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How to Grow Plums: The Complete Plum Care Guide

Reddish blue plums growing on a tree -- knowing how to grow plums means you'll be able to enjoy a yearly harvest of delicious fruit.

Growing plum trees is the surest path to enjoying the freshest plums. Having a plum tree of your own can give you an endless supply of delicious fruit. Plums are one of the most popular market fruits as well as backyard fruit trees. This is because plum trees are relatively easy to care for, and their fruit tastes unlike any other! 

Knowing how to grow plums isn’t difficult for the average gardener, as long as you pay attention to your tree’s requirements. Perhaps the most important attribute of plum tree care is consistency.

Read on to find out how to grow plums and keep your new plum tree happy, healthy, and producing bushels of fruit!

Why You Should Consider Growing Plum Trees

Hands picking a plum off a tree.

Plums are a fruit of the Prunus species popular all around the world. Plum trees are a rewarding backyard plant that bring plenty of potential benefits. Besides the obvious harvest of plums you’ll no doubt be eager for, plum trees are great ornamental plants. Plum trees are medium-sized and work well for shade trees, landscaping decoration, and improving soil retention. 

Plum trees bloom in the late spring with beautiful pink, white, and violet flowers that delight the eye. Plus, the fragrance of their blooms is sure to please friends and family alike. As one of the oldest fruits cultivated by human beings, plums are part of a long and fascinating gardening tradition. 

When To Plant Plum Trees

Like most plants, plum trees have preferences for the time of year they should be planted. If you are working with a rootstock, plant it in the late winter or early spring. During this time, plum trees are dormant for the cooler weather and are more protected from the shock of transplanting. 

Once the weather begins to warm, you should notice your plum tree growing immediately.

Where To Plant Your Plum Trees

American Plum tree planted in a neighborhood setting.

Think carefully about where you want to plant your plum tree. All conditions should be taken into account, from soil and sun to water and wind. As we discussed above, make sure your plum tree is planted far enough away from other plants or structures that it can spread its branches and roots. 

Plums can be somewhat sensitive to frost and open weather conditions. Avoid planting a plum tree in a lower elevation in your garden, as this is often where frost settles. Late freezes in the spring can affect fruit production and lead to a poor crop.

Similarly, make sure that wherever you plant your tree is moderately sheltered from the elements, especially the wind. A spot facing the south or west can help protect the tree from chilly winds, which may affect fruit growth.

Soil 

Plum trees prefer soil with pH between 5.5 and 6.5. Soil should be sandy, loamy, and well-draining. Properly draining soil is vital, since too much accumulated moisture can drown the roots of your fruit tree, increasing the risk of fungal infection. 

Light

Plum trees prefer to grow in full sun. Partial sun will do, but the more light the better. Ideally, you want your tree to get six to eight hours of sun every day. 

Water

Water new trees generously, especially when the weather is dry. Mulch, shredded bark, wood chips, or landscape fabric can help retain water if your soil drains too quickly. Make sure these materials do not touch the tree’s trunk, as this can trap moisture against the tree and increase the risk of developing fungus or insects.

Spacing

Plum trees usually grow up to five meters (16 feet) in height. Dwarf plum trees can be a bit smaller, topping out at four meters (14 feet). As a rule of thumb, you want fruit trees to have plenty of space. This ensures that they can spread their branches and roots far enough to get the most nutrients from the sun and soil. 

Plant standard plum trees 20 to 25 feet apart. Dwarf varieties should be between 10 and 15 feet apart. Give them that much space not only from other plants, but from any structures that could block the roots or branches from spreading healthily. 

Temperatures and Humidity

If you live in a northern climate, be careful not to plant your plum tree where it’s exposed to cold winds since plum trees are prone to frost damage. Some gardeners wrap Christmas lights around their plum tree branches and use the bulbs to keep the tree warm. Simple protections like this, or planting plum trees where they are protected by buildings or other flora, can make all the difference.

Plum tree preferences for temperature and climate can vary significantly between cultivars. Varieties like the French plum, which were bred to thrive in cooler European climates, are much more cold hardy than Japanese or Chinese plums. 

Planting Multiple Trees: Cross Pollination

Lots of European plum tree varieties self-pollinate. This enables them to produce fruit even when planted alone. These varieties often produce bigger harvests when cross-pollinated. Other varieties may need cross-pollination in order to fruit. 

Not every plum tree is suited as a pollination partner. Make sure to check what varieties work well in a garden together before you choose which ones you want to plant. 

Some of the most common plum variety pairings include:

  • Burbank with Shiro, Santa Rosa, or Satsuma
  • Elephant Heart with Santa Rosa
  • Blue Damson with Green Gage
  • Nadia with Toka

Some gardeners make a rule to pair European plums with other European plum varieties, Japanese plums with other Japanese varieties, or only sweet or sour varieties. These pairs are often well-suited to cross-pollination.

Choosing Which Plum Tree Varieties To Plant

Closeup of Bubblegum plums growing on a tree -- one of the sweetest plum varieties.
A Bubblegum Plum tree.

Plum trees come in Japanese, European, and Damson varieties. You should pick the plum tree variety that will best thrive in your growing region. If you’re a more experienced gardener, you can opt for a plum tree that will require more effort if you prefer the fruit.

If care difficulty isn’t a major concern for you, your options widen considerably. Different plum varieties have major advantages and disadvantages for specific uses. Some are perfectly suited to jams and jellies, while others don’t work well as prunes. Certain varieties may range in color from yellow and green to purple and black.

How To Plant Your Plum Trees

Before planting your plum tree, be sure to check the soil’s pH. Treating pH issues after planting is far more difficult, stressful, and even expensive than preventative work. 

The best way to plant a plum tree varies somewhat based on whether you are planting a bare-root tree, a grafted tree, or a root ball transplanted from a pot. 

The first step for any type of plum tree root is to dig a hole. This should be just a few inches wider and deeper than the spread of the roots. When you first plant the tree, the root ball may rise a few inches above the ground — this is expected!

If you are planting a bare-root tree, make a small pile of soil in the bottom of the hole, then set the tree roots on top. Gently spread them as much as possible without bending or breaking them. The goal is to position them so that they are reaching outward and downward in the hopes of encouraging growth.

If you are transplanting a root ball from a pot, there is some preliminary work you’ll need to do to prepare. First, lay the tree on its side and gently untangle the roots. Place the root ball directly in the hole. 

If you are planting a grafted tree, make sure to keep the graft union (that is, the place where the grafted plants come together) a few inches above the ground. This will keep the graft from sinking into the soil and sprouting roots from non-grafted parts of the tree. 

With all plum tree roots, fill the hole slowly and evenly. Pause every few minutes to make sure the dirt is lying correctly so there are no air pockets and the roots are completely covered in soil.

After you are finished planting your plum tree, water it deeply to get it started. Continue doing this for the first few weeks after planting, as it helps weigh the soil down around the roots.

Fertilizing Your Plum Tree

Apply 240 mL of calcium nitrate in early summer for the first and second years. Afterwards, apply 160 mL of calcium nitrate in mid-spring and late summer annually. About one pound of organic fertilizer or aged manure goes a long way in the first few springs.

Plum trees, like most fruit trees, have significant feeding and watering needs before they reach maturity but become easier to care for after a few years.

Natural / Organic

If you prefer to use natural or organic fertilizers, compost may be your best bet. This can enrich the soil around your plum tree very effectively and add many of the nutrients that it needs to thrive. 

Compost is not the only effective natural fertilizer. Any material that is rich in nitrogen can help provide the right nutrients to your plum tree. Many gardeners choose materials like blood meal, soybean meal, and even chicken manure.

Remember that there is nothing intrinsically better about natural or organic fertilizers, and you can find many safe and effective commercially-made fertilizers formulated especially for fruit trees. However, many natural methods can be the simplest and most straightforward way to feed your plum tree. 

Growing Plum Trees in a Pot

One major benefit of growing plum trees in a pot is complete control over soil conditions, as well as better customization of climate and humidity conditions. You can grow a fruit tree in a pot in a greenhouse or even right in your home, provided that you find a spot that has access to light and is protected from drafts. 

Growing a plum tree in a pot requires a lot of extra pruning, as you will have to trim back excess growth to keep it to a small size. This will not only keep it confined to its pot, but also encourage healthy growth to fruiting branches by opening up the limbs to the sun.

How to Grow Plums Indoors

Growing plum trees indoors lets you control practically all aspects of the tree’s growth. This is usually accomplished in either a greenhouse or sunroom. 

How To Prune Plum Trees

Hands pruning a fruit tree.

Pruning plum trees is vital to keeping them healthy and promoting good growth of fruiting branches. Prune directly above healthy buds regularly. Removing dead wood is important for encouraging proper growth. Aim for helping shape your plum tree into a bowl to make reaching fruit easiest. To learn more about how to prune your plum trees, check out our post at this link.

When and How To Harvest Your Plums

Plums often take on a characteristic dusty white color once ripe. That’s because of a coating of epicuticular wax, usually called wax bloom. Once wax bloom is in full swing, it’s clear that plum fruits are ready to pick. Fruit should feel firm and smooth in your hand and may even be a little heavy. 

Though it might seem strange, there is a knack to picking plums off the tree. The best way to do it is to work from the ground if possible (though this might be easier with dwarf varieties). Your instinct will probably be to pull down on the fruit, but some plum varieties separate more easily if you push upward. Ripe plums will snap off with little effort. If you need a bit more support, gently grasp the branch while pushing up on the fruit.

Plum Trees During Winter Months

Plum trees go dormant during the winter, much like most other fruit trees. This helps keep them safe from frost and harsh elements like winter winds. However, there are a few things you should do to prepare your plum trees for the winter. 

You may want to consider painting your tree with latex paint. This is a common practice in many gardens and orchards. During the summer, it protects fruit trees from sunburn. In the winter, it keeps them from cracking in the cold. Cracks in tree trunks and branches act like open wounds for pests and disease. 

To prepare your tree for the coming cold, clean up your yard, including raking and disposing of fallen fruit and leaves. These can accumulate moisture during the winter, increasing your risk of tree diseases. 

Even worse, many pests lay their eggs in debris around fruit trees in the fall. The eggs incubate over the winter, then hatch in the spring and infect the tree. 

Fall is also the right time to spray your plum tree with insecticide or antifungal spray, which will keep it safe throughout the winter. Never prune a plum tree in the autumn, as this can encourage new shoots to form. These will be vulnerable to approaching frosts, leading to breakage and disease.

When the temperature starts to drop, mulch over your plum tree’s roots with straw. This acts like a natural blanket and helps insulate the tree through the winter. Make sure that the mulch doesn’t touch the tree trunk, as this can make moisture accumulate and increase the risk of fungal infection.

Plum Tree Pests and Disease 

Closeup of a sawfly larva on a green plum half.
A plum sawfly larva.

Plum trees are vulnerable to a number of pests and diseases. While some varieties are disease-resistant, no variety is fully immune from every type of insect or bacteria. 

Pests and disease can also vary depending on where you live. Common plum tree pests include plum curculio, scale, Japanese beetles, aphids, and rust mites. To learn more about common plum tree pests and how to fight them, check out our post here.

The same goes for common plum tree diseases. These might be bacterial or fungal. Some are simply cosmetic, ruining the look of your tree or its fruit. Some affect the annual crop, but the tree can bounce back with the proper care. And some, unfortunately, kill the plum tree altogether. 

Common plum tree diseases include bacterial canker, crown gall, bacterial spot, crown rot, and phytophthora root. You can learn more about these diseases and how to treat them in this post.

Plum Recipes To Try 

Closeup of Rustic Plum Tart.
Rustic Plum Tart (click for the recipe).

While many plums are great eaten raw (and so good you might find yourself eating them right off the tree!) others are much better suited to cooking, baking, and preserving. But the good news is that there are endless plum recipes to try, from jams to baked goods and even savory dishes. 

If you want to use up the fruit from your orchard, try a recipe like Homemade Plum Sauce, Plum Compote, Upside-Down Plum Cake, or even Plum Wine!

FAQ 

Can I Plant a Plum Pit? 

You absolutely can grow a plum tree from a pit, though it takes longer and might be a bit more challenging than ordering a rootstock. However, if you are willing to put in the time and attention, your hard work may pay off! To get started, you will need to crack the pit to encourage growth and plant it in a mixture of sand and perlite. 

When Should I Plant Plum Trees?

As we discussed earlier, the best time to plant plum trees is in the late winter or very early spring. During this time, rootstocks are dormant for the cold months, which reduces the shock of transplanting. It also helps prepare the tree for growing as spring approaches and the ground begins to warm.

Conclusion 

Closeup of a plate of red plums.  Ripe, delicious fruit is the reward for knowing how to grow plums in your home garden.
When you know how to grow plums in your home garden, a yearly harvest of ripe fruit is the reward for your work.

Plum trees are a wonderful addition to home gardens that reward attention and effort with delectable fruit. Many gardeners around the world find plum trees to be pleasant to care for and elegant aesthetic additions. Plum fruits are quite yummy all on their own, but they make fantastic jams and jellies, too. 

If you’ve grown fresh plums in your own yard, let us know how it went! Make sure to subscribe for the latest care tips for plum trees and all your favorite backyard plants.