When it's time to pick fruit, I tend to go plum loco


Most gardeners who grow their own food love life. That's me. And life is never so dear as when I am perched on a ladder, 20 feet in the air, trying to wrestle the fruit from our plum tree.

Each year, I approach plum-picking season with mixed emotions. Nothing tastes better than tree-ripened fruit, which puts

supermarket stock to shame. But the produce counter is planted on terra firma. My plums are less accessible -- and I have an altitude problem.

Heights make me want to throw up. Hence my torment at harvest time.

Acrophobia is more than a gardener's curse. Our 9-year-old, Beth, has to drag me onto the most benign carnival rides. I will climb a ladder in winter to clean our chimney, but only to keep the house from burning down. However, it is difficult to clean the flue with both arms wrapped around the chimney. Thank goodness it's a one-story house.

The plum tree is twice that size and still growing.

I can't fault the tree. I bought it 15 years ago from a slick-talking salesman without checking under the hood. He never told me it (( was a standard-sized tree, and I never asked.

A standard fruit tree grows much taller than the dwarf or semidwarf types that are popular with most suburban gardeners. And acrophobes.

We lived in bliss those first few years, my tree and I. The tree received a truckload of rotted horse manure each spring, and I picked baskets full of fruit at eye level by Labor Day.

Alas, the honeymoon ended. The tree and I began drifting apart. First I had to stand on my tiptoes to pick plums. Then I needed a stepladder. Now I must borrow my neighbor's extension ladder, lean it against the tree, and wonder on which step I will meet my doom.

Nonetheless, I begin the ascent. The purple plums hang from the uppermost branches like perfect miniature eggplants, taunting me to pursue them.

Only Mother Nature can make me leave Mother Earth. Should I fall, let my tombstone read: "Loved plums, loathed heights."

Of course, I have to go. This year the tree produced more than a thousand plums, some of which have already plummeted to the ground, exploding into a mushy goo that must be cleaned up immediately lest it spawn some disease that could harm the tree.

Removing plum splat is as easy as scraping up broken eggs. It is also a dangerous job. The debris draws swarms of bees and wasps, who resent having their dinner swept into a doggie bag and set out in the trash.

Angry insects are just one problem I've faced while crawling on hands and knees beneath the tree to remove spoiled fruit. I am in constant danger of being struck by more plum bombs, which are triggered by the faintest breeze. Last week I was hit in the butt by a falling plum, forcing me to back quickly into the house and change pants.

Better that than climb the tree.

I am 10 feet up the ladder and picking furiously. One hand claws at plums, the other clings to aluminum. The fruit goes in a plastic basket sitting on the step above me. Oops, one plums falls and scores a direct hit on the nose of Katydid, our Labrador retriever who is sitting beneath me, hoping I'll toss her a squirrel. Humiliated, she slinks off to lick her wounds, which taste good.

At 15 feet, I grab a large plum only to find a honeybee, buried up to its thorax, staring at me. Bye-bye, plum. It hits the ground and, instead of detonating, rolls 20 feet down a hill before stopping at the edge of the driveway. Fascinated, I watch the plum for signs of life. Moments later, the bee staggers out and flies straight into the ground. It must have been plum tuckered out.

At 20 feet, the bucket is full, my legs are shaking and I'm a nervous wreck. Prepare for re-entry! Hold on, what's this? Just to my right is THE FATTEST PLUM IN THE WORLD, a meal in itself, and it is dead-ripe.

Heights be damned. I want that plum. I lean to the right. The ladder wobbles. The Plum is two inches from my grasp. I lean again. The ladder jerks convulsively. I strain toward this piece of fruit which is just . . . out . . . of . . . REACH.

Disappointed, I am halfway down the ladder before realizing the risk I'd taken. I nearly fall the rest of the way.

It never occurs to me to move the ladder and go back for the Plum That Got Away.

My wife scolds my greedy effort.

"God never meant for you to pick every plum on the tree," she says.

Besides, she adds, the highest ones are in His yard anyway.

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