how to grow plum trees

How to Grow Plum Trees: The Complete Guide

Plums are a delicious fruit that can be added to various recipes, including jams and pies. They are grown from plum trees, which can be grown in the UK, and are available to purchase in a wide range of sizes to fit in any sized garden. In this guide, you will find out how to grow plum trees in the UK and how you can grow your own plums under the right conditions.

Things you will need:

ItemDescription
Plum tree saplingsThese can be purchased from nurseries or online stores.
Garden toolsBasic tools, including a shovel, hoe, rake, and pruning shears, are required.
Horticultural fleeceThis is a tent-like structure which will help to protect the tree in the winter.
Vitax Q4This will be used to fertilize and provide growth for the plum trees.
Watering can or hosePlum trees need a good amount of watering, especially during their first years of growth.
Stakes or supportsNewly planted plum trees will need solid support to keep them upright. Applying stakes or other support systems will provide stability until a firm root is established.

How to grow plums

When you start learning how to grow plum trees, you need to be aware about protecting them from frost when they start to blossom. After all, the best time to plant plum trees is between November and March, which is a long period and when your plums could be very prone to frost. Therefore, you should use a horticultural fleece which will protect the plum tree on cold, frosty nights. Keep the fleece away from any flowers with canes.

Preventing fruit thinning

Plums can over-crop, which can lead to the branches breaking from the weight. Thinning out the fruits as they grow at the start of the summer will cause a natural June drop. This is when the plums will be right for harvesting, or that they will naturally fall from the tree on their own when they have matured.

If the fruit continues to weigh down the branches, prop them up during mid and late summer. Otherwise, the weight will cause them to snap.

Feeding

Use a general fertilizer with a high amount of potassium to feed your plum trees. We recommend using Vitax Q4. Spread out two handfuls of fertilizer per square metre around the trees to allow it to grow in natural soil, and spread two more around any planted in grass. Doing this will set you up for heavy crops, since plum trees react well to fertilizers and will help with nitrogen.

Watering Plum Trees

The best time to water plum trees is during long, dry spells, which usually occur between early and mid-summer, which is when the fruit will start to swell. Continuously water your plum tree during its first few years of growth to help keep the soil moist. You will not need to water it during rainfall. Be aware of overwatering as this can lead to root rot.

Mulching

Adding mulch that consists of well-rotted manure will help to retain soil moisture, as well as helping to protect the trees from weeds and provide nitrogen. Adding mulch will be particularly effective when learning how to grow plum trees.

Here is where you can buy plum trees[i] at great low prices.

Propagating plum trees

The method to propagate plums is known as grafting (budding). If your plum tree has been grown from a seed or cutting, it will produce a larger tree than if it was grafted from a rootstock but will be slower to begin fruiting.

How to prune and train plums

Following the process of how to grow plum trees, pruning them is essential to help maintain the health and productivity of the trees. During its first year of growth, you can prune the trees when damaged or crossed branches need to be removed. Pruning during late winter and early spring will work for removing dead or infected wood, especially if the branches have thinned out.

Pruning is an effective technique to promote air circulation and reduce the risk of your plum trees getting infected by fungal diseases. Pruning methods for plum trees are known as: bush, pyramid, and fan.

How to prune an open-centre bush tree

Whilst bush-trained plum trees do not need as much precise pruning, like apples or pears do, young plum trees still need to be pruned at their initial stage of growth. Mature plum trees will benefit more from having light thinning done when pruning, whilst most plums as a whole prefer a crowded crown.

During the tree’s first spring, select up to four wide spaced and angled shoots, known as laterals, which will be about 75cm distance from ground level to the branches. Shorten these by 2/3rds, and then prune back the main central leader above the most upright lateral. Remove any shoots found below the lateral.

Following the second spring, the tree should be two years old by this point (usually when garden centres will sell them), and will have produced side-shoots from the main laterals. You will need to shorten these in order to make them stronger, and pruning them on outward-facing buds will produce an open crown. Make sure to remove weak or badly placed shoots too.

The third spring should follow a similar process, and a well-spaced framework should continue to be developed.

The fourth year of growth will consist of switching to summer pruning for plum trees that are prominent. Knead off buds that have developed on the lower trunk and gently pull off suckers that arise from the rootstock. Whilst pruning should only be focused on removing crossed, weak, or diseased material, doing this will provoke stronger, vertical growth.

Training plums

As mentioned above, there are other methods to prune and train your plums. Here is what you need to know about the various methods of training when learning how to grow plum trees.

Fan training

Plum trees that are fan-trained need pruning twice a year, in both the beginning of summer and after plums have fruited. Fan-shaped trees are grown by training them against a hardy environment such as a wall or fence. This will cause the height of the trees to spread more horizontally, with a ‘pixy’ rootstock which will be 3m x 2m. St. Julian A trees will be slightly bigger at 3.6m x 2.4m.

Cordon training

If space is limited, plum trees will benefit more from cordon training. This can be done obliquely or vertically and will encourage the growth of side shoots. Vigorous growers will appreciate double or triple cordons for better form.

  • Plant a one or two-year-old rooted cordon in the winter. If grown from a container, these can be planted throughout the year.
  • Choose a space that is open and has as much sunlight as possible. It will also need shelter from frosts that will damage the blossom.
  • Any U-shaped cordons can be grown in containers too, so long as that it is at least 45cm wide and added in John Innes No.3 compost.
  • Posts and wires will be the same as it would for apple and pear cordons.
  • Rows need to be spaced out no less than 1.8m if you are planting more than one row.
  • Plant them at a 45° angle using a union rootstock spaced out between 75-90cm apart. The root flare should be added no lower than just under the ground surface of the soil.

Planting plums

JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJune
PlantPlantPlant   
JulyAugustSeptemberOctoberNovemberDecember
 –HarvestHarvest –PlantPlant

As shown from the chart, the best time to plant plum trees is during the winter because this is when the trees are at their most dormant. Bare-root plants will also establish themselves and grow better than container-grown trees. Younger plum trees will need staking during their first few years of growth.

Adding well-rotted compost or manure into the planting hole will also provide extra warmth and nutrients for the plum tree. Container-grown trees need a good sized pot and a mixed amount of soil and compost in order to stop the plant drying out during the summer and hot temperatures.

Choosing the right plum rootstock

There are many kinds of rootstocks available that you can purchase from garden centres that will provide different results depending on when they are grown.

  • Prunus cerasifera ‘Golden Sphere’ – this is a very hardy Mirabelle cherry plum which is great for cooking and eating. These will be ready in mid-summer, particularly July, and are partly self-fertile.
  • Prunus domestica ‘Cambridge Gage’ – also known as one of the most celebrated greengages, and is registered as an RHS AGM, this variety of rootstock is very reliable and often produces green and yellow fleshy fruits. These plums can be added to jams or eaten by themselves. Crops will mature in mid-August.
  • Prunus domestica ‘Victoria’ – is the most well-known variety, because it produces heavy amounts of delicious, egg-shaped plums that are highly recommended for jams and chutneys or can be eaten straight after harvesting. These trees are traditionally smaller and more compact, making them better candidates for smaller gardens.
  • Prunus domestica ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’ – these are very reliable and resistant to most diseases and will produce fruits between September and October. You can cook and eat these fruits, whilst flowers will pollinate mid-season and pollinates well with other varieties.
  • Prunus insitia ‘Farleigh Damson’ – another well-recognised RHS AGM, commonly known as ‘Farleigh’ or ‘Farleigh Prolific’ can produce great damsons when planted with other varieties too.

Where to plant plum trees

Plum trees prefer to be planted in areas that have well-drained soil and can receive full sun for at least six hours a day. When choosing a location to plant your plum trees, you should consider the following factors:

  1. Climate: Knowing the right climate on how to grow plum trees needs to be precise. They need a solid number of chilled hours in order to produce fruit, hence why it is important to choose an appropriate location with enough cool weather which will help the trees to develop correctly. Certain plum trees need more chill time than others, so make sure that the location you choose meets these requirements.
  2. Soil: Plum trees prefer well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. Avoid planting in areas with heavy clay or compacted soil, which can lead to poor drainage and root rot.
  3. Sunlight: Plum trees require full sun for at least 6 hours a day to produce the best fruit. Choose a location that is not shaded by nearby trees or buildings.
  4. Water: Plum trees need regular watering, especially during the first few years after planting. Make sure the location you choose has access to water.
  5. Spacing: Plum trees need to be spaced at least 12-15 feet apart to allow for proper growth and development.

How to harvest and store plums

Your plums will be ready for harvesting when they turn purple and are soft to touch. When collecting individual plums, these should be easy to pull off when ready.

When storing your plums, you can stone or freeze them so that they can be added in cakes, stews, and other recipes in the winter. We personally prefer freshly picked plums that are uncooked and can be preserved in jams and chutneys too.

Problem-solving

Be aware of the following issues when growing your plum trees:

  • If the stem is bare, this can lead to side shoots not being produced. You can encourage this by cutting back the leader during last year’s summer growth, up to 1/3rd of its length. Other buds located further down can break.
  • Thin fruit should not have biennial bearing as this can lead to fungal diseases including brown rot[ii].
  • If a tree batch has been neglected in its cordon, you can bring this back to shape through pruning in the spring, and again in the summer. Shortened systems should be enforced if the tree growth has become overlong or complicated, and shortening it will help suitably placed buds.
  • Plums are also vulnerable to diseases including silver leaf, bacterial canker, and pocket plum.
  • Pest issues include plum aphids and plum moth. Using non-pesticide control to deal with these pests are recommended since plum aphids will not overly affect the cropping or future state of the tree.

We highly recommend learning how to grow white carrots in your garden too.

Grow Plum Trees the Right Way

Plums are a widely beloved fruit in the UK due to how useful they are for adding in numerous recipes, from jams and pies, to preserves and much more. By learning how to grow plum trees in your garden, it will provide a long-term project that will bring excellent results for years to come, and you can also give your house guests a free sample which they will also be impressed by.


FAQs

When is the best time to plant plum trees?

The best time to plant plum trees is during their dormant season, which is between November and March.

How much space do I need to plant a plum tree?

Plum trees should be spaced about 5-6 meters apart from each other, depending on the variety of plum tree.

How often should I water my plum tree?

Plum trees should be watered regularly, especially during the summer months. However, be careful not to overwater the tree, as this can lead to root rot.

How do I fertilize my plum tree?

Plum trees benefit from fertilization in early spring before new growth begins. A balanced fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 10-10-10 or 12-12-12 is recommended.

How do I prune my plum tree?

Plum trees should be pruned in late winter or early spring when they are still dormant. Prune to remove any damaged or diseased branches, as well as any branches that cross or rub against each other.

Sources

Chris Bowers & Sons. (n.d.). Plums. [Accessed 14/03/23] Retrieved from: https://www.chrisbowers.co.uk/category/plums/

Which?. (n.d.). Brown rot. [Accessed 14/03/23] Retrieved from: https://gardening.which.co.uk/hc/en-gb/articles/213426209-Brown-rot

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