Want to grow a plum tree? Growing plums can be a valuable addition to a home-grown diet. These fruits are delicious either fresh or cooked in a wide range of recipes. The right plum trees, placed in the right location, can provide an abundant source of these healthy fruits for many years to come. Some years, the fruiting may even be so prolific that you wonder what on earth to do with all of the produce. Growing plum trees can be so heavily laden some years that branches can bend right down to the ground – or even snap under the weight of the fruits!
Plum trees come in many shapes and sizes. They can be suitable for many different gardens. You can find varieties to grow in the ground, or in containers for small space gardening. But the first thing to determine is whether growing plums is right for your garden.
A mature plum tree, heavily laden with fruit.
Are Growing Plums Right For Your Garden?
The first thing to think about when determining whether or not plum trees are the right choice for your garden is the general climate and conditions where you live.
Climate and Conditions For Plums
Generally speaking, you can find suitable plum trees for most temperate climate gardens. However, their moisture requirements mean that they may fail to thrive in more arid regions. Growing plums have quite high moisture demands, and this is something to consider if water conservation is an issue where you live.
Growing plums are best placed in a sunny spot, nowhere that is too exposed. The fruits will require sufficient sunshine and warmth to develop their sweet flavour. If you have a sunny south or west facing wall in your garden then placing a plum against it could be a perfect option. Though free-standing trees can be positioned in a range of different positions. With their pretty blossom in the spring, growing plum trees can be very decorative as well as productive, so could be a good choice for outside a window of your home to enhance the view.
Frost pockets and wind corridors should be avoided, since the blossom on growing plum trees can easily be killed by frosts or inclement conditions, and if the blossom is lost, no fruits will form.
Soil Conditions For Growing Plums
Another important consideration is soil conditions. Growing plum trees will do best when planted in a good loamy or clay soil. However, the soil should also be relatively free-draining, since growing plums have a dislike for waterlogged soils. If you have sandy or chalky soil, you may still be able to grow plum trees where you live, but should make sure that you incorporate plenty of good quality, bulky organic matter into the ground while planting.
If you are planting plum trees in a container, then of course you do not need to worry about the soil conditions. However, you should make sure that you use a suitable growing medium, and make sure the pots are large enough to prevent them from drying out in summer.
Whether in the soil in your gardens, or in a potting medium in containers, growing plums will grow best at a neutral to acid pH, between 5.0 and 6.5. If you have alkaline soil conditions, it will likely be best to grow plums in containers, if you grow them at all.
Choosing Plum Trees
When choosing plum trees, it is important to understand that there are a huge number of different plums to choose from. Plums are related to other fruits, such as damsons and gages, which also like similar conditions and which are grown in the same way. Whether you go for a plum, damson or gage, there are a number of questions that you should consider before you decide on a tree to buy.
Bare Root or Pot Grown?
When you choose plum trees, you will generally have to decide whether you would like to go for a bare root or a pot grown tree. Bare root trees are generally a lot cheaper, and tend to establish better than container grown trees.
Of course, whether you go for a bare root tree or a pot grown one, how quickly your plum trees will fruit will depend on its age. Plums, like cherries and pears, will usually begin fruiting in their fourth year. However, there are a number of different factors that will determine how quickly a young plum tree will bear fruit.
The older the plum trees you buy, the more expensive it is likely to be. Of course the up-side is that you will tend to get a worthwhile harvest a lot sooner on more mature plum trees than you will do from very young saplings.
Self-Fertile or Not?
Another very important factor to consider when choosing plum trees for your garden is that some plums are not able to bare fruit when growing on their own. Some will require a compatible pollination companion in order to produce fruit, while many other plum trees can be grown as single specimens.
Remember, even when it is self-fertile, plum trees will still often fruit better when other plum trees are close by. Growing plum trees will also always require the agency of pollinators such as bees and other insects. For this reason, it is important to think not only about where you will place the plum trees, but about other plants you can place and measures you can take to make sure that there are plenty of pollinators in your garden.
Lots of plums bend a mature tree’s branch right down to the ground.
How Big Will The Tree Get?
It is important to understand that the trees we commonly grow for fruit are not simple plants that have grown from one stone or seed. Rather, the trees that we buy are ‘grafted’. This means that they are made up of two original plants – one plant provides a ‘rootstock’, while another provides a ‘scion’.
The rootstock on a plum tree is the thing that will largely determine its vigour, and its eventual size.
Plums and related trees like apple trees are often grown on a Pixy rootstock to reduce their eventual size. Dwarf trees can be grown in containers, or in the ground in smaller gardens. These rootstocks create a tree with an ultimate height of 3-4m when bush trained. These fruits are also sometimes grown on semi-vigorous Torinel and Saint Julian A – which will create trees with an ultimate height of 2.4-3m and 4.5-5m respectively.
When choosing a tree for your garden, it is important to consider how large it will eventually grow if left to its own devices. However, in considering the size of the plum trees, it is also worth remembering that restrictive training techniques can also allow you to grow a plum tree in even the smallest of spaces. Pyramid, fan and festooned tree forms are all possibilities for plums, and you could espalier a tree against a sunny wall so it takes up very little space while still providing a bounty of fruit.
What Will Plums Taste Like (And How Are They Best Used?)
While the rootstock that is used will impact the eventual size of your tree and its growth habits, the scion that is chosen will determine the flavour, size and other characteristics of the fruit. When choosing plum trees for your garden, it is important to remember that there a wide range of different plums, damsons and gages, and each one has specific characteristics. Some are better for eating fresh, some are better for cooking. There are also multi-purpose varieties which can be perfect for both – and these could be a good choice in smaller gardens – to really make the most of the space.
The varieties to consider will depend on where you live. When choosing any tree, it is a good idea to source it as close to home as possible. Locally bought plum trees are far more likely to be suited to the particular conditions where you live. If you are wondering which plum tree varieties to choose for your area, seek out the information online, or head to a local garden centre or plant nursery near you, where staff will likely be happy to advise. Friends or neighbours with productive plums can be another useful mine of information. Ask them where they got them and whether they can remember the variety or varieties they chose.
An Early or Late Variety?
Another thing to consider when choosing a tree is whether it is an early or late variety. When exactly you will be harvesting could be important – especially if you have a lot of other things going on in your garden.
When To Plant Plum Trees
It is best to plant growing plum trees in late fall or winter, during the dormant period. Order plum trees in fall and try to plant it out on a cool yet sunny winter’s day. Try to avoid planting into waterlogged or very boggy ground, and, if the ground where you live freezes hard in winter, get on with the planting before the first hard freeze, or once things begin to thaw in the spring.
When you take order of a new plum trees, or collect one from a nearby garden centre or plant nursery, it is important to plant it into the ground or the container you intend to use as soon as possible. Never let the roots dry out.
How To Plant Plum Trees
Once you have decided on growing plum trees, and where to place it, it is almost time to get planting. If you are growing plum trees in the ground, preparing the area is the first job on the agenda. You may have to clear the area of grass, or any invasive weeds before planting, as competition can be a problem while the growing plum trees are still young.
Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the roots without bending or confining them too much. Bare root trees should be placed atop a small heap of soil in the centre of the planting hole, with the roots spread out around it. It is very important to keep the graft union (the place where the rootstock and scion plants have been joined) above the soil surface. Around an inch above is ideal.
To aid in the formation of a healthy tree, orchard or forest garden, you may like to consider giving nature a helping hand by adding some mycorrhizal fungi in the root hole when planting.
Once your tree is in the hole, and you have made sure that it is upright, and properly positioned, fill the soil back in gently around the roots and tamp it down firmly but gently to avoid air pockets.
If you are planting more than one tree and plan on establishing an orchard, standard sized growing plum trees should ideally be placed around 20-25 feet apart, and dwarf varieties should be spaced to around 10-15 feet.
Plum Tree Care & Pruning
An application of some form of nitrogen rich organic fertiliser in the middle of spring can help increase yield. Established trees will benefit from an organic mulch, which will keep down weeds and help with nutrient needs. Be sure to water well during drier periods, especially while the growing plum trees are young.
Growing plum trees will also benefit from under-planting with a tree ‘guild’ of beneficial companion plants like comfrey, borage, alliums and tansy as well as nitrogen fixing legumes. Since they have such strong nitrogen needs, competing with grass is not in their best interests and so it is best to plant alternatives or at least mulch heavily around the base of the tree to prevent grass from encroaching.
When the tree fruits in summer, you may find that some boughs have to be supported to prevent them from breaking with the weight of the fruit. Unlike with other trees like apple trees, growing plum trees should be pruned in spring or summer when they can recover more easily without risk of infection.
Summer (or spring) is also the right time to prune your plums. Plums are pruned for shape (generally bush, pyramid or fan) and also to ensure good air flow and to remove any dead, damaged or diseased material. Do not prune in fall or winter as there is risk, when you prune at these times, that the tree could be more prone to infection from silver leaf disease and bacterial canker.
Harvesting plums in the forest garden is a great job.
Plums are best when left to ripen fully on the tree for the best flavour. Most plums will ripen some time in August or September. You will be able to tell if fruit is ripe because it will be soft when you squeeze it gently. Be careful not to bruise the fruit during harvest or they will become over-ripe more quickly.
Many plums are delicious when eaten fresh. If you have a glut of fresh plums you could consider:
- Juicing them.
- Halving, de-stoning and freezing them.
- Canning them.
- Making jelly, jam, chutney or other preserves.
- Drying plums (to make prunes).
Making plum jam.
Of course, plums for cooking can also be preserved, or used in a wide range of delicious recipes. Plum pies, cakes, crumbles and puddings are all popular options, but there are also more unusual recipes to consider, including savoury recipes like Chinese plum sauce, and plum salad or plum tabbouleh… to name but a few of the many options.
Plums can be a rewarding and useful crop to grow. So this year, why not consider adding one or more plum trees to your garden?
Elizabeth Waddington is a smallholder, permaculture designer and environmental consultant. When not designing food producing systems or advising growers around the world, she is to be found in her own garden. On her 1/3 of an acre patch of land she has a walled forest garden orchard (home to rescue chickens), a polyculture vegetable plot, a polytunnel, wildlife pond, wild woodland garden and more and is working every day towards greater self-sufficiency. She is passionate about sustainability and loves to inspire others about the wonderful things home gardeners can do for people and planet.