midsummer the first planting is over and harvest is some distance away, but weeding and pest and disease control never cease.

Midsummer is a time when the garden is lush. Hopefully most of the crops that you have planted are growing to some extent, though there are varying degrees of success, as some may not have grown well and the empty spaces need filling. Yet we have had quite a cold spring and early summer here in Britain, and this has meant that there are problems for some plants. The cool, sometimes damp conditions mean that fungal infections are a threat to plants, as I already know to my cost.

Image courtesy of Ailin

Problems and Successes.

Get the bad news out of the way first. The damson tree that I bought from the nursery where my son worked and which provided flavorings for some of my homemade wines will soon be no more. The fungus struck quickly. Two weeks ago the tree looked fine, full of leaf, and I was hoping for a reasonable crop, not as much as last year, as this has not been a warm spring in Britain, but enough to keep me happy. But yesterday I went to do some maintenance on the orchard section. I must have taken my eye off the ball over the past two weeks, as I spent my time tending the vegetable beds, but the change was obvious. The leaves were few in number, and all the bottom branches were bare. There were a few shriveled leaves left on them. What was worse was that a scar left by a branch that I had pruned showed black staining. A sure sign of fungus. I returned today to find that the stain was worse. The fungus is advancing. 

Back at home I went to my library to research the condition. My first thoughts were that it was Verticilium Wilt, a fatal fungal disease. But I phoned Andrew, my son, whose knowledge of fruit trees beats mine [I am better than he is on vegetables  and mushrooms.] His judgment: silverleaf, a fatal fungal disease that badly affects members of the plum family. He is coming round tonight to inspect the tree. But the verdict will be to cut it down. I will be sorry to see it go, but there are plum and apple trees nearby, both of which might be infected. Sad necessity! The rules governing tree felling do not apply to fruit trees on one's own land, so we can get the job done quickly; and the logs will be dried in my shed to be used in my multi-fuel burner when winter comes. That will see the end of the fungus still in them. The fungus impedes the flow of water through the plant's vascular system, so the logs will already be drier than they should be, and so easy to burn. 

Yet there are positives. The cherry tree that I planted two years ago is giving us a decent crop. I expected that it would take time, and last year it gave but few cherries. The apples and the surviving plum tree are rich in fruit, which is great for Maureen, who loves it when I bring home a bag of plums, and they don't last long. The honeyberries, raspberries  and the jostaberry are providing the best crop that I have had from them, and the bilberries in their pots of acidic soil still produce fruit. They will need their soil refreshing, which is happening tomorrow. 

Plans for Empty Space.

But what to do about the soon to be vacated space to be left when the damson goes. Its spreading branches have taken up quite a bit of space. Bright idea! Why not create a picnic area. There is a rationale. On 3rd August I will become a grandfather for the first time, that's in less than seven weeks. My daughter-in-law is very keen on the allotment and wants a part to play in it. Originally she wanted a role in the flower bed, but pregnancy has put a temporary stop to that. 

What about getting a bench and table for us all to have picnics. The ideal location will be within the fruit trees, cherries to the left, apple and greenhouse to the right, with the plum a bit further away. To the left there is a block of raspberries. What's more, the tiny pond is easily in sight, and the grandchildren can enjoy watching the tadpoles swimming in it and spotting the froglets hopping through the grass. 

What is happening is that the allotment is  evolving. Originally, I was a severely practical gardener who focused totally on  production of edibles. I always was this way. I can still remember my first gardening experience at the age of five. We had just acquired a house with a garden, we had not had a garden before, and I was helping my father plant the flower beds. I demanded of my bemused father, "Why are we planting flowers?" He replied that you had to have flowers in the front garden. But I was taking no excuses, "You should be planting potatoes. You can eat them." I did not get my way and got a flower bed instead. One frustrated vegetable gardener, aged five! 

I have brought the blueberry pots further up the garden and arranged them to provide a guide to those walking into the leisure space. I am getting some extra pots, possibly of flowers to add to them. If you want to know why my blueberries are in pots, my soil is not acidic enough for them and so they need  ericaceous compost, which is heavily peat based and therefore acidic.  I have also laid a wood chip mulch in the orchard area. It helps to suppress weeds, looks better and degrades into a nutritious soil enhancer. 

The Vegetable Beds.

Doing well, but in need of weeding would be the verdict. In this country, give us a period of reasonably heavy rain and the weeds go mad, taking advantage of the fact that there is less weeding done in rainy than in dry conditions. I have had a few good sessions recently getting the weeds up. You need a range of tools. I have just acquired a slasher, which is something like a machete but with a different, flattened blade at the end. I have scythe as well, but the slasher is better when working in confined spaces, near the fruit trees and on the paths. the scythe, though, can cut down more weeds in one stroke than the slasher can, so each has its use.

I am puzzled, though, and I am not the only one. Last year my peas were a disaster, strange after many years of success. This year the early sowings of peas were good, but the later one is poor and they are only just beginning to peep from the ground. But other gardeners on our plot have had the same experience over the past two years. No one knows why. But last year sweetcorn gave only a moderate crop, but mine is looking reasonably good this year, and that's promising, as North West England is not ideal sweet corn territory. It is too cold and damp. Last year parsnips did better than carrots, yet this year the carrot crop is looking good, but the parsnips less so.

There seems to be no consistent pattern in these facts. But this may be due to the fact that the weather seems to be more variable than before. The Spring season has been drier than normal, though last year we had a dry and very cold Spring,  certainly worse than this one. Yet we are having a June of below average temperature. 

We are on the alert. Cool, damp conditions are ideal for fungal attack. Potatoes can be attacked by blight, and so we have to spray them with Bordeaux mixture. I grow second early potatoes, which are not as liable to blight as main crop potatoes are, but I am still taking precautions and spraying. Also I am going to spray the plums with sulfur, a necessary anti-fungal application. We get trouble with fungal growth on plums, as the fungus likes the damper climate of the West of Britain more than the drier East. This time it is goggles and a face mask when spraying.for last year i sprayed without and the irritant dust blew back into my face. That was no fun! 


It is said that we British talk a lot about the weather, but that's because our weather is so changeable.The weather has not been ideal for gardening recently, but when did you meet a farmer or gardener who did not complain about wind, rain and cloud? I could certainly have wished for more sunlight than we have had. On the other hand, we have not had any massively strong winds recently, and pest damage has not been too bad this year.

The image of an allotment gardener in this country is of a quiet individualist who just likes to do his own thing, an elderly, somewhat cantankerous male who shuns company. It's a stereotype, though I have met a one or two like that. We are generally quiet people who love our plots, and while they sometimes they disappoint us, more often they make us rejoice. I am saddened by the loss of my damson,a tree that my son grew from a grafted twig, but in nature the death of one is new life for another. It will evoke change in the garden, and that change will be for the better. 

Updated: 06/19/2015, frankbeswick
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Veronica on 02/03/2016

I love damsons and I make damson jam. The stones can be a problem . I scoop them out whilst cooking the jam but we don't mind if a stone is in the jam; we just remove it whilst spreading it.

Damsons need a bit more sugar . My friends make damson gin which really "puts hair on your chest " .

frankbeswick on 02/03/2016

Damsons and plums are the same species, but different varieties thereof, but damson is more tart than plum is, as Maritravel says. I used to visit Worcestershire [ England's great fruit growing region in the West Midlands] which is a hundred miles south of me, when my son lived there, and I noticed how well the damsons grew in the hedges, but the climate there is great for fruit.

It is worth noting that in Cumbria, north of me, damsons are sometimes used by one brewer as an ale flavouring in place of hops.

maritravel on 02/03/2016

if you like tart fruits like blackcurrants and sharp apples like Bramleys you'll love damsons, and damson jam is fantastic.

MBC on 02/03/2016

I've never heard of a damson tree! Thanks for introducing me.

Mari on 10/18/2015

Ah, I didn't spread the roots out. Thank you - a job for tomorrow. I have given it a good feed of manure so I'll keep my fingers crossed for a few damsons this coming year.
It hasn't been in a sheltered spot either for two years, maybe that's where I've been going wrong. I shall have to re-thnk the whole thing. I've just downsized from a big garden to a tiny plot and trying to fit everything in is a difficult task.

Veronica on 10/18/2015

If it has been transferred from a pot recently it may need some time to settle and get established so maybe you need to wait a year or two. It may need some manure. Or else the roots maybe needed spreading out before it went into the soil.

frankbeswick on 10/18/2015

Without knowing the cultivar it is hard to say why it is not fruiting, but some damson cultivars are not self-fertile and so need another tree to fertilize them, and even those that are self-fertile benefit from cross pollination from another damson, or plum, bullace or gage. There is also the problem of site. All members of this species [plums,damsons etc,] benefit from a sheltered site.

You mention the transfer from a plot to well prepared soil, but was it root bound? Being root bound happens when the roots of a plant grow too large for the plot and begin to circle the container, a process which means that they become trapped in a small area and are able to gain only limited nutrients

Three years may be a bit slow, but give it another year, and in the meantime fertilize the soil about now[Autumn] with potash and give a nitrogen fertilizer in Spring.

Good luck

Maritravel on 10/18/2015

Just saw this article and realized you could be the person to answer my query. I live in the south, Isle of Wight to be exact, and my damson tree of 3 years is showing no sign of fruiting. We see few damsons in the shops these days and as they are about my favourite for making jam, I do want a crop if possible. I transferred it this spring from a pot where it had been for two years, into well-prepared soil. Any hints would be appeciated.

And thanks for letting us know that blueberries require ericaceous soil. I didn't know that.

Great, informative article, by the wayt. I shall follow with interet.

frankbeswick on 06/20/2015

Thanks. I am going to have to disinfect my tools after using them to fell the tree to prevent spores infecting them. White spirit or turpentine will do the job, as all fungi hate alcohol.

VioletteRose on 06/20/2015

Sorry about the damson tree, but you sure have a wonderful garden with lots of fruit trees. It is definitely a great idea to have a picnic spot in the middle of all those beautiful trees.

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