The many edible cultivars of the European plum (Prunus domestica) offer the home gardener an easy introduction to top-fruit growing. The plum is recognised as one of the easiest fruit trees to grow, with the amateur gardener's favourite 'Victoria' outselling any other top-fruit variety on the consumer market.
Rootstock grafting techniques mean that most varieties can be kept to a size suitable for even the smallest gardens, and where size is still a concern, simple pruning and training techniques will keep the tree to a manageable size. Explaining about rootstocks and pruning techniques is important, especially for those customers with restricted space for a tree.
The semi-vigorous St Julien A has long been the staple rootstock for garden plum trees, but suppliers are offering more varieties on the recently introduced semi-dwarf Pixie rootstock in order to keep overall heights down to 2m to 3m. Brompton and Myrobalan rootstocks are too vigorous for the average garden.
Feathered maidens (one-year-old trees), two-year-old bushes, fan-trained and half-standard options are all popular among consumers. Fan-trained specimens for example, can be trained against a wall in order to take up less space but will need more care than two-year-old bushes, which can be planted out in more exposed conditions and left to get on with it.
It takes more than just a diagram in a book to learn fruit pruning techniques, and planteria staff should encourage buyers to come back during the growing season if they have any queries on pruning and show them some basics on the trees in stock. General information on harvesting and storing fruit is also very likely to be welcome. The planting of a tree requires a host of associated products, from stakes to fertilisers, and these should be made easily available in order to increase customer spend and in some cases to close the sale.
While most customers wanting a plum tree will be looking for 'Victoria', there are a host of other self-fertile varieties offering flavour and heavy yields. Damson (P. insititia) cultivars offer a hardier, less vigorous option for colder areas.
Gages, although also derived from P. domestica, need a little extra care. They like shelter and extra warmth and do very well when fan-trained on walls, where gardeners have an opportunity to crop gages better than commercial growers.
Plums will grow well in most parts of the country but early flowerers will need protection against frost to ensure a successful crop. They do best in a deep, well-draining soil, with a clear weed-free patch maintained around the base of the tree. Deep cultivation should be avoided as this can encourage suckering.
What the experts say
- Jon Munday, nursery manager, Blackmoor Nurseries, Hampshire: "Once planted up well, plums pretty much look after themselves. 'Victoria' has been the most popular for years and will be for many years to come. It's a very reliable variety and crops very heavily.
"'Blue Tit' is very similar to 'Victoria' but a little later, offering a nice alternative to those looking for something a bit different. The self-fertile varieties tend to outsell other varieties as only one tree is needed to produce fruit.
"Early autumn is the best time to plant plum trees and get them established before the following summer, especially with the bare-rooted stocks we supply, so we make sure we have good stocks and variety at that time.
"Container specimens allow for planting throughout the year, which extends sales, but will need more aftercare and watering when planted at other times of the year. For the home garden, the semi-dwarfing Pixie is perhaps the best rootstock to offer customers as it keeps trees down to a convenient size."
- Nick Dunn, managing director, Frank P Matthews, Worcestershire: "'Victoria' dominates the plum tree market through name and reputation - it outsells all apple and pear varieties - but is probably the most susceptible variety to disease. There is a whole range of self-fertile plums offering early to late picking, giving a spread of about two months.
"Earlier, you get good varieties like 'Rivers Early Prolific' and 'Herman', which flowers two weeks earlier than any other. After 'Victoria' there is 'Jubilee', a large Victoria type good for eating. 'Guinevere' comes later and is very good for storage.
"For the smaller garden a self-fertile option is best. It's good to stock a range of varieties that offer different options in season, colour and flavour. We supply varieties either on St Julian A or Pixie rootstocks but there is not a huge difference during the first four years of growth - the advantage of Pixie is it will slow rapidly after five years.
"Gages and damsons are also popular and fall into the same category as plums, with the same flowering period - many can even cross-pollinate."
Chris Day, plant merchandising manager, Buckingham Nurseries & Garden Centre, Buckinghamshire: "We sell both container-grown plums, and more unusually for a garden centre, bare-root trees, which offer a cheaper alternative and go out in volume in early autumn. They also enable more opportunity for associated sales of products like stakes, ties, fertilisers, bonemeal and compost.
"Sales of container-grown, fan and espalier fruit trees in general are increasing and plums, gages and damsons are certainly making their mark in these sales.
"'Victoria' tends to be the most popular but there are many that hold their own against it. 'Czar' and 'Excalibur' are two relatively new varieties that make nice alternatives."
The RHS divides apple, pear, plum and cherry cultivars into numbered pollination groups with similar flowering times. P. domestica varieties in Pollination Group 1 are the earliest to flower. Many plums are self-fertile (SF), while others will need another variety from the same or adjacent pollination group to ensure pollination.
Pollination Group 1: 'Angelina Burdett', 'Blue Rock' Award of Garden Merit (AGM), 'Heron', 'Herman' (SF), 'Jefferson' AGM, 'Mallard' AGM, 'Monarch' (SF), 'Utility'.
Pollination Group 2: 'Ariel', Brahy's Green Gage (SF), Coe's Crimson Drop, 'Coe's Golden Drop', 'Curlew', 'Denniston's Superb' (SF), 'Guthrie's Late Green' (SF), 'President', 'Warwickshire Drooper' (SF).
Pollination Group 3: 'Allgroves Superb', 'Bryanston Gage', 'Bountiful' (SF), 'Czar' (SF), 'Early Laxton' AGM, 'Rivers Early Prolific' (SF), 'Edwards' AGM (SF), 'Golden Transparent' (SF),'Goldfinch', 'Late Orange', 'Laxtons's Cropper' (SF), Laxton's Gage (SF), 'Merryweather Damson' (SF), 'Merton Gem', 'Opal' AGM (SF), 'Pershore' AGM (SF), 'Purple Pershore' (SF), Reine-Claude Violette', 'Severn Cross' (SF), 'Thames Cross', 'Victoria' AGM (SF), 'Washington'.
Pollination Group 4: 'Blaisdon Red' (SF), 'Bradley's King Damson' (SF), 'Cambridge Gage' AGM; 'Count Althann's Gage'; 'Early Transparent Gage' (SF), 'Farleigh Damson' AGM, 'Giant Prune' (SF), 'Jubilee' (SF), 'Kirke's', 'Ontario' (SF), 'Oullins Golden Gage' AGM (SF), 'Wyedale'.
Pollination Group 5: 'Belle de Louvain' (SF), 'Blue Tit' AGM (SF), 'Guinevere' (SF), 'Late Transparent Gage', 'Marjorie's Seedling' AGM (SF), 'Old Greengage', 'Pond's Seedling', 'Red Magnum Bonum', 'Shropshire Damson' AGM (SF).
P. domestica 'Blue Tit' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is a sweet blue-black plum with good flavour and reliable cropping.
P. domestica 'Coe's Golden Drop' has a very sweet flavour, large pale yellow fruits with red-brown spots. It ripens in late September.
P. domestica 'Czar' AGM features medium-sized dark purple fruit with a good sharp flavour.
P. domestica 'Guinevere' grows large, heavy-cropping plums, which ripen around the same time as 'Marjorie's Seedling', with a better eating quality and storage life.
P. domestica 'Jubilaeum' is similar to 'Victoria' with large, sweet, red fruit that ripens in mid-August.
P. domestica 'Majorie's Seedling' AGM features good-flavoured large purple fruit. It is a good cropper and ripens in late September to early October.
P. domestica 'Opal' AGM is a sweet and juicy medium-sized red-purple fruit.
P. domestica 'Oullins Golden Gage' grows fairly sweet-flavoured large yellow fruit and ripens in mid-August.
P. domestica 'Victoria' AGM carries large red-mottled fruit with a good flavour. It is a heavy cropper and ripens in late August to early September.
P. insititia 'Merryweather Damson' is a sharp-flavoured, large, blue-black fruiting variety. It is the most popular of the damsons.