Prune a plum tree


Pruning Plum Trees

Pruning is a very important part of proper fruit tree care, but many people find the task overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be! Keep these things in mind:

  • You can have confidence in knowing that not everyone will prune the exact same way (even the experts).
  • It is definitely best for your tree to do some pruning versus no pruning.
  • There are three main reasons you should prune your tree: its survival, stimulation and shaping.
  • If a fruit tree is left unpruned, it will not grow well— and in some cases, may not grow at all.

NOTE: This is part 7 in a series of 10 articles. For a complete background on how to grow plum trees, we recommend starting from the beginning.


When your tree is dug up from our fields to be shipped to you, the root ball loses many of its tiny feeder roots, which are needed to absorb moisture and nutrients. Pruning helps balance the top growth of your tree with the root system, giving the roots time to re-establish in your yard before spring growth.

When your Stark Bro’s bare root tree arrives, our professionals have already pre-pruned your tree for you. Because of this, you DO NOT need to prune them again when you plant. The only pruning done at this time would be any broken branches or roots.

Plan to prune your fruit trees during every dormant season. In Zone 6 and farther north, you should wait until late winter. A good reference book, such as Pruning Made Easy, can be invaluable for answering questions and guiding you through the pruning process.


  • In addition, cutting the tree back stimulates stronger, more vigorous growth from the remaining buds. After a single growing season, a tree you prune will be bigger than a matching unpruned tree.


  • Even more important, your fruit tree needs to be shaped. The natural shape of a fruit tree is not always the best for maximum fruit production. Trees you receive from Stark Bro’s have been pruned in the nursery row for proper shaping, but correct pruning must continue at home. If you keep up with your pruning and shaping each year, you’ll make mostly small, easy-to-heal cuts.

Pruning Tips from the pros:

10 o’clock pruning angle.

  • Narrow, V-shape crotches are an open invitation to disastrous splitting later on, particularly when your tree is ripening with a large bumper crop. For your branches: choose wide 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock angles.

Pruning to a bud.

  • Make sharp, clean cuts close enough so that you won’t leave a clumsy stub that’s hard to heal over. Stay far enough above the bud so it won’t die back. Slant the cuts and the new growth will develop beautifully.
  • Always prune back to buds aimed in the direction you want limbs to grow. Every branch has buds pointed in various directions. Since you want vigorous new growth to spread away from the center of the tree, make your cut above a bud that’s aimed outward. This helps your tree grow into a spreading shape.

Prune For Success

Fruit trees develop better if they’re pruned at the right times in the right ways. Here’s how:

Help the tree form a strong framework.

Remove weak, diseased, injured or narrow-angle branches, the weaker of any crossing or interfering branches, and one branch of forked limbs. Also remove upright branches and any that sweep back toward the center of tree. You want to keep your tree from becoming too thick and crowded; some thinning is necessary to permit light to enter the tree and to keep its height reasonable. All these objectives promote improved bearing, which is your overall aim. You’ll be pleased with the results.

Prune Japanese Plum Trees to a Vase Shape.

Select and maintain three to five main scaffold limbs arising from the trunk to control the shape of the tree. These limbs should point in different directions and originate no less than 18” and no more than 36” from the ground, balancing growth evenly between the scaffold limbs. Those branches remaining in the center above the primary scaffold branches or any growth below the scaffold branches should be cut off. Any growth arising on scaffold branches within 6” of the trunk should be removed.

If for some reason the primary scaffold branches could not be selected the previous season, they may be chosen at this time. All branches above or below the scaffold branches should be removed. Avoid cutting (heading) the main scaffold branches unless necessary to maintain balance in the tree. If one scaffold branch dominates the tree, it should be headed back to a size proportionate with the others. It is necessary to have all scaffold branches growing at approximately the same rate to maintain a well-balanced tree.

Prune European Plum Trees to a Central Leader Shape.

European Plum trees do best when pruned and trained to a central leader tree. This type of tree has a pyramidal shape with a single upright leader limb as its highest point. This leader is the newest extension of a long, upright growing trunk from which all lateral branches arise. As with all strong growing branches, the leader should be headed at approximately 24-30” above the highest set of scaffolds branches. The uppermost bud on the leader produces a vigorous new leader, and no other shoot should be allowed to grow taller. Lateral limbs should be selected from shoots growing out from the central leader. These should be spaced vertically 4-6” apart, have growth that is more horizontal than vertical and point in different compass directions from the trunk. Any unbranched lateral branches should be headed back by approximately ¼ of their length to encourage side branches and to stiffen lateral branches. All laterals should have a wide branch angle.

Pruning Whips (Unbranched Trees)

Prune back to 28-36” above the ground at planting time. After the new branches have grown 3-5”, select a shoot to become the leader and scaffold limbs.

Off-season pruning

Sometimes pruning needs to be done even when the season isn’t the best. If a branch is broken by the wind or by a heavy load of fruit, emergency treatment is necessary. Prune back the ragged edges; making a smooth cut that leaves no stubby stump. Fast-growing “water sprouts” can be removed as soon as you see them rather than waiting until winter.

Fruit Thinning

There are several reasons to thin fruit:

  • To reduce limb breakage
  • Increase fruit size
  • Improve fruit color and quality
  • Stimulate floral initiation for next year’s crop

Home gardeners thin fruit trees by hand. During May and June, many fruit trees will drop or abort fruit. This is a natural process that allows the tree to mature the crop load.
Trees may bear biannually, that is bear fruit every other year, bear heavy one year, then light the next year. Thin the heavy crop to correct bearing habit.

Japanese Plum Trees

The best time to thin Japanese plum trees is when the fruit is large enough to be easily picked. Space plums 4 to 6 inches apart on the branch and break up clusters.

In This Series

  • Introduction

Getting Started

  • Location
  • Planting
  • Soil Preparation

Care & Maintenance

  • Fertilizing
  • Pest & Disease Control
  • Pruning
  • Spraying
  • Watering

Other Topics

  • Harvesting

When to prune fruit trees

Are you wondering when to prune fruit trees? Well, the answer to that question depends on your goals. Do you want to reduce the size of a vigorous tree? Or do you want to encourage a young fruit tree to grow faster? Correct fruit tree pruning, at the right time of year, can help you achieve those goals. Here are some examples illustrating when to prune a fruit tree:

  • You would consider pruning an overly large cherry tree in the early spring to reduce tree size.
  • You might prune a newly planted bare root whip (apple, cherry, apricot, plum etc.) or a slow growing, mature fruit tree in the late winter to spur vigorous growth.

There are other factors to keep in mind when you are considering when to prune fruit trees. Is your tree diseased? Are some of the branches broken? Does your tree produce lots of poor quality fruit? Do you live in a very cold climate in which late summer and autumn pruning can be risky? I’m going to explore some of these questions in this blog.

When do you prune fruit trees? Winter pruning is good for young trees as it spurs vigorous growth. Summer pruning is best if you want to keep your fruit trees small.

Fruit Tree Pruning as Energy Management

In general, winter fruit tree pruning spurs vigorous growth while summer slows growth down. But why is that? Well, that all has to do with your tree’s seasonal cycle of energy. Fruit tree pruning, at the right time of year, helps growers manage the energy of their fruit trees. For a quick summary, check out the infographic below. Then to delve into more detail, scroll down to continue reading the article as I explore when and why to prune fruit trees, season by season.

Why Fruit Tree Pruning in the Winter Spurs Growth

winter: In the fall, fruit trees draw the energy out of their lush green leaves and into their root systems for winter storage. Once the energy has been sucked out of the leaves, those leaves will turn brown and fall off the tree. Fruit trees hardly grow at all during the winter months (their roots continue to grow but that’s about it). So, your tree will use just a small percentage of its stored nutrients to keep it alive during the winter. Most of the remaining energy will be saved for a spring flurry of action. That’s the time when fruit trees emerge from dormancy. Their buds break open and trees need their stored energy to fuel blossom, leaf, branch and root growth.

Is winter a good time to prune fruit trees? If you live in a cold climate, winter pruning is fantastic because the tree is dormant, with no leaves, flowers or fruit. That means it will be easy to see your tree’s structure and to decide which cuts to make. And yet, some orchardists avoid fruit tree pruning in the early winter. That’s because in the early winter, branch growth is minimal and the tree cannot heal the wounds caused by pruning cuts. But the late winter is an excellent time to prune your trees. You can easily see the structure of your tree, and you can rest assured knowing that the spring is not far off and your tree will soon be able to heal those wounds.

Winter Pruning Encourages Vigorous Growth: Moreover, when you prune your tree in the late winter or early spring, you will spur vigorous growth. Why? Well, you are selecting the best branches to keep. And you are removing the lower quality branches. That means that when the spring comes, it won’t waste its energy fuelling the growth of poor quality branches. Instead it will focus that energy on the best branches.

Think about it this way: If your fruit tree has 100 branches and it has to fuel growth in each of those branches, then each branch gets a small share of the stored energy. But if, after pruning, your tree has just 75 branches, each branch gets a larger share of that energy so it can grow longer and produce better quality fruit.

Article continues below…

Susan Poizner, Director of Orchard People Fruit Tree Care Education and Consulting, pruning a young pear tree.

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Fruit Tree Pruning in The Spring

Spring: As spring approaches the days become longer, the weather becomes warmer and your tree starts to emerge from dormancy. It has a wonderful stash of energy or sugars in its roots, which it will use to power spring growth. The buds on your tree will burst open making way for leaves, blossoms, baby fruit and new shoots to emerge.

Is this a good time to prune fruit trees? Some orchardists like to prune in the spring after the tree’s buds have opened and the blossoms and leaves have started to emerge. The benefit of pruning at that time is that you can see (and remove) the branches that did not survive the winter. This is especially true for those who grow tender fruit trees, like peach trees or apricots.

Pruning in the spring, however, will not encourage as much growth in your tree as it would if you pruned in the late winter. That’s because that tree has already used up some of its stored energy to fuel leaf, blossom and shoot growth on that tree’s many branches before pruning. Spring is a good time to prune a large fruit tree if you want to make it more compact.

A volunteer pruning one of the larger trees in Fennel Orchard. When you plant a larger tree, it’s harder to create the ideal shape for growing fruit.

Fruit Tree Pruning in the Summer

Summer: Wow! The spring was a busy time for your tree! But once spring growth slows and the stored nutrients are used up, your tree can use the rest of the summer to rebuild its nutrient stockpile. Now fully leafed out, it will produce energy through photosynthesis. Some of that energy it will use to fuel summer growth. The remaining energy will eventually be drawn back into the roots in the winter, when the cycle starts again.

Is this a good time to prune fruit trees? It can be. Summer pruning has many benefits. Because your tree doesn’t have a stockpile of energy, it won’t grow vigorously as a result of the summer pruning, so that can help you reduce the size of a larger tree. Great candidates for spring or summer pruning include cherry trees, which if left alone can grow up to three stories tall!

Even if your primary pruning session took place in the winter or early spring, you can continue pruning in the summer. This is the time when you will remove any newly growth branches that are broken, crisscrossed (and rubbing up against each other) or diseased.

Why Fruit Tree Pruning in the Autumn is Not Wise

Autumn: After a summer of sunshine your tree has produced a large amount of food for itself. It does this through photosynthesis – a process by which your tree turns the light of the sun into sugars that are stored in your fruit tree’s leaves. As the weather cools, the tree prepares for dormancy by moving those sugars down into its roots for winter storage.

Is this a good time to prune fruit trees? Well, if you live in a cold climate, autumn pruning is not a great idea. That’s because every time you cut a branch off of a tree, you will leave behind a pruning wound. That’s not a problem during the growing season. Within days your tree will start healing the wound with a layer of protective cells. But in the fall, growth has slowed and that may not happen.

Fall leaves in autumn

Pruning Diseased Fruit Trees

Are you wondering when to prune fruit trees that are diseased? The answer is that you can do that at any time of year. Often in the winter it is easier to see disease problems as the branches of your tree are bare. You may choose to wait until late winter to ensure that the wound will heal quickly afterwards though. Also, most diseases are dormant in the winter months. But winter or summer, if you see a diseased branch, it’s usually a good idea to remove it so the disease (like black knot, canker, or fireblight) doesn’t spread within the tree and to neighbouring trees. The important thing is to be able to identify the disease problem and to know if pruning is an effective treatment and how much is necessary to cut off.

How to Prune Fruit Trees

Pruning is an essential part of fruit tree care. But if you don’t prune your tree correctly, you can hurt it more than help it. So, now that you know when to prune fruit trees, next it’s important to how to prune your tree. Check out the video below to learn about pruning a newly planted bare root tree. Then, when you’re ready to learn more about fruit tree pruning, sign up for one of my premium fruit tree care courses. Happy growing everyone!

Susan Poizner

Director, Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist and the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards. She is the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training program at and the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast. She is also an ISA Certified Arborist..



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 2017, 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.

Strongly growing plum trees are more resistant fungal infections. It’s also the case that Silver Leaf Disease spreads through spores which are far more common in the damp conditions which exist in autumn and winter.

In general any time from late spring to the end of July is the risk free time to prune your plum tree.

There are two exceptions to this rule (there is always an exception or two!) and they are:

  • A newly bought one year old plum tree planted in winter. The supplier of a new plum tree should have identified if they have sold you a one or a two year old plum tree. If not see the two diagrams lower down this article to help you identify what age your tree is.
    It is important to prune a one year plum tree as soon as possible to help it establish a good structure. At the same time, pruning in winter exposes the tree to fungal infections. With these two factors in mind we recommend pruning a one year old tree in early March (late March in cold areas of the UK).
    Prune on a dry day and use a sharp pair of secateurs. Make the cut a sloping one to avoid water settling on the cut surface. See pruning a one year tree below for more details.
  • Where an established plum tree suffers breakages of one or more branches (wind and weight of fruit are two common reasons) then it is best to prune back the broken branch to good solid wood immediately. The tree will suffer less if a branch has been cleanly cut compared to a breakage where the surface of the broken branch is open and ragged.
    Prune on a dry day and use sharp secateurs / pruning knives.


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.

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.

The picture above 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.

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 a few potentially fruit bearing stems but this will only improve the health of the tree and result in larger plums.

One particular plum tree we have reviewed, Cambridge Gage, is slow to establish and we recommend less pruning than recommended below. See the Cambridge Gage tree page here for specific details on pruning this variety.

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.


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 early to late March (see below for why at this time of year). 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.

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.

It is important to prune a one year plum tree as soon as possible to help it establish a good structure. At the same time, pruning in winter exposes the tree to fungal infections. With these two conflicting factors in mind we recommend pruning a one year old tree in mid March (late March in cold areas of the UK).

The supplier of your plum tree will have told you the age of your plum tree when you bought it. If you don’t know the age of your tree use the diagram above and below to decide if your new tree is one or two years old.

Prune on a dry day and use a sharp pair of secateurs. Make the cut a sloping one to avoid water settling on the cut surface. Current advice is not to use a pruning sealant on the cut.

So we can get the timings correct for year two and three pruning, let’s assume you plant your new, one year old tree in January 2017 and pruned it for the first time in March 2017. Dates below will be based on this date.


This section on pruning a two year old plum tree applies to the following two situations:

  • You bought a one year tree in January 2017 and pruned it shortly afterwards in March 2017 (see first year pruning above). This second year pruning should occur in mid June 2018.
  • You bought and planted a two year old tree in winter (example date January 2017) and wish to prune it for the first time in mid June 2018.

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. Prune on a dry day and use a sharp pair of secateurs. Make the cut a sloping one to avoid water settling on the cut surface.

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. If the position of an outward facing bud only occurs further down the stem to be pruned, prune to that point.


Using the example dates given in the above two sections this pruning will occur in mid June 2019.

Third year pruning is the same as second year pruning. Prune back the branches to a length of about 35cm / 14in. Prune back any side shoots to a length of 15cm / 6in. Prune weak shoots away completely and trim back any stems which are crossing. Prune on a dry day and use a sharp pair of secateurs. Make the cut a sloping one to avoid water settling on the cut surface.

Cut the shoots and branches to an outward facing bud to try and achieve the goblet shape with a clutter free central part. If the position of an outward facing bud only occurs further down the stem to be pruned, prune to that point. 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.

Yellow Mirabelle Plums

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 away shoots growing into the centre of the tree to keep it relatively open.

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. to go to that page now.


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.


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 respond 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.


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 above 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!


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.


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 2017

One useful tip when thinning plum fruits is to remove more of the fruit which receives less sunshine. In practice, fruits which are nearer the centre of the tree and those which are on the shady side of the tree will ripen slower and should be thinned in preference to those which are likely to receive the most sunshine. Don’t go overboard with this principle but bear it in mind.


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.

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.

23 Jan How to Prune a Santa Rosa Plum Tree

Posted at 17:08h in TreePro Blog by K2JWD6

The Santa Rosa Plum variety was developed by Luther Burbank in 1906. This plum variety is to this day one of the favorite of home orchardists and commercial growers.

The best time to start pruning your Santa Rosa Plum Tree is a year after it is planted. Early pruning to develop the proper structure is best done when a tree is young. It is important to keep lower branches on the tree where the fruit can be easily picked. To develop strong branch development prune out branches with high “V” shaped attachments. These are more likely to fail as the tree grows. Branches that attach to the trunk horizontally are strongest and should be retained.

Fruit trees produce more fruit when they are encouraged to grow new branches each year. Plums grow on last year’s new wood. This means that your best fruit production will occur on wood that was grown during the previous Spring and Summer. The best way to promote new wood is to reduce the upper part of the branches each year.

A good rule of thumb is to remove one third of the new growth and reduce the remaining branches by one third. This keeps new branches growing each year and will keep your plum production high. When reducing a branch you will want to cut to a lower lateral branch that is one third to one half the diameter of the branch you are cutting. Remove any overcrossing branches but keep some interior branches on the lower tree where the fruit is easy to reach. Too often fruit trees are overthinned in the lower tree and left to grow tall where the fruit is too high to reach. Don’t make that mistake when training your tree. Keep the lower branches and reduce the taller limbs to encourage new fruiting wood that provides fruit that is easy to pick.

How large will a Santa Rosa Plum Tree grow?

A Santa Rosa Plum Tree can grow to 25 feet or more but is best kept at a height where you can reach the fruit. Most people use a ladder or basket style fruit picker to reach taller branches. So the height of your tree may best be kept where you can reach the fruit with your picker or ladder. In commercial orchards trees are normally kept at the height of the pruning ladder being used to prune the trees.

It is a good rule of thumb to follow in your home orchard as well. Prune the tree to the height you are comfortable when working from a ladder. I recommend having someone hold the ladder while you are working to prevent an accidental fall.

Tools to use when pruning your Santa Rosa Plum Tree

The type of tool used to prune your tree will depend on the size of the branch to be pruned. A good pair of hand pruners can cut a limb of 1/2 to 3/4 inch. Larger branches can be pruned with a pair of loppers, a hand saw, or a pole pruner. Make sure you have sharp tools in good condition prior to starting your pruning. Trying to make a clean pruning cut with a dull pair of hand pruners or hand saw is frustrating and can even be dangerous.

Plum Tree Pruning: Learn About How And When To Prune A Plum Tree

Plum trees are a lovely addition to any landscape, but without proper trimming and training, they can become a burden rather than an asset. Although plum tree pruning is not difficult, it’s important. Anyone can trim plums, but timing is important, as is consistency. Therefore, learning how and when to prune a plum tree is imperative.

The purpose of pruning and training is to encourage tree health and increase fruit yield. When plum trees are not carefully pruned, they can easily become heavy and break under their fruit load. Developing a strong foundation is essential to the life of any fruit tree. In addition, keeping fruit trees well pruned protects against both disease and pest infestations.

When to Prune a Plum Tree

The time for plum tree pruning depends on the maturity and type of plum tree. Young plums are generally pruned in early spring, before bud break, in order to avoid infection by silver leaf disease. Begin pruning immediately when you plant a young tree to ensure proper shape.

Established fruit tree plums are best pruned in mid-summer.

Trimming flowering plum trees is not advised.

How to Prune a Plum Tree: The First Three Years

All young fruit trees need some pruning to get them off to a good start. Plum trees are best pruned in a vase format to get a short trunk with three or four major branches to come off of the trunk at a 45-degree angle. This allows plenty of light and air into the tree. Always use sterilized and sharp pruning shears when you trim.

The central leader branch should be cut back to 2 feet above soil level on new trees. Always make the cut just above a bud. Once you have made the cut, you can rub off the bud directly below the cut. Be sure that there are at least three buds below.

When you prune in the second year, cut the main stem back to 18 inches above a bud. Below this cut, there should be at least three branches. Prune these branches to 10 inches, on an angle, immediately above a healthy bud.

Prune three-year-old trees in a similar fashion by trimming the main stem to 18 inches above a bud. Trim the three or four branches immediately below to 10 inches.

How to Prune a Plum Tree When Established

Once your tree is established, it’s important to prune only branches that have not produced fruit in that year. Remove all dead wood and dispose of it. Trim all side shoots to six leaves from their parent branch to encourage fruiting next year. Keep the central stem no more than 3 feet from the highest branch.

When and how to trim plums shouldn’t be discouraging. Simply learning the basics of how to prune a plum tree will provide you with the necessary tools for growing a healthy, happy tree and plenty of fruit.

Don’t prune these particular trees in the winter


Q: When is the best time to prune my cherry tree?

A: As we get into the fall and winter most gardeners start to think about pruning fruit trees. It is easier to see the branch structure of the tree as it is most visible when the leaves have fallen.

The wintertime is considered the traditional time to prune deciduous trees. This is true for many shade and fruit trees, but for some fruit trees pruning mainly during the summer growing season is a good practice for keeping the tree size in check and avoiding disease problems. And pruning during the winter months can prove to be downright harmful for some types of fruit trees.

According to Chuck Ingels, University of California Cooperative Extension Farm adviser for Sacramento County, “with some species such as apricots and cherries, pruning between September and March in Northern California could lead to detrimental canker diseases.

Cherries, apricots and a few related species are particularly susceptible to fungal and bacterial canker diseases, including Eutypa dieback, Botryosphaeria canker, and bacterial canker. Pathogens can be spread by rain or tree wounds — such as pruning wounds — during wet weather; subsequent infections spread through the wood for several years and may eventually kill the tree.”

Trees infected with these diseases will see limbs, twigs or entire trees wilt and die suddenly in late spring or summer with the leaves still attached. Bark may be darkly discolored and amber-colored gumming may ooze. If you cut into the branch you will see infected areas in the interior of the wood discolored brown, sometimes in wedge shapes.

Trees infected with the bacterial canker disease will show a cambial area on the limb that will turn red or speckled red and then brown. If you suspect that you have one of these diseases on your tree, remove the infected branch by cutting at least one foot below any internal symptom of the disease, preferably during the dry season when the risk of spreading the infection is lowest.

To avoid disease problems gardeners should not prune apricots and cherry trees during the typical rainy period from September through mid-April. Later rains can still lead to infections although tissue susceptibility to these diseases decrease with warmer weather. If growth is very vigorous, the first summer pruning can be done in late May or early June, at which time many strong upright shoots can be removed to allow sunlight to reach lower fruiting branches.

However, the main or final pruning should be done in August after the tree has finished fruiting. When doing heavy pruning, especially at that time of year, be careful to not remove more than one third of the overall canopy. Removing to much growth may lead to sunburned branches, so leave spurs and some other shoots to provide some shade to main tree limbs.

It is also good practice to whitewash west- and south-facing branches with a 50:50 mixture of interior, white latex paint and water to prevent sun burning.

The Shasta Master Gardeners Program can be reached by phone at 242-2219 or email [email protected] The gardener office is staffed by volunteers trained by the University of California to answer gardeners’ questions using information based on scientific research.

Now Is The Time To Prune Your Fruit Trees

Anyone can successfully prune their own fruit trees if they follow a few simple rules. First, remember that annual pruning can enhance fruit production and control the size of the tree.

Learn the difference between fruiting wood and vegetative growth. It’s possible to prune out too much of the fruiting wood or spurs, resulting in few blossoms and little fruit. There’s a great chart at that tells where fruiting buds are located on various kinds of fruit trees.

When you prune, use a ladder. To avoid damage or broken branches, do not climb the tree or pull branches toward you. Try not to remove more than twenty five percent of the tree canopy in a single year. Severe pruning can shift the tree from fruit production to growth.

Walk around your tree and look for weak, dead, diseased or crossing branches. Also, look for the growth of “suckers” from the base of the tree. Remove all of these branches and sprouts first, using a sharp pair of pruning shears, a lopper, or a small saw, depending on the size of the wood.

Remember no two people prune a tree in the same way. Chuck Ingels, University of California Farm Advisor, says, “There are many ways to train and prune deciduous fruit trees, and no single method is right for all situations and needs.” Do not be afraid to make mistakes.

Think of how you want your tree to look. In most cases you want a scaffold of 3 to 4 branches in the shape of a vase or wine glass with upward pointing branches and an open center for good air circulation.

When deciding where and what branch to cut, remember that cutting encourages growth from the bud just below the cut. Choose a bud that faces the direction you want to direct new growth. Cut cleanly at roughly a forty-five degree angle one quarter of an inch above the selected bud. Do not leave a large stub. If you are removing a branch to the trunk of the tree look for the rounded collar at the base of the branch and cut at its outside edge, so as to not leave a stub.

Remove vigorous upright shoots (“water sprouts”) and most competing branches growing straight up into the tree. Upright branches are generally vegetative (stems and green leaves); horizontal branches are more fruitful.

Be sure to remove all leaves and old fruit or failed blossoms. Rake the area thoroughly of all litter and branches to be sure no insect eggs or diseased materials are left around the tree.

To protect your tree from sunburn and borers (especially in winter) paint the trunk of the tree with a fifty-fifty mix of interior white latex paint and water. If dry weather persists, check soil moisture and irrigate, if needed.

I could write much more on this subject but the best thing I can tell you is to attend the Tuolumne County Master Gardener Open Garden Day on Saturday, February 4. We’ll demonstrate pruning mature fruit trees, bareroot fruit trees, and roses at Cassina High School, 251 South Barretta Street, Sonora, CA. Bring pruning tools and gloves so that you can participate in the hands-on demonstrations. Master Gardeners will be there to answer any questions you might have.

Jack Bennett has been a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener in Tuolumne County since 2006.

Photo: Justin Russell

There’s a widespread myth in gardening circles that the time to prune fruit trees is winter. This is only half true — most deciduous fruiting trees benefit from a structural prune in winter, when it’s easy to see what you’re working with. The downside to winter pruning is that it takes cut surfaces a lot longer to callous and heal in cool weather, creating the perfect point for disease to enter the tree’s vascular system.

In summer, however, pruning cuts heal very quickly, and a barrier is formed to keep moisture in and disease out. Summer pruning also helps facilitate the next crop of fruit. Take peaches and nectaries as examples. Each plant produces fruit on branches that form in the previous summer. By pruning now, instead of winter, the tree has time to grow lots of new wood, and is likely to bear a heavy crop in about 12 months time.

The best time to summer prune is as soon as a crop is harvested. Start by sharpening your tools, and sterilise them using a 10 percent bleach solution or straight metho. Then remove any dead or diseased wood. Next take out any obvious flaws in the tree’s structure, such as crossing or rubbing branches.

Peaches and other new wood bearers can be pruned in a couple of ways. They can be given an all over haircut, with each branch reduced by a third to a half. The other option is to shorten lateral branches only (those growing laterally from main branches), leaving the main branches in tact. Apricots, Japanese plums and other trees that bear on a combination of new and old wood can also get this treatment, though in my experience it’s better to just give such trees a general tidy up rather than a heavy pruning.

Apples, pears, cherries and other spur bearing trees benefit from having lateral branches pruned heavily. Take them back to just a couple of leaf buds in length — these buds will shoot, and hopefully form a fruiting spur.

Don’t waste the prunings. Healthy fruit wood can be air dried, then used as kindling, as fuel for a food smoker, or to provide a lovely fruity fragrance to wood fired ovens and traditional wood fired barbeques. Apple smoked pork… yum!

By: Justin Russell

First published: January 2014

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