How to Prune a Plum Tree

A branch of a plum tree full of juicy fruits
Golubov.Ivana / Shutterstock.com

You’ve planted a plum tree or two in your garden, hoping to create a neat paradise of greenery and edible plants, like fruit trees. It’s all very good, but without the right care, you may not end up with what you originally dreamed of. While plum trees can look quite attractive in any garden in Australia, every orchardist needs to know that pruning is an integral part of growing fruit trees. Regular maintenance is important not only to keep a tree pretty and appealing but to improve its health and promote vigorous growth and fruit production.

So, if you:

  • Want to know how to prune a plum tree properly;
  • Are keen to learn the pruning techniques and tricks of experts;
  • Want to find out when is the best time of year to prune your tree;

Then, read on! We’ve gathered all the information you need in the sections below.

When to prune a plum tree

Before getting into how to prune, we need to clarify when to prune a plum tree. As a general rule of thumb, winter is the best time for pruning, but that is not always the case. When you prune a plum tree will depend on whether you want to encourage new growth in a young plant or restrain the size of a mature tree. Therefore, the right time to prune may vary from late winter to midsummer.

Young plum trees

Many professional gardeners advise on pruning in late winter or early spring for several reasons. During the colder months, trees fall into a dormant state where no new growth occurs. This means that there will be fewer leaves, and you will get better visibility of the branches’ condition, making it easier to decide which parts of the tree you should cut. Moreover, by removing dead, diseased or damaged branches, you give your tree the chance to unleash and focus its energy on the fewer yet healthier branches in the spring.

Important: Although winter pruning is good for encouraging growth, be careful not to prune if frost is expected that season, although this is quite rare in Australia. For that reason, also avoid pruning in autumn, just in case. Frost can damage a freshly cut tree and as the plant is entering its dormant stage, it won’t be able to heal fast enough, making it easier for pests and bacteria to enter through the cutting wounds.

Mature plum trees

On the other hand, mature plum trees do well when pruned in summer. At this time of year, the tree’s growth slows down because its energy has already been used for the production of branch growth, blossoms, and leaves. Use this period to cut back the damaged branches of your well-established plum tree while controlling its growth.

Keep in mind, however, that if you live in a humid area, summer pruning carries a risk of fungal infection. Last but not least, you can do the pruning immediately after you’ve harvested the fruit, although you can complete the task selectively and carefully while there are plums on the tree, too.

Pro tip: Remove broken branches as soon as you notice them no matter what time of year it is.

How to prune a plum tree

We all thrive to have a beautiful, neat looking garden, and the annual pruning of our trees can help us achieve just that. Even if you’ve never pruned before and you are not sure how to approach the task, you will see that once you understand the process, pruning a plum tree will prove to be a fairly simple job.

To help you tackle the task like a professional, we’ve prepared some tips and tricks just for you. Read on and learn how to prune a plum tree with our step-by-step guide!

Warning: Before you begin, make sure you use the right equipment and your pruning tools are all sharp and sterilised. You wouldn’t want to damage your tree in the process, right?

What you will need:

  • Pruning shears
  • Long-handled pruners
  • Pruning saw (optional)
  • Ladder (if needed)
  • Thick gloves
  • Long-sleeved shirt

Step-by-step guide

  1. Get rid of damaged branches

    Clean up all visibly broken, diseased or dead branches to ensure your tree stays healthy and doesn’t waste its food resources on damaged parts. You can use your long-handled pruners, or a pruning saw to do that. You may also notice a few branches in older plum trees that look healthy at first but don’t produce fruit. Remove them, as well. Make the cuts in line with the tree trunk. Leaving a bud will encourage new growth, but the chance is that the new branch similarly won’t produce fruit.

  2. Shape your plum tree

    growing outwards at a 45-degree angle. Clip away those that are growing horizontally because they won’t be able to bear the weight of fruit and will break. Since plum trees require free space in the crown for sun and air to penetrate, remove any crossing or inward growing branches.

    Pro tip: If your tree is young or you own a Japanese plum tree, prune it to a vase shape with an open centre, instead of aiming for a central leader.
  3. Cut off the sprouts

    Remove any sprouts, also known as suckers and stems that are below the scaffold limbs, as well as the water sprouts growing vertically from the main branches. Cut them off flush with the tree trunk. Don’t leave any stubs. If they are small enough, it would be better to pull them off by hand.

  4. Trim the edges

    This process is known as “heading back”. Cut back 20-30% of last year’s growth. Always cut just above a bud. This helps encourage new growth. Depending on your tree, you may need to trim from 5 centimetres to 1 metre or even more. Think of it as giving your plum tree a haircut.

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Fruit thinning

Fruit thinning refers to the process of removing some of the fruit from a tree to improve the quality and richness of the yield while keeping the branches healthy. Thinning the fruits of a plum tree is usually done after the tree has been pruned.

Although we understand that it may appear wrong at first to remove seemingly fine fruit, this after-pruning procedure is quite important for the health of a plum tree. Therefore it shouldn’t be underestimated. Here are the reasons why fruit thinning is beneficial for a plum tree:

A branch with less fruit has the capability to grow larger and juicier plums.

Fruit trees are known to sometimes produce fruit biennially, instead of annually, and fruit thinning can eliminate this problem.

A huge amount of fruit can be a too heavy load for a branch and cause bending, breakage or cracking, making the tree vulnerable to silver leaf disease.

To properly fruit thin your tree, remove some of the plums while they are still small. Aim to have only one fruit every 15 – 25 cm. Cut the plums from the branch, don’t pull them because it can damage the shoot. In midsummer, you can look out for bruised and damaged plums and remove them.

Takeaways

  • Plum trees require annual pruning to look neat, grow healthy and produce quality fruit.
  • The best time to prune a mature tree is in summer, while young plums are pruned in late winter.
  • The annual pruning of a plum tree consists of removing damaged branches, shaping and trimming the edges.
  • Fruit thinning helps a plum tree produce larger, tastier fruit and prevents damage to the branches.
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Les
Les
1 year ago

Sounds pretty easy, and the instructions were
clear but Some illustrations would be nice for us first timmers. “Pruning for dummies”. Thanks for the info!

Nkonde
Nkonde
11 months ago

Greatly appreciated, thanks for the info

herve moreau
herve moreau
8 months ago

Hi, thank you for the info; our Satsuma plum tree just finished producing a week ago. loads of beautiful plums and it is now early Autumn, is it too late for pruning?
We live in Yackandandah in northeast victoria, a cool zone.

The Fantastic Team
Admin
8 months ago
Reply to  herve moreau

Hi there. Great to hear you had a nice harvest. It might even be too early! We recommend you wait until late winter, somewhere in July-August.

Neil
Neil
4 months ago

Hi thanks for the info as I ready myself to prune soon once frosts & main rain done with, though what denotes a mature tree in age? my 3 plum trees, 1 x white, 2 x red are approx. 3-4 years old & didn’t bear fruit last year. Thanks Neil

YOUR COMMENT – “The best time to prune a mature tree is in summer, while young plums are pruned in late winter”.

The Fantastic Team
Admin
24 days ago
Reply to  Neil

Hi there. A plum tree is considered mature when it’s older than three years. Are you waiting for summer this time? We hope you have a good harvest!

Neil
Neil
4 months ago

Hi what is best affordable product to sterilise pruning equipment?
Thanks Neil

The Fantastic Team
Admin
24 days ago
Reply to  Neil

You can sanitise tools with ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. Some people use bleach, but honestly you can’t go wrong with simple alcohol.

Prasad
Prasad
4 months ago

Well organized valuable information . Highly appreciated

The Fantastic Team
Admin
24 days ago
Reply to  Prasad

Thank you, we’re glad you enjoyed it!

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