Restoration Pruning of an Overgrown Plum Tree

This post was first published on Notes From the Allotment.

Last week I tackled a job I’ve been waiting to do all summer: pruning a plum tree that’s growing at the back of #Plot59.

This tree is a classic example of the wrong plant in the wrong place. Planted by a former plot-holder of the plot behind ours about four years ago, it’s in completely the wrong location – smack bang in what ought to be a path across the back of our plot and the one behind – and judging by its general vigour I’d say it’s not on a suitably dwarfing root-stock either. But in a good year it produces very tasty golden yellow plums, so we’ve let it stand. Not that this year was a good year. A lot of fruit was set, but then a hot spell followed by a wet spell saw pretty much every single one of them split their skins and rot on the tree before they could ripen.

Since it was planted the tree had become rather overgrown, despite the light pruning I gave it last year, with a tangle of branches dipping under the weight of previous years’ fruit and blocking access to the storage area at the back of our plot. So I decided to unofficially adopt it and see what I can do to improve its growth habit with a proper pruning. I’ve pruned it now rather than waiting for winter to try to avoid the risk of silver leaf infection.

Here’s the tree before I made a start with my loppers and pruning saw:

A very over-crowded tree with lots of crossing branches and a too-high canopy.

First I concentrated on opening up the very over-crowded centre by removing crossing branches that were damaging each others’ bark. Next I picked out roughly half a dozen branches that would provide a good structure for the tree to grow and develop in a well-balanced habit, and removed anything that wasn’t helping or adding to the main structure. Finally I cut back the very long, whippy leaders at the end of those key structural branches, with the aim of developing a more manageable, reachable canopy, and trimmed back remaining side-branches to three or four good buds to encourage the development of fruiting spurs. Here it is once I’d finished working on it:

After pruning, the tree’s essential structure is enhanced and plenty of space is provided for next year’s growth.

It looks like quite a drastic chop-back, but with the thought and planning that’s gone into the cuts I’ve made, I’m hoping that the tree will respond with good growth next year. Opening up the canopy centre will help to improve air-flow and hopefully counter some of the fungal issues that we saw this year, although if the fruit splits again then there’s probably not a lot that can be done about that.

I need to clear all those weeds at the base and get some weed matting and wood-chip down as well, that should help the tree to draw up more water and nutrients next year. How about you? Do you have any major pruning jobs lined up on your plot? Or have you any good examples of proper pruning that you’ve carried out in the past? Do please let me know, via the comments.


  1. Hi, I enjoyed reading this article on pruning your plum tree. I have a rare old Welsh damson tree (grafted) that suffered some fairly bad damage to the branches, side shoots and buds when I moved house. I had to move this tree several times due to the problem of high winds stripping the flowers and where to plant the tree in a more sheltered location. Due to the damage, I had assumed that the tree had died but is now showing signs of life. Do you have any articles on pruning damson trees I can read.

    1. Hi Callum –

      I haven’t written up anything on pruning damsons just yet, probably because there’s only one tree that I regularly work with and it hasn’t really needed pruning all that much.

      As a general rule of thumb, damsons do tend to look after themselves. They’re trees of scrub, woodland and hedgerow, so they can get a bit unruly and untidy, but that’s just how they grow, it doesn’t really affect their fruiting which, by the by, can take five, six maybe even seven years to kick in, depending on the tree, its location, local conditions etc.

      Pruning requirement is usually minimal, just clearing up any badly damaged branches. But if you have a massively over-crowded tree then I’d suggest thinning it out by removing one or two whole branch sections from the centre of the tree, rather than trying to snip out individual stems all over the canopy, which will take a lot longer and probably lead to a lot more regrowth.

      I’d say yours probably just needs a few years of steady growth to recover from being relocated. The blossom will come in time and the fruit will follow. And then I can highly recommend this recipe for homemade damson ice cream that I tried last year – superb!

  2. I’m looking for some one to prune my plum tree. It’s a focal point in the centre of my garden. I also have 2 apple tree across a fence. I want someone who knows exactly what they are doing and have qualifications and credentials. Do you have any suggestions of where and how to hire some one for these jobs?

    1. Hi Liz – I’d suggest a couple of options. Either contact your local community orchard group, if there is one, and see if they can recommend someone. Often there’s a local expert who helps groups establish and manage their trees. There’s a map of community orchards that the Orchard Project has assisted with on their website which might help. Or you could try any local plant nurseries or garden centres, in case they know of any local gardeners with orchard tree experience. I have to admit it could be tricky though, there aren’t many freelance orchardists around. Good luck!

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