Plum trees (Prunus domestica) are easy to grow and a must for any garden, offering heavy crops of fruit in late summer and pretty blossom in early spring, which attracts bees and other pollinators to its sweet nectar. There are lots of delicious types of plum to choose from, including classic rosy-yellow ‘Victoria’ plums, small juicy greengages, sweet golden mirabelles and dusky purple damsons, ideal for jam.
Plum Farleigh Damson
Plum Prunus domestica Mallard
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Plums come in a wide range of colours, flavours and sizes, and include sweet, juicy gages, richly flavoured damsons and luscious French mirabelles. There are also many varieties of each type, for eating fresh and/or cooking. Dual-purpose varieties are a good option if you only have room for one tree, so you can get maximum use from your crop.
Different varieties offer a wealth of delicious fruit options – various levels of sweetness and juiciness, different textures, colours and sizes, as well as a range of crop sizes and ripening times. In colder locations, consider a late-flowering variety such as ‘Blue Tit’, ‘Marjorie’s Seedling’ and ‘Oullins Gage’, to avoid damage to the blossom, which can reduce the crop. Varieties with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) are recommended by our RHS fruit experts, as they performed well in trials – see our list of AGM fruit and veg.
It’s also worth looking for traditional local varieties that would be suited to your individual growing conditions, such as ‘Dittisham Ploughman’ from Devon, ‘Shropshire Prune’ or ‘Warwickshire Drooper’. Many plums also have characterful old names that add an extra element to your choice – who could resist ‘Coe’s Golden Drop’, ‘Ingall’s Grimoldby Greengage’ or ‘Laxton’s Delight’?
Plum Prunus domestica 'Victoria'
Plum Prunus domestica Opal
Many plum varieties are self-fertile, so you only need one tree, but do check before buying. Trees that aren’t self-fertile need a compatible ‘pollination partner’ nearby – another plum that flowers at a similar time (in a similar ‘pollination group’) – to ensure a good crop. Partly self-fertile varieties can also produce decent crops. For more details, see our guide to fruit pollination.
Plum trees are grafted onto the roots (rootstock) of a different type of plum, to limit their size and encourage earlier fruiting. So as well as choosing a variety, you also need to choose a suitable rootstock, which depends on the size and style of tree you want (free-standing or trained). The most widely available plum rootstocks are:
‘Pixy’ – semi-dwarfing, suitable for cordon or semi-dwarf bush tree, up to 3–4m (10–12ft) tall
‘VVA-1’ – semi-dwarfing, good winter hardiness, improved fruit size and yield, 3–4m (10–12ft) tall
‘Wavit’ – semi-vigorous, suits most soil conditions, some chalk tolerance, 4–4.5m (12–14ft) tall
‘St Julian A’ – semi-vigorous, widely used, suited to a wide range of soil conditions, 4.5–5m (14–15ft) tall
‘Brompton’ – vigorous, for large free-standing trees over 4.5m (15ft) tall
What and where to buy
Plum trees are sold either bare-root (without soil around the roots) or in containers. Bare-root trees are only available while dormant, from late autumn to late winter, for immediate planting. Containerised trees are available all year round.
Specialist fruit nurseries offer the widest choice of varieties, usually by mail order. Bare-root trees are mainly available from specialist suppliers. Plum trees in containers are also available in garden centres and from other online plant suppliers.
If you want to grow a trained tree, such as a fan, decide if you want to train it yourself from scratch starting with a one-year-old tree (maiden) or buy a (more expensive) partly-trained tree. These are available from specialist nurseries.
When buying a tree in person, choose one with a well-balanced shape and three to five good shoots growing from the central stem (leader). You can then train and prune it into any of the popular tree forms if you wish – see Pruning & training, below.
Plum trees crop best in a warm, sheltered site in full sun. They’re among the earliest fruit to flower and although the trees are hardy, the blossom can easily be killed by frost. So avoid planting in sites prone to heavy frosts or strong winds, which can damage the blossom and deter pollinators. In colder sites, it’s best to train plums against a south-, south-west or west-facing wall or fence.
Plum trees are best planted during the dormant season, before growth starts in late winter or early spring. Bare-root trees are only available while dormant, but containerised trees are available all year round – they can potentially be planted at any time, but will settle in best from late autumn to spring.
Prepare your tree for planting by giving it a good watering if it’s in a container or by standing it in a bucket of water for half an hour if it’s a bare-root tree.
If planting in a lawn, remove a circle of grass at least 1m (3¼ft) in diameter, so the tree’s roots don’t have to compete with the grass for water and nutrients as they get established.
Plum trees are easy to plant and will settle in quickly, although they may take a few years to start fruiting.
Planting against a wall
If your tree is going to be trained against a wall, prepare the planting site particularly well, as the soil at the base of walls is usually poor and dry. Dig in lots of well-rotted manure or garden compost, then plant the tree 25–35cm (10–14in) away from the wall. You’ll also need to attach horizontal wires to the wall to support the branches – see Pruning & training, below.
Planting in a container
Plum trees crop best in the ground, but if you don’t have suitable soil or an available site, you can plant a compact variety in a large container. ‘Blue Tit’, ‘Opal’ and ‘Victoria’, on a dwarfing rootstock (either ‘Pixy’ or ‘VVA-1’) are suitable choices. Trees in containers need more maintenance than those in the ground, so be prepared to water and feed across the growing season to get a good crop.
The container should be ideally 60cm (2ft) wide and deep – terracotta pots or half-barrels are suitably heavy and stable. Use soil-based compost, such as John Innes No. 3. Then plant in the same way as planting in the ground – see above.
Plum Gage Jefferson
Plum Prunus domestica 'Blue Rock'
If your plum tree is carrying a particularly heavy crop, consider fruit thinning and be prepared to prop up the branches in mid- and late summer, otherwise the crop’s weight could snap them.
Newly planted plum trees should be watered regularly for at least their first growing season. Once established, they usually only need watering during dry spells, especially in early to mid-summer when the fruit is swelling. Lack of water may cause the tree to shed young fruit. Mulching (see below) will help to stop the soil drying out.
To get a successful crop from containerised plum trees, they must be watered on a regular basis throughout the growing season. The relatively small amount of potting compost will dry out quickly, especially in warm weather.
Equally importantly, don’t leave potted plum trees sitting in water, especially over winter, as the roots will rot. It’s best to raise containers onto ‘pot feet’ or bricks to keep the drainage holes clear and avoid waterlogged compost.
Apply a mulch of well-rotted manure or garden compost in mid-spring to help retain soil moisture, keep down weeds and provide nutrients.
In late winter, feed with a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4 or fish, blood and bone. Scatter two handfuls per square metre/yard around plum trees growing in bare soil, and two and a half around those in grass.
Protecting from frost
Plum trees flower very early, so the blossom is vulnerable to frost damage. With smaller trained trees, if frost is forecast during flowering, cover them temporarily in a tent of horticultural fleece or hessian, holding it away from the flowers with canes. Remove it during the day, to allow pollinators access.
If possible, move potted trees indoors or into a sheltered spot if frosts are due during flowering.
Plums have a tendency to over-crop and their heavily ladened branches can break under the weight. To avoid this, thin out the young fruits in early summer after the natural ‘June drop’ – reduce them to one fruit every 5-8cm (2-3in) or a pair every 15cm (6in). This is easiest to do on smaller trained trees, but is worth doing on larger trees too if you can reach.
The best way to propagate plums is by grafting or budding, which do require some skill but are well worth a try.
Pruning and Training
Young plum trees should be pruned after buds open in early spring
Established plum trees should be pruned in summer
Avoid pruning plum trees during the dormant season or in mid- to late autumn, to minimise the risk of infection from silver leaf disease and bacterial canker
See our guide to pruning plums for full details of how to train and prune plum trees into the shapes described below.
Free-standing plum trees are best pruned to form either an open-centred bush tree or a smaller pyramid tree:
Bush trees have a trunk about 75cm (2½ft) tall, then three or four branches radiating out at the top to create an open-centred goblet shape
Pyramid trees are similar to bush trees, but retain their central shoot (leader), so they don’t have the open centre of bush trees. The branches start lower down, only 40–50cm (15–20in) from the ground, and get gradually shorter further up the tree, to create a pyramid shape.
Plum trees can also be trained flat against a wall or fence. This is a good option if space is tight or if you want to grow several varieties. Trees can be bought ready-trained, partly trained or untrained, depending on how much work you want to do. The two most suitable shapes for plums are:
Fans – both attractive and productive, these have a short trunk topped with a flat fan of radiating branches. Fans need regular pruning twice a year, in early summer and after fruiting, which is relatively straightforward – see initial pruning of fans and pruning established fans.
Cordons – these are very compact, single-stemmed trees with short side-shoots, ideal for small spaces and containers. As there are no truly dwarfing plum rootstocks, this method is less successful with plums than with apples and pears. However, it can work with less vigorous varieties such as ‘Early Laxton’, ‘Czar’ and ‘Blue Tit’, grafted on semi-dwarfing ‘Pixy’ or ‘VVA-1’ rootstock.
Plums are not suitable for training as espaliers.
Pruning overgrown plums
If a plum tree hasn’t been pruned for several years, its branches can get congested. Thinning them out should be staged over several years in summer. Aim to gradually create a well-balanced framework with an open centre to allow in plenty of light and air. Heavy pruning is best avoided, as larger cuts may not heal well.
Plum Prunus domestica Opal
Plum Purple Pershore
Harvest fruits carefully as they are easily bruised, then eat them fresh, or de-stone and freeze them, or make them into jams, preserves and desserts.
Plum trees are generally hardy, healthy and easy to grow, but several pests, diseases and weather conditions can cause problems, including:
Frost damage to blossom – cover smaller trees with fleece if late frost is forecast when in blossom, or bring containerised trees indoors. Avoid planting in sites prone to late frosts. See our guide to protecting fruit from frost.
Poor harvests – late frosts (see above) and spring storms can damage blossom and deter pollinators. Lack of water can cause young fruits to be shed. Plum trees may also crop more lightly in alternate years – see our advice on biennial bearing. Fruits may be eaten by birds and wasps – it may be possible protect fruit with bird netting on smaller, trained trees, but larger trees usually produce such generous crops that there should be plenty for wildlife too.
Rotting fruit – brown rot is widespread in wet summers. Remove rotting fruit to prevent spores spreading
Mis-shapen and/or maggoty fruits – small pinkish caterpillars of the plum moth may be found in the centre of some early ripening fruits, which may look slightly distorted. Later fruits are less likely to be affected.
Damaged leaves – silver leaf causes silvery leaves and dieback of branches. Remove affected branches as soon as possible. Brown spots or small holes in leaves are a sign of bacterial canker, along with dieback of shoots – remove affected growth.
Other potential problems include honey fungus, blossom wilt, plum rust, pocket plum, plum aphids, winter moth, spotted wing drosophila and magnesium deficiency.
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