Plum Tree Grow Guide
How to Grow A Plum Tree
Worldwide, there are more than 2000 kinds of plum trees in three major groups. The European types (Prunus domestica) produce plums that are firm and spherical and are usually grown for drying as prunes. Some, however, such as the Gage plums, are good for fresh eating. The Japanese plums (P. salicina) have fruits that are large, juicy, and more or less heart-shaped. Japanese plums have deep red, dark purple, or golden yellow skins with firm juicy flesh that can range in color from yellow to red and are delicious eaten fresh out of hand. Stone fruits of the native American plums (P. subcordinata, P. angustifolia, and several other species) are generally small and tart, useful mainly for jams and jellies, and for hybridizing with Japanese or European plum varieties.
All flowering plum trees bloom in the early spring growing season and produce plums that ripen from summer to mid August. Protect your plum tree blossoms from an early spring frost to avoid fruit not setting.
All types are self-incompatible or partially self-incompatible; that is, their light pink and white flowers require cross-pollination from a different variety for maximum fruit production. Except for certain plum cultivars that were produced by hybridization between types, the different variety types cannot cross pollinate each other. In general, however, any two plum tree varieties from the same type can pollinate each other as long as they are blooming at the same time and pollinating insects are active in the area.
Growing plum trees as a home gardener is a fun way to get delicious fruit year after year with minimal maintenance. Use this plum planting guide to lead you through the years of growing plums.
Plum Varieties We Offer
Perfect Plants offers three common varieties of the best excellent-eating Japanese type plum trees for sale. (Note that Perfect Plants ships its trees in nursery containers with soil, and NOT bare-root. This ensures that your trees will get off to a good start.) They are grafted trees to ensure you receive the best quality plums. Spring flowering trees grown from a plum seed are not guaranteed to fruit. Our trees are between 4-5 feet tall but may be taller depending on the season.
Methley plum is a good choice for much of the United States as it can be grown in USDA zones 5-9, and needs around 500-650 chill hours. This red skinned plum should have another Japanese type plum nearby for cross-pollination of the medium sized fruit.
Santa Rosa plum is known for its exceptional productivity. It thrives in mild climates, can be grown in plant hardiness zones 6-9, and needs 400-600 chill hours. ‘Santa Rosa’ is partially self-pollinating, but does better with a pollenizer such as ‘Methley’ or any other Japanese type dark red plum.
The Japanese-American hybrid, Scarlet Beauty plum, is a great choice for warmer climates. It is adapted to USDA zones 8-10 and needs only 150 chill hours. This is an early blooming plum and although it is partially self-pollinating it does better with another early bloomer for cross-pollination. Any of the ‘Gulf’ series of hybrid plums will do, and since it is a hybrid, it can be pollinated by another ‘Scarlet Beauty’, or even one of the two American natives, Chickasaw plum (P. angustifolia) or flatwoods plum (P. umbellata).
The Importance of Chill Hours
Chilling hours are the total number of hours in the winter that the temperature is between 32°F and 45°F. Use this interactive source to get the average chilling hours for your location: http://agroclimate.org/tools/chill-hours-calculator/
You can also check out this blog on the Best Fruit Trees for the Midwest to see other fruit trees for your area.
Plum Planting: Site Selection
All fruit trees do best in full sun and you should plant your plum trees (you need more than one) in the sunniest location possible. Do not plant plum trees where they will be shaded or get root competition from other trees. Plum trees should a minimum of eight hours of sunlight a day.
The best soil is a fertile, humus-rich, sandy loam that is well-drained soil and has a slightly acidic pH of 5.5-6.5. Avoid low spots where drainage can be slow. If possible, choose hilltops or slopes which provide what commercial growers call “air drainage” that can protect tender blossoms from late spring freezes and frosts.
You can go to your counties cooperative extension service to have the soil tested for pH before planting and make adjustments with lime or sulfur as recommended in the test results. pH adjustments to the soil should be made 6-12 months before planting. Standard plum trees should be spaced at least 12-18’ apart; a little closer for semi dwarf trees. Alkaline soils will be okay but may affect fruit production.
How to Plant A Plum Tree
Containerized trees can be planted at any time of the year. (Bare-root trees, not treated here, should be planted when dormant, during the winter.)
Thoroughly wet the soil in the pot before starting. Place the pot on its side and slide the root ball out. If the plant is stuck, you can slip a long-bladed knife around the inside edge to loosen it. Gently loosen some of the roots along the sides and bottom, and pull them outward so they are not encircling the root mass. It might be necessary to prune some of the roots if they are growing in a circle around the inside of the pot.
Dig a hole a little deeper and 2-3 times wider than the tree was in the nursery pot. Do not add fertilizer or soil amendments to the planting hole. Build up a rounded mound of soil in the center of the planting hole. Place the root crown on top of the mounded soil and spread the side roots out over the mound. Root systems that are too long should be shortened rather than allowed to encircle the hole. The top of the crown should be at or even slightly above ground level, and the graft union between the scion and the rootstock should be 2-6” above the ground surface.
Work the soil in and around the roots. When the hole is half-filled, give it a good soaking of water. When the water has drained, readjust the depth of the stem if necessary and finish filling the hole. Gently tamp the soil down.
Build up a 3-6 inch high dike of soil on the ground around the outside of the root zone. This will help impound water over the tree roots while it sinks into the soil. Water thoroughly. Spread a layer of organic matter or mulch around the tree 3-6 inches deep over the root zone and beyond for a foot or two to help hold in soil moisture. You can use hay, straw, leaves, pine needles, grass clippings or compost. Do not mulch above the graft line, do not use mushroom compost as this contains lime and will raise the pH, do not fertilize at this time.
First Year Plum Tree Care
Do not fertilize your new plum tree during its first year. Do water frequently and deeply for the first year. Plum trees should get about an inch of water each week from rain or irrigation. If rainfall is insufficient, water enough to soak several inches into the soil once a week. For newly planted trees, two gallons per week should be adequate except in the driest, sandiest soils where 6-8 gallons a week might be necessary.
Pull competing weeds as they appear, maintaining a weed-free zone of about three feet around each tree. You may have to protect the little trees from deer and rabbit damage. You may need to support the trees with wires and stakes for a year or two if they are weak and leggy.
Plum Care in Subsequent Years
Beginning in the second year, fertilize plum trees in spring and again in early summer with a complete formula that includes the minor elements or a formulation that is higher in phosphorus (the P in N-P-K), as this is the element that most encourages blooming and fruiting. (Bone meal is a great way to augment a plum tree’s supply of phosphorus.) Always follow label directions. For a 10-10-10 fertilizer, apply eight ounces per application. Beginning in the third year, one pound of 10-10-10 per application is recommended. Never fertilize in late summer or fall as this can encourage new tree growth that could be damaged by an early frost.
Plum Pests and Diseases
Several kinds of insect pests attack plum trees and fruits. Many, including scale insects, plum sawflies, spider mites, and aphids can be controlled by spraying the trees with dormant oil or neem oil in late winter. Both products are accepted organic pesticides, and work by smothering overwintering insects and their eggs. In late winter before new leaves emerge, spray stems and twig infected branches with horticultural dormant oil. As always, follow the manufacturer’s label directions. You may also encounter fungal diseases like brown rot, black knot, or leaf spot where the leaves turn yellow.
See Perfect Plants’ Blog “Why are there no plums on my tree?” for recommendations for controlling other plum pests and diseases.
How to Prune Plum Trees
Prune Japanese plum trees to create an open center with four or five strong scaffold branches. You do not need a central leader once it has been pruned to an open center. Eliminate crossed branches and diseased branches, remove suckers that sprout from the base of the tree, and cut out water sprouts that shoot up from large branches. Always prune your tree in winter when the tree is dormant but before buds have formed. You may also perform a late summer prune after the fruit has been harvested. Perform clean cuts on the branches to avoid pests and disease.
Plum trees are notorious over-producers, sometimes breaking limbs from the weight of too many fruits. If you want to get large, beautiful plums, you should thin the fruits to about five inches apart while they are still small. Heavy crops will have smaller fruit.
Plums are produced on one year old lateral branches and on short branches called lateral spurs, which grow on wood at least two years old. Young trees may take 3-5 years after planting to develop fruiting spurs, but then the spurs may be productive for many years, so don’t cut them off. The aim of pruning is to let sunlight reach the interior of the tree where many of the plums develop.
Plum trees begin bearing fruit in their second or third year and mature trees can produce 40-50 pounds of plums per year. The useful life of a plum tree is around 15 years.
Time to get some home grown plum trees using this plum planting guide. If you have any questions on how to grow a plum tree please contact us. Eating fresh plums for many years is a wonderful thing and they are easy to grow. Happy planting!
What kind of plums do you have growing? Let us know in the comments!