Plums are the easiest to grow of all the deciduous stone fruits

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Image by Etienne L. from PixabayImage by Etienne L. from PixabayPlums are truly beautiful deciduous shade trees, allowing the winter sunshine through, which is welcomed in cold winter regions, and heralding spring with a profusion of blossoms and fresh new leaves. They are also the easiest of all the deciduous stone fruit trees to grow, because plums are easy to prune, and are relatively free of pests and diseases, unlike most other fruit trees.

Plums are a diverse group of species, but the fruit trees we know today are small deciduous trees which, if left unpruned, can get quite large, up to 10m tall with a spread of 8m, which is far too large for most gardens and orchards, so they are generally pruned to keep them about 4m tall with an equal spread. If stone fruits are pruned correctly even smaller gardens can accommodate at least one or two stone fruits, and if you learn the art of espalier you can also utilise the perimeter walls around your property to grow fruit. 

Plum blossoms - Image by Hans Braxmeier from PixabayPlum blossoms - Image by Hans Braxmeier from PixabayThe deep purple to golden yellow flesh of the plum must be the juiciest of all the stone fruits, with a flavour ranging from sweet to slightly tart, and home grown fruit which is allowed to ripen on the tree has a fully rounded flavour that few can resist. Plums are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and fibre, and researchers have claimed that because this stone fruit has similar levels of antioxidants to blueberries, it should be recognised as a super fruit.

Plums come in a variety of flesh colours like yellow, white, green or red, and the skin of mature fruit may have a dusty-white coating, known as "wax bloom" which gives them a glaucous appearance. Plums, apricots, peaches, and nectarines all come in clingstone and freestone varieties. Clingstone fruits have pits that cling to the flesh of the fruit, and if you cut a clingstone plum in half you will find it difficult to pull the two halves apart and separate the flesh from the stone.

Today plums are cultivated in all temperate regions of the world. Europe first bred the European plum (Prunus domestica), America the American plum (Prunus Americana), and Western Asia grew the Damson plum (Prunus salicina). A number of species from South Asia, including the beautiful cherry plum, or purple-leaf plum (Prunus cerasifera), are used purely as ornamental plants, for both their attractive flowers and colourful leaves.

European and Japanese plums are the two most commonly grown types, and both are grown commercially for their fruits. The European plum (Prunus domestica) is suitable only for areas with cold winters, and the Japanese plum (Prunus salicina) is more adaptable and bears well in regions with milder winters.

Plum 'Santa Rosa' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPlum 'Santa Rosa' Picture courtesy Giving TreesJapanese plums are typically red, and larger and juicier than European plums, which are primarily purple or bluish, and also green or yellow in colour. European plums are oval in shape, whereas the Japanese plums are round with a pointed bottom, and because Japanese plums have a longer shelf-life than most European varieties they are the most common fresh plum sold commercially.

Plum varieties that can be dried without resulting in fermentation are called prunes. Such plums have firm flesh and contain high levels of sugar, qualities that favour their being preserved by drying, which is done in dehydrators or in the sun.

Plums, like peaches and nectarines (Prunus persica), and apricots (Prunus armeniaca), are members of the beautiful rose family (Rosaceae), which as the name implies, includes roses, raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears and cotoneasters. The stone fruit, or Prunus genus, which has about 2,000 species, includes plums, nectarines, peaches, almonds and cherries, and today they are grown throughout the warmer temperate regions of both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Wild plums flourished throughout the Old and New Worlds, and were certainly one of the first fruits domesticated by humans, and the practice of cultivation has been done since prehistoric times, longer perhaps than any other kind of fruit except the apple. Plums remain one of the most important stone fruits crops, and the domestic plums we eat today descend from numerous places of origin all over the world.

Plum 'Harry Pickstone' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPlum 'Harry Pickstone' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPlum remains have been found in Neolithic age archaeological sites along with olives, grapes and figs. And, although their origins are shrouded in the mists of time, and historians disagree about the domestic plum’s early history, plums can be traced along two lines: The common European plum (Prunus domestica) which is believed to have originated around the Black and Caspian Sea’s, and the Japanese plums, (Prunus salicina) and (Prunus simonii) which originated in China.

Some sources believe that the European plum, which grew around the Black and Caspian sea’s is at least 2,000 years old, and was carried to Rome around 200 B.C., then transported north to Europe; while others say that the Duke of Anjou carried the plum home as he returned from Jerusalem at the close of the Fifth Crusade. Perhaps there was a bit of confusion, because another Old World plum species, probably of European or Asiatic origin, is the Damson plum (Prunus insititia), and ancient writings connect early cultivation of those plums with the region around Damascus.

Whichever is true, in ancient Roman times 300 varieties of European plums were mentioned in literature, and the French, in particular, embraced the European plum with great enthusiasm, growing and using it fresh and dried as prunes, and for this reason the European plum is also known as "prune-plum". Eventually, French immigrants carried plum pits to Quebec, where a traveller recorded plum orchards flourishing as early as 1771. Plums were also transported to North America with the British settlers.

Plum 'Purple Majesty' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPlum 'Purple Majesty' Picture courtesy Giving TreesWhat we call the “Japanese plum” was actually first domesticated in China thousands of years ago, but because it was extensively developed in Japan, and from there was introduced to the rest of the world, it became known as such. We know with certainty that plums were domesticated in China more than 2000 years ago, and have figured in written documents since 479 B.C. These fruits were the plums Confucius, a Chinese philosopher and politician, traditionally considered the paragon of Chinese sages, praised in his writings, and these plums are the ancestors of today’s Asian plums. To the Chinese people plums still symbolise good fortune, and legend has it that the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tze was born under a plum tree.

Plums have been cultivated in South Africa since the 1650’s when the Dutch colonial administrator, Jan van Riebeeck established a food garden at the Cape, and every spring they burst into spectacular white blossom, adding to the beauty of the garden. Around 1896, Harry Pickstone, who is considered the father of the South African fruit industry, imported several Japanese varieties from California, and during 1907 the first native South African variety was discovered in KwaZulu-Natal.

The imported varieties did not do well under South Africa’s production conditions, which led to several formal research and development programmes, and over the years new varieties and production standards were introduced that are better suited to South Africa’s climatic and production conditions.

Today, South Africa’s plums are of exceptional quality, receiving good prices on the international market. Most are consumed fresh, and the remainder are processed and used as canned or dried fruit. Approximately 74% of South Africa’s plums are exported each year, with Europe accounting for more than half, Plum 'Songold' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPlum 'Songold' Picture courtesy Giving Treesand the United Kingdom for about a quarter of these sales. Large volumes are also sent to the Middle East, Russia, the Far East and Asia. Just over 20% of the plums are sold locally and 3% is processed.

A large variety of plum cultivars are produced in South Africa and the choice of cultivar primarily depends on production conditions, such as the chilling requirement of the cultivar, disease resistance, and the requirements of the target market.

Plums flourish in the Mediterranean climate of the Western Cape, and the Klein Karoo is the largest area under plum production, followed by Paarl, Wolseley, Tulbagh, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Ceres, the Langkloof, Villiersdorp and Vyeboom.

Here are some mouth-watering plum and prune cultivars grown by Giving Trees. Click here or on the photographs to find a list of garden centres who stock their trees.

Prunus x domestica cultivar 'Angeleno'

Angeleno is a medium to large freestone plum with a slightly flattened fruit, and dark purple-black skin. The sweet yellow flesh is firm with a fine texture, and is one of the latest varieties, ripening from early February. The tree has low to medium chilling requirements and is a very strong and vigorous grower which is kept at +-4m tall with an equal spread. Its semi-upright to spreading growth habit makes it ideal to espalier.

Prunus x domestica cultivar 'Harry Pickstone'

Harry Pickstone is a self-pollinating clingstone cultivar which was released in 1973, and was created by crossing 'Wickson' and 'Gaviota'. The medium sized, heart-shaped fruit ripens from mid-January, and has a green skin which turns dark red when fully ripe, and the yellow flesh is sweet and juicy with a melting texture. The tree is strong and vigorous with a spreading habit, +-4m tall with an equal spread, which is great for espalier, and it also makes an excellent ornamental shade tree for smaller gardens.

Prunus x domestica cultivar 'Pioneer'

Pioneer is a self-pollinating clingstone cultivar with medium sized, round to oblong shaped fruit with bright red skin and orange-yellow flesh with a good sweet taste and a firm, melting texture. The fruit ripens from late November and because the tree has low chilling requirements, is suitable for areas with warmer winters. It is a good producer and a strong grower with a semi-upright to spreading growth habit, +-4m tall with an equal spread.

Prunus x domestica cultivar 'Santa Rosa'

Santa Rosa is a self-pollinating clingstone variety which was developed in the USA in 1906. It is an excellent cross pollinator for other plum trees, and is also a strong and very upright grower +- 4m tall with a 3m spread, and the tree has medium to low chilling requirements with good heat tolerance. The fruit ripens from the middle of December, and is medium to large, and oval-shaped. The reddish-purple skin and orange-red flesh has a strong, rich and sweet flavour with a wonderful light and refreshing acidity around the pip, and just under the skin. It has moderate to good production, and the fruit is good for canning, cooking, or drying. Santa Rosa makes a lovely ornamental shade tree for the smaller garden

Prunus x domestica cultivar 'Songold'

This clingstone cultivar was cultivated in South Africa by crossing 'Wickson' with 'Golden King', and was released in 1970. It is pollinated with 'Harry Pickstone', 'Santa Rosa', 'Angeleno', and 'Laetitia'. The fruit, which ripens from early February, is large and conical, with greenish-yellow skin, often blushed with red when fully ripe. The golden-yellow flesh is sweet and very tasty with a semi-melting yet firm texture, and production is good. The tree has medium to low chilling requirements, enabling it to be grown in warmer climates, and its growth is vigorous and semi upright +-4m with an equal spread, making it ideal for espalier.

Prunus x domestica cultivar 'Souvenir'

This semi-freestone was bred in South Africa and released in 1993. It is self-pollinating, and from the middle to the end of December it produces large, rounded fruit with dark purple skin and a yellow base, and the yellow-orange flesh is firm with a melting, sweet taste. This semi-upright tree is a strong grower with a semi-upright growth habit, +-4m with an equal spread, and makes an excellent ornamental shade tree for smaller gardens.

Prunus x salicina cultivar 'Methley'

Methley is a self-pollinating clingstone cultivar with small, rounded fruit with dark purple-red skin and dark red flesh which is sweet and juicy. The tree is a regular, heavy bearer and the fruit is born in clusters, and ripens from November to early December. Methley is one of the easiest and most rewarding varieties of plums to grow, and has low chilling requirements. The tree is very strong, with vigorous, upright growth, +-5m tall with a 4m spread, making it wonderful for espalier, and an excellent ornamental shade tree for gardens.

Prunus x domestica cultivar 'Purple Majesty'

Purple Majesty originates from Bradford in the USA. This clingstone cultivar is pollinated with 'Harry Pickstone' 'Fortune', 'Ruby Red', or 'Wickson'. The large rounded, slightly flattened fruit ripens from early December and has a dark purple-red skin and light yellow flesh, which is sweet and juicy, with a melting taste and firm texture. The fruit is mainly eaten fresh but is of excellent quality, with a good resistance to cracking in wet weather. The tree has medium chilling requirements, making it suitable for warmer regions, and because it is upright growing and only moderately vigorous, this plum is most suitable for small gardens, where it is easily kept at +-4m tall and 4m wide.

Prunus x domestica cultivar 'Prune d' Agen'

Prune d' Agen is an ancient heirloom variety grown in France since the 1790's, and is sometimes called 'Sugar Plum'. It is the best clingstone prune for drying, but is also excellent eaten fresh. It is an important commercial variety which is self-pollinating, but bears even more prolifically if pollinated with another variety. From early February it produces small oval, elongated fruit with a shiny, dark purple skin when fully ripe. The meaty flesh is greenish-yellow with a texture which is firm yet semi-melting, with a very good, sweet taste. It has high chilling requirements and is suited only to regions with long, cold, frosty winters, and mild summers. It is moderately vigorous and upright, growing +-4m tall and 3m wide, making it great for small gardens

Prunus x domestica cultivar ‘Prune Stanley'

Stanley is an old, well-known, self-pollinating prune cultivar which was developed in the U.S.A. and released in 1926. It has good and consistent production, and the freestone fruit has a high sugar content making it popular for eating fresh, and for canning or drying. From mid to late February it produces large, oval, elongated fruit with a prominent 'suture' along the side. The skin is an attractive dark purple colour with a bluish sheen, and the firm flesh is fine-textured, and very sweet and juicy, with a yellowish colour when fully ripe. Prunes have high chilling requirements and are suited only to regions with long, cold, frosty winters, and mild summers. This variety is tough and reliable, and adaptable to a wide range of soil conditions. It is a vigorous and spreading tree +-4m tall with an equal spread, making it great for espalier.

Prunus x domestica cultivar 'Prune Van Der Merwe'

Van Der Merwe is a self-pollinating clingstone prune which was developed in South Africa from a bud mutation of the 'Prune d'Agen’ variety. From mid to late January it produces small, oval fruit with a dark purple-brown skin and very sweet, green-yellow flesh with a semi-melting texture, which is great to eat fresh and excellent for drying. The tree is a heavy bearer with excellent fruit quality, and is moderately vigorous with an upright growth habit, +-4m tall with an equal spread. This variety needs less winter cold than other prune varieties do to produce optimum crops.

Plum 'Pioneer' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPlum 'Pioneer' Picture courtesy Giving TreesUses:

The fruit of the plum is used widely to create jams, preserves, and alcoholic drinks. The timber is occasionally used for musical instruments but tends to be rarer as the trees are so small.

Health Benefits:

Plums are low in fat and calories, high in fibre, and an excellent source of vitamins and minerals.

Many researchers have claimed that this stone fruit has similar levels of antioxidants to blueberries and should, therefore, be recognised as a super fruit. Plums are an excellent source of vitamin A and C, and we know that vitamin C helps our bodies to absorb iron and helps to neutralise free radicals that can otherwise contribute to the development of diseases such as cancer. The quercetin they contain also helps to tackle free radicals in the body, and other cancer fighting molecules that plums contain are called Anthocyanins which are believed to have powerful antioxidant properties.

The fruit is also a good source of vitamin E, and is high in potassium, and carotene. Plums also contain neutralising substances called phenols, which can help reduce oxygen damage to the body’s cells - the cause of ageing.

Image by S. Hermann F. Richter from PixabayImage by S. Hermann F. Richter from PixabayIn the Kitchen:

For western-style desserts, plums work great in tarts, cobblers, crumbles, cakes and ice cream. The sweet tartness of plums balances out the rich creaminess of the butter and cream in baked goods, giving a delicious aftertaste that is not as sour as lemons or limes. If your plums are a little overripe, simply transform them into a nice, gooey plum jam by simmering them with sugar!

There is a world of delicious plum recipes out there, besides the usual tarts, jams and jellies, so search for your favourites. Here are a couple which are sure to inspire you to eat more plums.

Homemade Chinese plum sauce is a smooth sweet and tart sauce infused with traditional Chinese spices, and boasts a deliciously complex flavour profile that will dazzle your taste buds!  You can’t compare it to the typical congealed and anaemic looking, corn starch with food colouring, sugar and vinegar, plum or duck sauce that comes in squeeze bottles at your local Chinese takeout, and once you’ve tasted home-made, there’s no going back.  Plum sauce is also wonderfully versatile, and besides its use as a finishing sauce with roasted duck, hence the nickname “duck sauce”, is also used with fish, shrimp, chicken and pork. Plum sauce is a perfect dipping sauce for stir fries, wontons, egg rolls, spring rolls, dumplings, etc., It is also a great basting sauce or glaze, or simply tossed with noodles or drizzled on rice.

Prune 'D' Agen' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPrune 'D' Agen' Picture courtesy Giving TreesThen there is Indian/Pakistani Plum Chutney called “Aloo Bukharay Ki Chutney” which, once you make it at home there’s no way you will ever go back to the jarred kind. Plum chutney is such a lip-smacking good change from standard ketchup and BBQ sauce, with its tangy and sweet-sour and spicy flavours, its uses are unlimited, and you may just find yourself adding it to everything. Use it as a dip for pakoras, samosas, kebabs and spring rolls, or alongside cheese sandwiches and crackers, as a side to some slow cooker braised meat – essentially you can use it for anything you would otherwise use ketchup or BBQ sauce for!

Storing Plums

If you are keeping your plums whole and not drying or turning them into jams, sauces or pickles, then they should be stored at room temperature until they are fully ripe. Once ripened, you can store them in the fridge for about 3 to 5 days before they start getting overly soft.

If you plan to puree them into your smoothie, or make your jams later on in the year, freezing plums is another option. Only freeze plums that are ripe, slice them open and remove the pits, then space them out for convenient retrieval after being frozen (you don’t want an entire chunk of plum slices coming out each time!). Properly frozen plums will last about 6 months. Alternatively you could puree the fruit before storing and freezing it in small containers, which are easy to use in recipes.

Plum 'Angeleno' Picture courtesy Giving Trees 2Plum 'Angeleno' Picture courtesy Giving Trees 2In the Garden:

Plums are truly beautiful deciduous shade trees, allowing the winter sunshine through, which is welcomed in cold winter regions. They are also the easiest to grow of all deciduous, stone fruit trees because they are easy to prune and are relatively free of pests and diseases. And, although unpruned trees can get quite large, and far too large for small gardens, if stone fruits are pruned correctly they can be kept small enough for many smaller gardens to accommodate at least one or two, and if you learn the art of espalier you can utilise the perimeter walls around your property to grow fruit. 

There are many innovative ways of shaping fruit trees to keep them smaller, and one of them is to do your hard pruning at the summer solstice, rather than in mid-winter. A recent article we published titled: “So you say you don’t have space to plant fruit trees?” will inspire you to take a fresh new look at pruning fruit trees, as well as your garden and the spaces available to you to grow your own fruit. Click here to read my free article.

June and July are also great times to plant peaches & nectarines. Click here for my free article on growing them.

Plum 'Souvenir' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPlum 'Souvenir' Picture courtesy Giving TreesCompanion Planting:

As fruit trees go, plum trees are relatively trouble free, but as with all plants, companion planting will help you to attain healthier trees, healthier fruit, larger yields, and less disease. However, to grow totally organic at first may be challenging, and in order to save your crop you may have to resort to purchasing commercial sprays, but that’s fine because there is a wide range of organic and non-organic products to choose from, and whether you use organic sprays or not, you are in control of what you produce. It’s also a good idea to purchase your sprays and spray bottles at the same time as you buy your trees, as your garden centre will know the best products to use for your growing region.

The traditional way of gardening is to keep everything neat and tidy, leaving bare soil below fruit trees and bushes. Permaculture however teaches us that to grow organic plants successfully we need to emulate nature. Look in any forest or expanse of woodland and you will see that below most trees are other smaller plants growing within the trees dripline. These plants all not only survive but also thrive in these apparently “crowded” conditions. However, there is a symbiosis between these plants that cannot be ignored, they help each other, protect each other and in many ways nurture each other, as well as protecting and enriching the topsoil - mother nature at her best!

Organic gardeners rely on a regular, preventative spraying programme for stone fruits – “prevention is better than cure” they say – and use companion planting as part of their holistic gardening programme. Not only does this method produce healthier produce, it will also make your fruit and vegetable garden look so much more attractive, so try your hand at some companion planting, it’s also so much fun!

Here are some companion plants for plums and other stone fruits:

Members can click on the highlighted text to read more about these plants.

Lavender has been used for many years to keep moths away from homes, and if grown in close proximity to plum trees, their strong aroma helps to keep the plum moth away or at least keep their numbers down. If you can prune off some branches regularly, bruise them to release the smell, and then strew them on the ground between the trees, lavender will also help to keep many other pesky insects at bay. Lavender also looks wonderful and attracts valuable pollinators like bees to the garden.

Foxgloves are known to boost the health of all surrounding plants, plum trees included, and they also attract bees for pollination.

Marigolds have roots which exude a chemical that repels nematode eelworms, and their strong, pungent smell helps repel other pests like white fly. They are also used as a “bait crop” for red spider, and when they are infested with red spider, they are easily pulled up and disposed of, and because they seed themselves freely, are inexpensive to use in the orchard or vegetable garden.

Nasturtiums are also used as “bait plants” for aphids because aphids are attracted to them first, leaving your other crops relatively free of infestation. When the nasturtiums are infested with aphids they are easily pulled up and disposed of, and because they seed themselves freely, are inexpensive to use in the orchard or vegetable garden.

Dill, if allowed to flower, will attract many beneficial insects including bees, hoverflies and many more.

Comfrey should be grown in all veggie or fruit gardens because the leaves accumulate calcium, phosphorus and potassium, all of which are of great benefit to all plants and trees, including plum trees. The leaves are wonderful for the compost heap.

Chives have a strong aroma and are a good way to keep aphids away from plum trees. The bright blue flowers also attract good pollinators to your orchard or vegetable garden.

Coriander is another wonderful strong smelling herb, which is very attractive to bees and hoverflies, but repels many bad insects.

Plum 'Methley' Picture courtesy Giving TreesPlum 'Methley' Picture courtesy Giving TreesCultivation and Harvesting:

Depending on climatic conditions and cultivar grown, plum season in South Africa is from the second week of November up to the end of February. Early varieties produce fruit towards the end of November, and late varieties towards the end of February.

Plums, like other stone fruits thrive and bear abundantly in regions with long hot summers, and where the winters have a “high-chill” factor, but bear in mind that although the dormant tree is frost tolerant, the late winter and early spring blossoms are not, and a late freeze could destroy the crop.

Varieties with “low-chill” requirements can be planted in warmer, more humid climates, but in these regions plums often develop problems with fungal diseases like brown rot, and preventative spraying is required on a regular basis in order to grow good quality fruit. To produce good crops in these regions the winter temperatures need to be low enough to initiate complete dormancy, which encourages optimal flowering and growth to occur in spring.

Plums need at least 1,000 hours of winter temperatures below 12.5°C, with minimum air temperatures during this period between 2.5°C and 12.5°C for a period of 850 to 1,000 hours.

As a guideline, early ripening cultivars are better for the warmer regions of the country, while later-ripening cultivars are recommended for the colder regions. For these reasons, it’s very important to find out which trees will best suit your climatic zone, and no one will know better than your local garden centre, so pay them a visit.

There are certain aspects that should be taken into consideration when selecting plums suitable for your particular site. Firstly, always select cultivars that bloom after the average last frost date for your region. Special attention should be given to slopes, and early flowering plums should not be planted in low lying areas, like at the bottom of a slope, as these places will have ‘cold pockets’, or unusually low temperatures in comparison to those higher up on the slope. Climatic variations throughout the year also play their role, for example, rainy or windy conditions during flowering will have a negative impact on pollination and will lead to a poor fruit set.

Many varieties of plums are self-pollinating, and others need to cross-pollinate with certain other varieties to bear fruit, and a curious fact of nature is that seldom do two varieties of the same fruit colour cross-pollinate. Even self-pollinating cultivars crop better when planted with another cultivar, so if you can, plant more than one plum tree.  If you have the space you can extend the harvesting season by ensuring a selection of varieties that fruit over different periods.

In June and July garden centres around South Africa sell deciduous fruit trees, either bare rooted or planted in nursery bags. Planting in winter when the trees are dormant gives them a chance to settle in and to start developing roots before they put their energy into spring growth. Visit a reputable nursery in your area to select one year old grafted trees which are suitable for your region.  

Select the sunniest spot you can as plums require full sun to produce sweet, high quality fruit. Trees will still produce fruits in areas which are sunny for most of the day, but too much shade is no good.

Plum trees are very adaptable and thrive in most garden soils which are at least 600mm deep, ranging, from sandy-loams to clay-loams, and although the trees are more tolerant of heavy or waterlogged soil than most other stone fruit types, they will fare better in soil which does not get waterlogged. The ideal soil should be slightly acidic, with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5.

Because plums can produce fruit for 12 years or more, it is well worth preparing the planting holes extremely well before you purchase your plants, and rather than digging a small very deep hole, prepare a shallower, wider hole, at least 3 to 4 times wider than the container.  The hole should also have slightly sloping sides like a saucer to allow for proper root growth. Break down the soil well and remove any big stones etc. adding generous quantities of compost or other well-rotted organic matter to the soil. Do not use fertilisers or chemicals on newly planted trees as such products can kill young trees.

If planting two or more trees, you need to space them at least 3 to 4m apart to ensure good air flow between the trees, which is essential to reduce disease and insect infestations, as well as for easy access and optimal cultivation. Deciduous stone fruits are great for espalier, and if you plan to espalier your trees, then space them about 1m apart.  If you learn the art of espalier you can utilise the perimeter walls around your property to grow fruit. My article: “So you say you don’t have space to plant fruit trees?” will inspire you to take a fresh new look at your garden and the spaces available to you to grow your own fruit. Click here to read it.

The first step to growing a small fruit tree is to buy small specimens with a stem that’s about as big around as your thumb. These young saplings are usually up to 1m tall, and the trick to keeping them smaller and more manageable is to cut the main stem right back when the tree is still totally dormant.

The first cut is the most important and is called a “hard heading cut”. This cut removes the growing tip, and can be done before, or immediately after planting your tree. While such a cut may seem extreme, you will need to prune off about the top two-thirds of your new tree. This pruning cut is critical because it will create a low scaffold of branches and keep the canopy of the mature tree within reach.

Here’s how to handle the first cut for deciduous, stone fruit trees. Choose a bud at knee-height, but be very careful that you leave several buds between where you want to cut and the graft. The graft is that knobby place low down on the trunk where the scion (the graft that determines fruit variety) meets the rootstock. Make a clean 45-degree cut that angles away from the bud, cutting close enough to the bud so it can heal cleanly, but not so close that you cut into the bud itself. In spring this little branch will quickly sprout new leaves, which in turn will provide nutrients to the little sapling.

If the tree you bought has a stem thicker than 2cm it may have a harder time pushing out buds if you cut it down too low, so in this case make the first dormant hard header cut where the ‘caliper’ (width of the stem) is thumb-sized. As soon as the buds begin to develop, and after the sprouts get going, you can cut the scaffold as low as you prefer.

This hard heading cut will encourage the tree to quickly put down roots, and vigorous growth and branching will occur in spring when the plant directs its energy to the remaining buds, and they will eventually develop into new limbs, each with a growing tip of its own. The resulting open-centred tree will be shorter, stronger, easier to care for, and most fruitful.

In the first spring of growth, after the first buds start to break, take a good look at the spacing of the branches and if you do not like the arrangement of the top buds, simply prune down a bit more on the main stem until the configuration of leafing buds suits you. This place will eventually become the crotch of the tree, and the lower down the crotch is, the easier it will be to keep the tree small. And, the earlier in the season you make this cut the more vigorously new limbs will grow.

With the first cut done, it’s time to plant. Add some soil to the hole and plant a sturdy stake into the ground before setting your tree down. Avoid planting the tree too deeply by ensuring that the “root collar” sits above the top of the hole. Look for the “root flare” at the base of the trunk and ensure it is slightly above ground level. Using some soil, secure the tree in a straight position, then fill and firmly pack the hole with the original soil, making sure there aren't any air pockets. Tie the tree securely to its stake.

Young trees are vulnerable to borer insects which bore into the main trunk, so after tying the tree securely to its stake, wrap a slit piece of plastic piping, a plastic kitchen place mat, or similar material around the stem to prevent the borers from reaching the stem.

Re-shape your hole with its sloping sides as this also acts as a basin to hold water, and mulch the ground around the base of the tree with something like bark chips to help to keep weeds down and to retain moisture. When mulching any plant it is important to keep the mulch well away from the stem.

Lastly, water your tree thoroughly, and because the tree is still dormant a light watering every 10 to 12 days thereafter should suffice.  As the weather warms up root growth will commence, so start watering a bit more. Once spring growth commences and summer arrives it is important to keep the young trees moist but not soggy. During dry weather, water generously every 7 to 10 days by watering slowly at the dripline. Avoid watering so much that you see standing water. Standing water can result in disease and rot, and is totally unsuitable for fruit trees.

Regularly check the plastic wrapping around the stem and any labels or ties which came with your tree as these can restrict the tree as it grows. Prune out any broken or dead branches during the first year of growth.

About 6 weeks after new growth emerges, fertilise young trees with a balanced fertiliser for fruit, and once again in about 6 weeks. Established plums should be fed with a balanced fertiliser at least twice a year, once in the early spring and again in late spring or early summer, and some gardeners prefer to feed every 4 to 6 weeks during the growing season. Because South African soils are low in nitrogen, an occasional high nitrogen feed will benefit the trees, and especially young trees. A balanced fertiliser for peach trees is one that has all three major nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and for this reason, 3:1:5 remains a popular fertiliser for fruit trees in South Africa, and  2:3:4 is used monthly by farmers. If you live in a very cold region, to help make the tree hardier, do not fertilise it within 2 months of your first frost date, or while the fruit is maturing.

Every spring, if your mulch has not yet decomposed you can remove it by raking it aside, in order to add a top-dressing of well-rotted organic matter or compost, together with a dressing of organic fertiliser for fruit trees, Spread this evenly around the tree up to the drip line of the branches, avoiding the stem, and replace or renew your mulch before watering thoroughly.

Image by congerdesign from PixabayImage by congerdesign from PixabayHarvesting:

Some plum varieties ripen after picking, but home grown plums are usually picked when their colour has fully developed and the flesh gives slightly when squeezed. The fruit should also pull easily away from the branch. Reusable fruit protection bags are available to cover ripening fruit to protect it from birds and other insect pests, and if you are growing at home, these are well worth the expense incurred.

Pruning:

If plums are given a “hard heading cut” before planting and are trained correctly when they are young, they will be easy to maintain thereafter. Like other stone fruits, plum trees are best pruned in a vase format to get a short trunk with three or four major branches to come off the trunk at a 45° angle.

When you prune a plum tree, keep in mind their growth habits will depend on what type of plum tree you are growing. European plums fruit on spurs that are 2 years old up to decades. Therefore, European plum varieties such as the Cherry plum and yellow plums like the Mirabelle or Green Gage are very forgiving. Even if you cut back wood from the current season, they will still bloom and bear fruit. Japanese plums fruit either on 1 year old wood, much like peaches, and on fruit spurs.

In South Africa pruning of deciduous stone fruits is usually done in late winter or early spring when the trees are still dormant, but just before bud break. However, in order to avoid bacterial canker and infection by silver leaf disease (Chondrostereum purpureum), in many regions of the world plums are pruned hard in summer and only lightly, or not at all, in winter because of the danger of silver leaf disease. Silver leaf is a fungal disease of the wood and leaves of some trees, especially plums, apples, apricots and cherries. The airborne spores of this fungus are released from the bracket-shaped fruiting bodies found on dead branches. These spores infect healthy branches through wounds, especially pruning cuts. The fungus grows down into the wood and kills it, producing a dark stain. The fungus causes a silvering of the leaves followed by death of the branch. Similar silvering symptoms in leaves may sometimes develop as a result of cold, drought or other non-disease forms of stress. This is known as false silver leaf and can be told apart from true silver leaf by the absence of staining in the wood. Since the fungus produces most of its infectious spores in autumn and winter, pruning of susceptible plants is ideally carried out in summer. Not only are there fewer spores at this season but pruning wounds, the main point of entry for the spores, heal more quickly.

Summer pruning is also one of the techniques used to keep fruit trees smaller. If you wish to prune to keep your tree as small as possible, click here to read my free article “So you say you don’t have space to plant fruit trees?” 

When you prune in the second year, cut the main central leader stem back yet again to about 46cm above a bud. Below this cut, there should be at least three scaffold branches, and these should also be pruned back about 25cm, on an angle immediately above a healthy bud, and all small side shoots must be trimmed to six leaves from their parent branch.

Prune three year old trees in a similar fashion by trimming the main central stem back once again to 46cm above a bud and trimming the three or four scaffold branches below, back about 25cm, and trimming all small side shoots to six leaves from their parent branch.

To encourage fruiting on those branches of established trees that have not produced fruit yet, but will in the next season or two, when the wood is one or two years old, depending on the type of plum grown, it’s important to prune back those branches, and to trim all side shoots to six leaves from their parent branch. Each year, continue to trim the main central stem back, but no more than 91cm from the highest branch.

In summer, when all the fruit has been harvested, remove part of the new season’s growth to thin out the body of the tree.

Established plum trees are generally quite forgiving about pruning, so don’t be afraid to prune them, you will soon get a feel for it. Varieties like ‘Satsuma’ are so fruitful that up to half of the one-year-old shoots must be removed completely to prevent overproduction. Varieties like ‘Santa Rosa’ bear lighter crops and only one fourth to one third of new shoots should be pruned out. Most seasons plum trees will bear so profusely that unless the fruits are also thinned out, the branches will break. The variety 'Methley' is especially known to need fruit thinning.

No matter the season, always remove dead or diseased wood immediately and dispose of it.

Propagation:

Plum trees cannot be propagated by seed as the offspring will not be true-to-type. Certified, disease-free and true-to-type vegetative material of the cultivars is therefore budded onto rootstocks.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Unlike most other fruit trees, plums are relatively free of pests and diseases, and attacks by fruit fly and coddling moths are rare and can be controlled. If you find fruit flies are a problem you will have to implement a spraying programme as for peaches and nectarines. Click here to find spraying programmes and detailed information on pests and diseases of stone fruits in our article on growing peaches and nectarines.

Caution:

The information contained within this website is for educational purposes only, documenting the traditional uses of specific plants as recorded through history. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner before starting a home treatment programme.