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A plum tree with clusters of purple plums
Plums are one of the most rewarding fruit trees to grow. They’re easygoing and will provide you with an abundant yearly supply of juicy fruit. Enjoy them fresh, stewed, preserved or baked.

What you need to know about plums

Name: plum, Chinese or Japanese plum (Prunus salicina), European plum (Prunus domestica).

Height: small-medium tree, approximately 4m x 4m; grafted dwarf forms, 2.5m x 2.5m.

Plant type: deciduous tree. 

Climate: Japanese plums can grow in warm climates as they have a low chill requirement – the number of cold hours required to help fruit development – but European plums prefer a cooler climate as they have a high chill factor.

Soil: well-drained, enriched with compost or well-aged animal manures.

Position: full sun, with protection from strong winds.

Flowering and fruiting: hundreds of sweetly fragrant, white or pink blossoms cover bare branches from early spring. Japanese varieties flower first, with European blooms appearing in mid-spring. Japanese plums have dark red to purple-black skin, with blood red or yellow flesh. European plums are slightly smaller than their Japanese counterparts and are typically yellow, pink or purple skinned. Fruit begins to ripen from December.

Feeding: feed regularly when fruiting established with a complete fertiliser balanced for fruiting trees. For an added boost of nutrients, supplement with a liquid fertiliser when fruiting.

Watering: water young plants deeply and regularly, until well established (generally 3-4 months, or longer if planted in summer). Reduce watering over the cooler months but increase during flowering and fruiting.

Appearance and characteristics of plums

An attractive, medium-sized tree with a rounded crown. The leaves are shiny green and oblong shaped with pointed tips. Leaves fall in autumn, but the branches spring to life from late winter with an explosion of small, perfumed white or pink blossoms.

Fruit soon follows and can be dark-skinned with a waxy appearance or golden yellow, pink or purple, depending on the variety.

Most plums are not self-pollinating, so require a partner or second tree to assist with pollination and fruit production. Ensure it is a tree of the same species, as Japanese and European varieties will not cross-pollinate. Check in store for suitable pollinating partners.

Dusty purple plums among green leaves on a tree

Uses for plums

Japanese plums are soft and juicy and best eaten fresh. They can also be bottled or stewed. They are mildly sweet with a slight astringency. 

European plums are typically sweeter and are normally used for baking or drying. They don’t keep as well as Japanese varieties – usually only a week or two – so are often used in cooking to make the most of their deliciously sweet flavours.

How to plant and grow a plum tree

The best time to plant a plum tree is in winter, when it’s available in store as a bare-rooted tree. The tree is dormant and will suffer much less transplant shock than when in leaf. Soak the roots in a bucket of diluted seaweed solution while you prepare the planting site. 

Choose a spot with full sun and well-drained soil. Add plenty of well-rotted manure or compost to the area and fork in well. Dig a hole twice as wide and to the same depth as the existing root ball. Create a small mound of soil in the centre of the planting hole. Remove the tree from the bucket and spread its roots evenly over the mound. Backfill with soil, making sure the tree is sitting at the same level it was in the bag. Firm down the soil and water well. 

Create a mulch ring around the base of the tree. This helps direct the water to the root zone and will help keep the soil moist. 

Use a sharp pair of secateurs to cut back one-third of all the branches. Once the weather warms up, the new growth will be better and stronger.

Caring for a plum tree

Plums are a little more tolerant of neglect than other stone fruit trees, but feeding, watering and pruning regularly will ensure they remain healthy and productive. 

Plum trees usually fruit four to six years after planting and will spend the next 15-20 years fruiting. Allow plums to fully ripen on the tree before harvest. They should feel soft when gently squeezed. Net trees early in the season to help exclude birds.

How often should you water and feed plum trees?

When plum trees are young, feed with an organic-based fertiliser suitable for fruiting trees in spring and autumn. Once they start producing fruit, fertilise in winter, spring and summer. If you forget to feed, they are quite forgiving and should still fruit well.

Water regularly to keep the soil moist but reduce watering in autumn and winter.

How and when to prune a plum tree

Prune young trees in winter, cutting back the branches to train them to grow into an open vase shape. This helps increase sunlight and promotes airflow within the canopy. 

Japanese plums fruit on fruiting spurs and one-year-old laterals. They are best pruned after fruiting has finished in summer. Use this time to also remove dead or diseased wood and any inward growing branches. Prune all the shoots back by half to help keep it to a manageable size.

European plums fruit on fruiting spurs and two-year-old laterals, so remove the one-year-old wood to help reduce the size, keep the fruit close (and therefore less likely to snap in storms or strong winds) to reduce the weight of the fruit on trees.

Most plums produce more fruit than the tree can support. Thin fruit when young to help reduce the load on branches and encourage larger fruit. 

Diseases and pests affecting plum trees

Fruit fly is a devastating pest of plum trees. It lays its eggs in the fruit, causing the fruit to spoil and drop. Prevention is key and should start early in the season. Set up fruit fly traps and apply an attractant bait like Yates Nature’s Way Fruit Fly Control to the limbs and foliage. Reapply as needed.

Pear and cherry slug chew through leaves and can quickly skeletonise trees. Treat with a suitable insecticide.

How to propagate plums

Plums can be grown from seed, but fruiting can take several years and there is no guarantee the quality will be good (it will not grow into the same fruit tree). To guarantee a productive tree with delicious fruit, buy a grafted plum.

Safety tip

After applying fertiliser, delay harvesting for a few days and rinse well before cooking and eating. If using products to deal with pests, diseases or weeds, always read the label, follow the instructions carefully and wear suitable protective equipment. Store all garden chemicals out of the reach of children and pets.  

If you like this then try

Peach: a fast-growing tree with sweet, juicy fruit.

Apple: so many delicious varieties, available in different sizes to suit your space.

Apricot: deciduous tree with attractive green foliage and luscious summer fruit.

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