Late summer's soft fruit and berries
A year ago I took the last two weeks of August off to be on the land. The weather was with us in its end-of-summery way and the plums needed picking. This was the first time they had fruited, so I bought a Niwaki tripod ladder to celebrate. Fourteen feet up you feel perfectly confident reaching for the last branch that would otherwise be gifted to the birds.
The wild plums, or Mirabelles, ripened first. I grow three types on the recommendation of Nigel Slater: one yellow, ‘Golden Sphere’; and two reds, ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Mirabelle de Nancy’. Last year these weren’t at their best straight off the tree. In Poland the fruit is eaten when crunchy, tart and not quite ripe, but this is not to everyone’s taste.
The damsons were better. ‘Shropshire Prune’ was of particular note: an inky purple with a grey bloom and small fruit that burst sweetly in your mouth. Of the plums a versatile cooker-eater called ‘Warwickshire Drooper’ provided pound upon pound of golden-fleshed fruit.
Tasting as we harvested, the fruit was better for the sun still being in it, but in terms of delicacy the greengages eclipsed their neighbours. I have four: ‘Bryanston Gage’, ‘Cambridge Gage’, and ‘Early Transparent’, which I know to be a shy fruiter but worth having for its fragrance. The fourth, ‘Denniston’s Superb’, was the best, and good enough to make me commit to a ‘Reine Claude de Bavay’ last winter, despite its reputation as a slow performer. No matter, for when you remember the peach you pulled warm on your first holiday to France, you forgive such behaviour.
Picking as much soft fruit as you desire is one of the greatest luxuries before breakfast. I have planned a long season, with repeat-fruiting strawberries, such as ‘Mara de Bois’ to continue into late summer. As long as the weather is dry, and you continue to remove the runners which sap the strength of the parent, they will continue producing.
I suspect my blueberries are never going to do that well, as I have alkaline conditions and no shade. Honeyberry, Lonicera caerulea, is as close as you can get to a blueberry and is adaptable to any soil. I’ve underplanted them with alpine strawberries, which like the shade, provide good groundcover and a nonstop supply of berries. For some reason, the birds leave the fruit alone so I don’t have to net. Not so the gooseberries – I had just one fruit as they were ripening and returned to empty bushes the next day.
I never net the autumn-fruiting raspberries. I leave them unstaked and assume they are too mobile for the birds to alight upon. Currants are stripped if they are left unprotected. Wild fruit bushes have been seeded into the hedges here from the days when the land was used for market gardens. We have black, red, white and pink currants, so I am more than happy to share if the blackbirds breach my netting.
A parsley-leaved blackberry has no thorns and a prettier leaf than its thuggish hedgerow cousin, so you can safely give it space in the garden
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Photograph courtesy of Jason Ingram for the Observer