Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Case of the Disappearing Plums

We've been having kind of a roller-coaster ride with our plum trees this year. Last May, it was looking like we might actually get a decent crop of plums for the first time. The three trees weren't all producing equally; the Opal tree, although it bloomed in the spring, never seemed to set any fruit at all. But both the Mount Royal and the Golden Gage were loaded down with clusters of tiny green balls, and we were beginning to speculate about what we might do with them if we actually had too many to eat come August.

Then, around mid-June, we started to notice that several of the plums, particularly the Mount Royals, were dropping off the trees before they'd even ripened. As we'd experienced this same problem last year, I quickly recognized it as brown rot, a fungal disease that I'd hoped we might be able to avoid this year. Pretty much all you can do about it is remove the diseased fruit—making sure to clear all the fallen fruits off the ground, as well, so they don't pass on the infection next year—and hope it doesn't spread. So that's what I did, but since I'd done the same thing last year and it wasn't enough to save any of the plums, I wasn't optimistic. I figured we'd simply have to write off this year's crop, and take more steps early next year to prevent the problem from recurring—pruning the trees in February or March, before they bloom, and dosing them with a copper fungicide during the growing season.

However, as July progressed, it looked like the remaining plums might pull through after all. A few of them continued to shrivel and drop, or to display the telltale brown spots and oozing sap of brown rot, but I carefully removed those as soon as I spotted them, and the rest of the fruit actually seemed to be ripening normally. By last week, the boughs of the Mount Royal were heavy with deep-blue plums, and one of the branches on the Golden Gage was so heavily laden that it was actually drooping under its own weight.

If you're wondering why I don't have a photo of that heavy-hanging branch, well, it's not there anymore. Or rather, the branch is, but the fruit isn't.

Earlier this week, we noticed that nearly all the Golden Gage plums on that one branch had completely disappeared. I don't mean that they'd fallen off, like the ones struck by brown rot; we searched all around the tree, and there was no trace of them. They'd simply vanished, leaving only empty stubs to mark where they'd been. And by this weekend, the last solitary fruit left on that branch had vanished as well. In fact, pretty much all the low-hanging branches on that tree had been stripped bare.

We pretty quickly ruled out birds as a culprit, because they probably wouldn't be able to seize and remove an entire plum; they'd just peck at the fruit, and whatever was left would drop to the ground. Likewise, we didn't think squirrels would be able to remove a whole plum and scurry away with it—and if they were to blame, there would be no reason for them to leave the upper branches unmolested. They were at the right height for a deer to have taken them, but deer almost never come into our neighborhood, and we didn't find any hoofprints. So all the evidence seems to point to a human culprit—one who's not tall enough to reach the upper branches.

But even this theory raises more questions than answers. For one thing, who would want to steal plums that weren't even ripe yet? And why would a thief who was willing to eat nearly-ripe plums take only the green plums off the Golden Gage tree, and completely ignore all the purple plums on the Mount Royal, which were larger, more abundant, and, in appearance at least, much closer to edible ripeness? And, if the thief didn't intend to eat the plums, then what on earth did they want with them? And most of all, what kind of person would do such a thing—just walk up and calmly help themselves to fruit in someone else's yard, without even asking?

For some reason, the idea of losing our plums to a human thief bothers us a great deal more than losing them to hungry animals. It doesn't really make sense, because the end result is the same either way: fewer plums for us to eat. But animals going after your crops is something you more or less expect as a gardener; you plan for it, do your best to minimize it, but accept some amount of loss as the price of doing business. But another human being simply taking the fruit off these trees that we went to so much trouble to plant and tend—as if they had just as much right to the fruit as we did after all our work—feels like an outright violation.

But in either case, there's pretty much nothing we can do about it now. It's unlikely we'll ever be able to catch the plum thief in the act, and there's probably no other way to establish just who—or what—is to blame. And since all the low-hanging branches on the Golden Gage are now stripped clean, and the thief doesn't appear to be interested in the Mount Royals, I guess there's nothing in particular we need to do to protect the remaining fruit.

However, as Brian has now tasted one of the Mount Royal plums and determined that they're ripe enough to be edible (if not quite at full sweetness yet), he's planning to start picking them immediately and packing them with his lunch. That way, we can be sure we get to enjoy at least some of the fruits of our labors—even if they're not as enjoyable as they would be when fully ripe. As for the remaining Golden Gages, we'll just have to keep a sharp eye on them, and go out there with a ladder to harvest them the minute they look ripe enough. Chances are, whoever is responsible for the pilfering wouldn't be bold enough to haul a ladder into our garden in broad daylight and start openly picking fruit off our trees, but with a thief this brazen, you can't be sure.

POSTSCRIPT: No sooner had I posted this than we got proof positive squirrels were to blame after all. We went out to take another look at the trees, and Brian spotted one of the furry little buggers sitting in our neighbor's driveway, cheeky as you please, with a purple plum in its mouth.

So the good news is, we now have an adversary we can feel free to strike back at; the bad news is, it's a wily one, and we can't be sure what will work. Suggestions I've read so far include:
  • Trapping them. I'm skeptical about this, as there are so many squirrels around here that we can't possibly trap all of them.
  • Putting up a baffle—a slick tube or cone of aluminum or plastic that the squirrels can't climb up. The problem here is that it has to go around the main trunk at least four to five feet off the ground, or else squirrels can jump right past it, and our trees aren't tall enough for that.
  • Deterring them with predator urine or human hair. We have plenty of the latter, so we've scattered as much as we could muster around the base of the trees, but it remains to be seen how it will work. We also have two predators (feline) sharing our house, so perhaps some of their used litter would work as a deterrent. A few sources also mention mothballs as a deterrent, but not everyone is enthusiastic about the results.
  • Scaring them with bells or shiny CDs hung from the tree branches. This only works temporarily, as they get used to the noise and light after a while, but it might be enough to get us through to the harvest.
  • Scaring them with fake predators, like owls or snakes. Many people say the little rodents catch on to this within a day or two, but Brian went ahead anyway and put out his rubber snake in the garden, where he found one of our new Pineapple tomatoes had been molested. It couldn't hurt.
  • Spraying the fruit with hot pepper spray. We could probably make some, but we'd have to reapply it after every rainfall—and of course wash it off carefully before eating the fruit ourselves.
  • Smearing the trunk with something sticky. We saw some recommendations for a product called Tanglefoot, which is intended to trap insects, but some people say the squirrels don't like it on their paws. Here, again, we'd have to apply it far enough up the trunk and branches that the squirrels couldn't jump right over it.
We haven't decided which measures to take yet, but at least we know what we're up against.

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