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HOW TO PRUNE A
PLUM TREE


Looking after a plum tree is principally a once a year task of pruning it. If pruning is done correctly, and it's not complicated, then they are unlikely to suffer from many problems.

There are three forms of plum tree, the most common is the bush form, the less common are pyramid and standard forms. Occasionally people grow plum trees in a fan form against a wall.

This article deals with pruning a bush shaped plum tree, by far the most common.


WHEN TO PRUNE YOUR PLUM TREE


Plum trees differ from most other fruit trees because they should only be pruned when they are in full growth. In the UK, the best time to prune your plum tree is in mid june 2015, never in winter when they are dormant. The reason is that pruning your plum tree when it is dormant will expose it to the risk of Silver Leaf disease and other fungal infections.

HOW TO PRUNE YOUR PLUM TREE


Many books and website articles over-complicate the task of pruning plum trees but in truth they are far more tolerant of incorrect pruning compared to apple and pear trees. The basic principles to adhere to are to prune once a year at the time given above and to prune them to a wine goblet shape with the centre of the tree relatively free from branches and foliage.

NEW ARTICLE - JAPANESE MAPLE TREES
CLICK HERE

The "wine goblet" principle of pruning encourages the branches to grow up and away from the centre of the tree. The majority of shoots growing into the centre of the tree are pruned away completely and those growing outwards are hard pruned to encourage more growth this and next year.

Pruning a plum tree to the shape of a goblet
The picture on the left (above for mobiles) is our graphically challenged attempt at explaining the idea behind pruning a plum tree to a wine goblet shape. In an ideal world your plum tree should end up with three or four main branches growing from the main trunk of the tree.

The diagram shows only two of the main branches coming from the main stem although if you are lucky you might manage all three or four coming from the main stem. In many cases though, only two main branches will come at the correct height. Another main branch should then be left to grow from the original two branches (see branches 3 and 4 in diagram)

It will be impossible to get it exactly accurate, but however many main branches you choose to have, they should be roughly evenly spaced out to give the tree balance.

For year one pruning (see picture below) we suggest pruning the tree to a 1m / 3ft height but this is only a rough guide. You want at least two branches to form from the main stem and these will come from buds clearly visible. So in year one you may want to prune the main stem slightly higher so that a promising bud or two, in the correct position, is left on the main stem.

If you prune your plum tree at the correct time of year (see section above) you will be pruning your plum tree when the fruit has already started to form. This will lead you into the temptation of under-pruning it to avoid cutting off fruit bearing shoots and stems. Avoid the temptation and prune the tree correctly! Most plum trees form far too much fruit and this can be severe enough to cause the branches to break under the weight, Victoria plum trees are a prime example of this. Correct pruning will indeed remove some potentially fruit bearing stems but this will only improve the health of the tree and result in larger plums.

Pruning in the first and second year of a plum tree's life is easier but slightly different because there are fewer branches to prune. The three diagrams below explain how to prune a plum tree in years one, two and three.

Pruning a one year old plum treePrune a two year old plum treePrune a three year old plum tree

FIRST YEAR PRUNING
Read the above section entitled "How to Prune Your Plum Tree" above carefully before starting year one pruning. It will help explain the overall process and aims of pruning your plum tree.

First year pruning is very easy, simply prune back the stem to about 1m / 3ft high in July. If you are intending to grow your plum tree as a half-standard bush then prune to 1.2m / 4ft or 1.6m / 5ft for a full standard.

Banner for Victoriana Nursery Gardens

SECOND YEAR PRUNING
Prune back the main branches to a length of about 30cm / 12in. Prune back any side shoots to a length of 15cm / 6in. Prune weak shoots away completely and trim back any stems which are crossing. During the pruning cut the shoots and branches to an outward facing bud to try and achieve the goblet shape with a clutter free central part.

THIRD YEAR PRUNING
Third year pruning is the same as second year pruning but particular attention should be paid to keeping most of the centre of the plum tree free from branches. This helps the overall health of the tree by allowing free air circulation thus avoiding fungal diseases.

PRUNING IN LATER YEARS
Prune the top stems and branches by about a third to keep the plum tree from growing too high. Other stems and branches should be trimmed to maintain an overall goblet shape. Once again, prune shoots growing into the centre of the tree to keep it relatively open.

PRUNING LARGER NEGLECTED PLUM TREES
Many plum trees are inherited when properties are bought and you may find that they are an overgrown, over-tall tangled mess. Fear not! We have written a web page which shows you exactly how to set about pruning such plum trees to reduce the height, open up the centre of the tree and bring down the level of fruit production so they can be picked without a triple extension ladder. Click here to go to that page now.

DO I PRUNE FRUIT BEARING BRANCHES?


Because the best time to prune a plum tree is in the summer many gardeners are concerned that they will need to prune away branches which are bearing fruit. In the majority of cases though this is not really a concern. In years one to three the above recommendations do show significant pruning in order to establish a good basic shape for the future but very few plum trees will produce fruit in their first three years of life so almost no fruit will be pruned away.

In later years we recommend pruning the top growing stems to keep the height within bounds - these top stems will not be bearing fruit, the fruit will be lower down. Some pruning of the lower shoots is recommended to keep the centre of the tree open and if those inward growing stems are bearing fruit then a small number of fruits will indeed be pruned away. However, plum trees do produce lots of fruit and the crop will still be large.

CAN PLUM TREES BE PRUNED TO A CORDON SHAPE?


In theory plum trees can be pruned to a cordon shape but in practical terms it's not advisable. To create a cordon shaped fruit tree you need to prune several times a year and also at several points on the stem. Unfortunately plum trees don't repsond well to frequent pruning because it significantly increases the risk of introducing infections. This is probably the key reason why you very rarely see cordon plum trees.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON PRUNING PLUM TREES

Don't be panicked by the idea of pruning your plum tree, they are far more tolerant of bad pruning compared to apple or pear trees. Keep the height within bounds, prune away weak shoots, keep the centre reasonably clear and you won't go far wrong.

The tree on the left (above for mobiles) is not ideally formed, it has a bias to one side which makes it slightly unbalanced. But nature has bulked out the correct branches to make sure the tree remains relatively stable.  And the proof of the pudding is in the eating, this plum tree produces lots of delicious fruit year after year!

HOW TO CARE FOR PLUM TREES


Plum trees require very little care throughout their life (aside from a yearly pruning) but will produce of their best if you thin the fruit, mulch the surrounding ground and give them an annual feed. These are all described in detail below.

THINNING PLUM FRUITS


Plum trees are well known for producing vast amounts of plums in some years. This is not good for you for two reasons. First, if too many plums are produced, each individual fruit will be small and may well not ripen fully. The second problem with over-production of fruit is that the sheer weight of the fruit can cause branches to break and they don't break cleanly in most cases.

 
This will ruin the structure of the tree and often leave jagged open wounds which are a source of fungal diseases. Brown Rot is often caused by trees bearing too much fruit which has not been thinned.

Judging how much fruit should be left on your plum tree is really a matter of experience gained over a couple of years, every tree is different. But as a general rule thin young fruits so that at maturity 3cm / 1in will be left between each fruit. The best time to thin plum tree fruit in your area is mid June 2015

MULCHING PLUM TREES


Plum trees require a constant source of moisture at their roots especially when the fruits are forming. A mulch with any organic matter around the base of tree each spring will go a long to providing these conditions. If you have no organic material to hand then think again, a mulch of grass cuttings will do the job very well. If you have the money a bag of chipped bark will provide a long-lasting mulch.

ANNUAL FEED
A long lasting organic feed such as blood, fish and bone (three handfuls per tree) will provide them with an excellent tonic. It is best applied in spring just before you spread mulch around the trees.

COMMENTS / QUESTIONS LEFT BY OUR READERS

02 September 14 From: Margaret
Dave this website is fantastic.

FROM DAVE: Thanks, glad it's of use

01 September 14 From: Lucy
Hi, We have a very old neglected 10 year old plum tree. It produces masses of tasty plums. But unfortunately the wasps always beat us to them, and lots that we pick have maggots/ grubs inside which has completely put us off!! Any advice ??

FROM DAVE: Yes, have a look at our page dedicated to plum tree pests and diseases. The most likely causes are Plum Sawfly or Plum Moth both of which are described in detail on that page. As far as wasps are concerned I know of no solution because setting sugary traps in jam jars just seems to attract more wasps. I will be investigating this in more detail over the next few months and will post what I find on the pests and disease page above. There is a product called the Waspinator but I have not tested it yet.

31 August 14 From: Pauline Logan
I have an 18 year old plum tree which produced 2 tiny plums last year for the first time. Was looking forward to some fruit this year - but nothing!! Can you help? Very informative page. Thank you.

FROM DAVE: Hi Pauline, plum trees are notorious for producing fruit one year and then missing a couple. You don't say how it has cropped over the past five years or so. Also, how tall has the tree grown which may give some indication of the rootstock its on.

22 August 14 From: j. graham
I finally found your page on the internet and I found it to be very informative, answering all my queries on Victoria plum trees. Thank you so much.

FROM DAVE: Thanks, glad you've found it useful.

08 August 14 From: Andy
Can I prune my tree in August after it's fruited it's in a fan shape?

FROM DAVE: It's possible to prune a plum tree at any time of year but from the beginning of August onwards the risk of fungal infections getting into pruning wounds increases. It's up to you to determine how much risk you want to take. Minor pruning now should be OK but anything significant poses a risk.

04 August 14 From: Patrick
Hi Dave. We have a 2 year old Victoria Plum tree that bore a great deal of good fruit in year 1, which was a big surprise. This year it has only produced 3 plums but otherwise looks healthy. We need to give it a trim next June as per your advice. We missed this year. Any reason to panic yet?

FROM DAVE: That's absolutely normal Patrick, in fact the unusual feature is getting fruit in the first year! Now that is unusual. Three years or so until the tree produces fruits is about normal for a Victoria.

30 July 14 From: Colin
Can you prune a plum as a cordon tree?

FROM DAVE: The basic advice is that it is possible but not practical. See our new section on your question here.

23 June 14 From: Doug Doran
My six/seven year old Victoria Plum tree is bearing fruit, some of which look scabby, but very many of the leaves are curling up and withering. See attached picture (click here). Is this terminal or just a bad case of Plum Leaf Curl Aphids.

FROM DAVE: To diagnose Plum Leaf Curl check the leaves for signs of aphids and / or the white skins they shed. Sometimes they are not particularly visible to the naked eye so use a magnifying glass or take a digital picture of a single leaf and look at it in full size. Those two methods may show up aphids that normal viewing misses. Having done that, if there are no signs of aphids then the problem is elsewhere.

Plum trees are notorious for looking not so good one year but then recovering the next year. On that basis I would never diagnose the problem as terminal until two years have passed. If there are no aphids, has the ground been water-logged? It was a very wet winter / spring and plum trees do not like water-logged soil at all.

I can’t see the whole tree from the picture but it does appear that the branches are very long, with some unusual, almost right angled, bends in them, presumably as a result of some harsh pruning a couple of years ago or broken branches? I think the tree would benefit from some pruning to help it produce leaves and fruit earlier down the branches. My website will be updated to include how to do this but it’s not there at the moment. However, this video from Stephen Hayes (see link below) is excellent. He is very practical and willing to explain the realities of pruning plum trees. Take a look and decide how to proceed from there on. To add my own little bit of advice, I would spread the pruning out over two years rather than one and I would also try and shorten those branches which have the right angled bends in them to end up with straighter branches.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXk1yI9sdDE

Good luck.

13 June '14 From: Hilier Ward
I planted a Victoria plum tree last year and there are some green fruit on the tree. Most of the leaves have gone brown and curled up. What's wrong with it. Do I prune it before the fruit matures as above (July) thanks
 
FROM DAVE: That sounds like two questions. First, do prune in July time, see the question and answer below if you are concerned that you may be pruning away fruit. Second, it does sound like you have a pest problem and it it is probably Plum Leaf Curl Aphids, click here for more details of this pest and how to treat it. If you send a picture to our email address I can diagnose it more definitely.

August '14 From: Lots of people
Lots of people are asking can prune they their plum tree in August. My advice is don't do it for two reasons. First you open up the tree to fungal and bacterial infections. The best time for pruning to avoid this danger is in early summer. Late May to early July.
The second reason is that significant pruning in August and September will, as always, result in leaf loss. This means the tree does not get the opportunity to absorb nutrients from the leaves before they fall off in autumn.

01 June '14 From: Harry
I have a plum tree which is now in its third year my question is will it flower to produce the fruit first and if so when does this happen and what time of the year.
 
FROM DAVE: Yes, the tree must produce flowers before it can produce fruit. The flowers are pollinated by insects and only after a flower has been pollinated can it produce fruit. Varieties differ and flowering times are dependant on where you live but in general the end of April is the average time for flower production on plum trees. With a bit of luck it should produce flowers and fruit next year.

01 June '14 From: Sue Green
Hi I have a plum tree that has been In for two years now and has never flower or had any fruit on it. I feed it and make sure it has a lot of water so can you tell me what I am doing wrong kind regards sue green.
 
FROM DAVE: The average time for a plum tree to start producing fruit is about four years. Some varieties produce fruit earlier or later than the average. So your two year old plum tree probably has no problem at all, just wait a year or two. Good luck.

25 May '14 From: Sally
Thank you my tree is at least 10 years old and has not had any pruning so i need to give it a really good one.

10 May '14 From: Diane
Are pigeons likely to be eating my Victoria plum tree? Last year and this, the three year old tree started off well then, within a couple of days almost all the leaves were ripped to shreds and the twiggier branches snapped off. I have not seen pigeons doing this but last year witnessed them ripping up a Forsythia which is about eight feet away. No fruit developed last year and looking the same sad way this. Help!

ANSWER FROM DAVE: The simple answer unfortunately is yes. This problem is not uncommon. I've updated our plum pest and disease page with lots more detail about this problem and how to cope with it.

24 April '14 From: Babru
Excellent article, informative and well laid out page

12 April '14 From: Judy
I have inherited an old plum tree with my recent house purchase and need to remove a three inch diameter lower branch. When is the correct time of year to do it and do I need to seal the cut afterwards? If so with what? Hope you can help. Many thanks, Judy
 
ANSWER FROM DAVE: Plum trees should be pruned when they are growing vigorously, June is a good time in the UK. The jury is still out about using sealants. My personal opinion is not to use them, let the tree heal itself. But I definitely would prune on a dry day to reduce the risk of any fungal infections.

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