Guide to Growing Plum Trees

Discover how to grow delicious and juicy plums with this simple planting and maintenance guide. 

Red Plums

Red Plums

Plums are the defining fruit of the summer season. There are many popular varieties suitable for cooking and eating fresh from the tree. A few can be used for both.

Photo by: DK - The Complete Gardener's Guide © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

DK - The Complete Gardener's Guide , 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Plums are the defining fruit of the summer season. There are many popular varieties suitable for cooking and eating fresh from the tree. A few can be used for both.

Plums are one of the easiest fruits to grow as they require little pruning and often crop heavily. Self-pollinating varieties mean only one tree is needed, and there is a range of cooking and eating types to suit all tastes.

How to Grow

To give a good crop, plum trees need plenty of moisture and require a moist soil that drains freely. They also prefer a sheltered site to protect their early spring flowers from damaging frost. Bare root trees should be planted in the winter; those grown in containers can be planted at any time if kept well watered. Plum trees are too vigorous to train as cordons or espaliers but can be grown freestanding, as fans, or in containers if you choose trees grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks. Plums are prone to a number of diseases that can kill trees if infected growth isn’t pruned out quickly. Check trees regularly. 

Rootstocks

Plum trees are supplied grafted on rootstocks that restrict their size and encourage regular harvests. Two rootstocks are commonly used: 

  • Pixy: Semi-dwarfing, suitable for trees in containers. Trees grow up to 7 feet (2.2 m). 
  • St Julien A: Semi-vigorous. Trees grow up to 9 feet (2.7 m). 

Pollination

Self-fertile plums pollinate their own flowers, so you only need to grow one tree. Others need separate pollinators that flower at the same time. When buying plums, choose those from the same pollination group, labeled A to C (early to late) according to flowering time.

Plums flower in early spring and are at risk of frost damage. Cover young and container-grown trees with garden fleece when frosts are predicted. Remove during the day to allow insects to pollinate. Young fruitlets are also vulnerable to frost.

Types Available

Most plums are self-pollinating (SP), but some will need separate pollinators. Consider these varieties when choosing your plum tree:

  • Plums: Try 'Avalon’ (dessert; pollination group A), ‘Blue Tit’ (cooking/dessert; SP), ‘Early Laxton’ (cooking/dessert; B), ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’ (cooking/dessert; SP), ‘Opal’ (cooking; SP) and ‘Victoria’ (cooking/dessert; SP) varieties.
  • Gages have possibly the most delicious fruit within this group. They are usually sweeter and have a rounder shape than plums. Try Cambridge Gage’ (partly SP), ‘Denniston’s Superb’ (SP), ‘Golden Transparent’ (SP) and ‘Old Green Gage’ (C) varieties. 
  • Damsons are smaller than plums and gages and tend to have a darker skin and sharper flavor, making them excellent for cooking. Try ’Farleigh Damson’ (C), ’Merryweather Damson’ (SP) and ‘Prune Damson’ (SP) varieties.
  • Bullaces bear the smallest, most abundant fruit of all and are very hardy. They are only suitable for cooking due to their tart flavor. Try ‘Black Bullace’ (SP), ‘Langley Bullace’ (SP) and ‘White Bullace’ (SP) varieties.

Picking

Plums are ready to pick when slightly soft. They often at different times on the same tree, so several pickings may be required. Plums and gages are ready mid- to late summer, damsons and bullaces towards autumn. Pick fruit with the stalk still intact. Ripe plums don’t keep long, so eat them soon after picking. Firm and slightly underripe plums will ripen in the fruit bowl over a couple of weeks.

Pruning and Training

Plum trees should be pruned as little as possible to avoid silver leaf infecting the wounds. Only prune plums when in active growth in spring and summer. Keep these tips in mind when maintaining your plum trees:

  • Prune new freestanding trees by removing the main stem above the uppermost sideshoots, and shorten three to four healthy branches by half or two-thirds to promote bushiness.
  • To prune established trees, thin congested stems to improve airflow between branches, take out weak or damaged growth, and remove overly vigorous upright new shoots. 
  • Prune new fan-trained trees by removing the main stem and leave only two branches 16 inches (40 cm) long either side of the main stem, 10 inches (25 cm) above the soil. Train the two fan arms using canes fixed to wires. 
  • The first summer, select new sideshoots to train against the wires and tie in new growth. Cut back surplus shoots to one leaf, and any growing the wrong way or from below the fan arms. Repeat in following years. 

Watch Out for These Pests and Diseases

Plum leaf-curling aphid suck sap from the leaves, causing them to curl and become misshapen. Treat with pesticides in midwinter and again at bud burst.

Silver leaf can also be a problem entering wounds and causing a grey sheen on the leaves that may turn brown and fall. As the disease spreads, branches die back, until the whole tree dies. Prune infected material but sterilize tools between plants; silver leaf is easily spread.

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