Plum trees in your yard can be a plum good idea

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Wed., Jun. 27, 2012
- Contributed Photo

When most people think of their grandparents, images of fruits and vegetables aren’t often conjured up. Memories of my grandparents, however, are filled with juicy pears, sun-kissed tomatoes, dandelion wine, peppers way too hot for childhood taste buds, and jars of plums – sweet, luscious, purple plums. My dad’s parents came from Poland. They resided in the Black Rock section of Buffalo, N.Y., raised seven kids, and were among the most self-sufficient folks I had ever met. Not only did granddad hunt and fish, but their postage stamp-sized lot boasted several fruit trees, among them a European purple plum. Grandma turned the fruit into plum jam and lots and lots of jars of canned plums. Canned fruit was an often-served although not highly-rated dessert of my younger days. Grandma’s plums were different – a sweet delicacy – even more interesting because the pits were still intact!

Which brings me back to my topic – plums. At the Home & Garden Education Center, not only have we noticed an increase in requests for information about vegetable gardening, but also for assistance in growing fruit-bearing plants. Tree fruits are often added to the backyard, and while apples and pears remain favorites, demand is up for stone fruits like plums as well.

Actually there are more than 100 species of plums, with about 30 of them native to North America. They have been cultivated almost as long as the apple, and native Americans used them raw, cooked and dried. Two common native species one might encounter in Connecticut are the wild red plum, Prunus americana, and the beach plum, P. maritima. Enough beach plums grew on Cape Cod to have once made gathering the fruits for preserves a commercial venture. While either of these two species would be suitable for a native plant garden, they may not top the list of those preferred for backyard fruit production.

For this purpose, choose from European or Japanese plums. European plums (P. domestica) would be the top choice for the colder regions of Connecticut. Fruits are mainly small, oval and mostly purple but sometimes green or yellow. Many have heard of the Green Gage or Damson plums. They are of European descent, although Damson plums are a different European species (P. institia). European plums are sweet enough to be dried for prunes and are great for canning and making preserves. A number of them make quite good fresh eating as well.

European plums tend to be more upright than Japanese varieties and bloom slightly later, which is a desirable characteristic for our unpredictable New England weather. Blossoms are less likely to be injured by an unseasonably late frost. Also, many European varieties are self-fertile, so only one plum tree needs to be planted.

Japanese plums (P. salicina and hybrids) are commonly found on your grocer’s shelves. They are more rounded, almost heart-shaped, firmer, and come in shades of red, yellow and purple. Despite their name, Japanese plums are originally from China. Luther Burbank is credited for his extensive breeding work with Japanese plums. Many of today’s commercial cultivars had been developed by him. Among his better known cultivars are ‘Santa Rosa,’ ‘Burbank’ and ‘Red Ace.’

Nursery catalogs have a number of Japanese plum varieties rated as being hardy to USDA zone 5. Other literature suggests that Japanese plums may not have as much cold tolerance as European plums and bloom quite early, so there is a greater risk to frost damage to the blossoms. I would suggest not planting Japanese varieties in a sheltered area where more mild conditions might hasten flowering only to be vulnerable to late frosts.

All Japanese plums that I am aware of require a second variety for cross pollination to occur. This means that two different varieties of Japanese plums with coinciding bloom times are needed within a hundred yards or so of each other. If you have room for only one tree, maybe a neighbor would be willing to plant a mate. Some fruit nurseries sell two varieties (or more) grafted onto one rootstock, so this would cover the pollination requirements plus produce two different kinds of sweet, juicy plums.

Typically plums trees are sold as standards which grow 16 to 20 feet high or semi-dwarfs, reaching only about 14 feet. There does not seem to be a really satisfactory dwarfing rootstock readily available yet, although a few nursery catalogs had dwarf plum trees for sale. Semidwarfs can be planted about 10 feet apart with usually a 20 foot spacing given for standard size trees.

Like most food-bearing plants, plums need full sun and a well-drained, moderately fertile soil with a pH ranging from 5.5 to 6.5. If site requirements are met, annual maintenance includes pruning, fertilizing, sometimes thinning of fruits, and pest control.

Standard size plum trees usually start to bear fruit three to five years after planting, while semi-dwarfs may produce fruit sooner. Not only will backyard plum trees give you lots of tasty, nutritious fruit, but they also are quite attractive in bloom. With edible landscaping becoming more popular, many local nurseries should have both small and tree fruit plants available. Join the growing groceries movement and plant a fruit tree or two in your yard.

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