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24 September 2014

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You are in: Lancashire > Nature > Features > Ask the gardener: Damsons and Plums

Plums

Ask the gardener: Damsons and Plums

Gardening gets fruity with your damson-related questions...

Warton's Bill Blackledge is one of the county's most popular and sought after gardeners.   If it's green and needs watering, Bill can tell you about it.  He has been answering BBC Radio Lancashire listeners' queries for over thirty years, which means he's been there nearly as long as the transmitter!

His knowledge is encyclopedic. After training at the under the then Ministry of Agriculture, Bill spent over twenty years at the Department of Biological and Environmental Services at Lancaster University.  Now, he's a regular course tutor at Alston Hall, Longridge and Lancaster Adult College.

For three decades, Bill has travelled the county with fellow judges as a regional judge for North West in Bloom.

So, whatever the problem, we like to think Bill can sort it out... at least that's the theory!

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DAMSONS

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Dave Jones asks...

We were given a damson tree last year which we replanted in our garden. The leaves curled over and developed lumps over all the surface of the leaves. Could you please give me some advice on this?

Bill replies...

Your Damson Tree Dave could be suffering from the plum leaf curling aphid which causes the leaves to become tightly curled, crumpled and distorted and on the underside of the leaves you will find pale yellow-green insects.  The aphids suck the sap from the leaves and this causes the leaves to become distorted and during the early summer months the winged adults move on to alternative host plants but return to the Damsons during the autumn period to lay overwintering eggs at the base of the branches.  There are no insecticides on the market which the amateur garden can use to control the aphids but, during the winter months a tar oil winter wash will reduce the overwintering eggs.

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Judith Chisholm asks...

There is a damson tree mostly in shade at the end of the garden. It is also covered with ivy. It is exuding a lot of golden resinous substance all over the trunk. Small snails seem to have been caught in the resin, so it must move quickly. Is the tree ill? It fruited last year.

Bill replies...

The golden resinous substance oozing from the trunk of your Damson Tree Judith has probably been caused by the bacterial Canker disease which is a serious disease of Damsons, Cherries and other stone fruit trees and, I am afraid that you are going to have to check the branches which have been infected and these will need to be cut out and removed to stop the spread.  The stems on the tree then need to be treated with a tree sealant to stop infection.  I feel that it would also be worthwhile to remove the Ivy which is covering the tree.

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Nicky asks...

My nan has got a tree in her garden that has been grafted it is a damson that has been grafted on to a plum tree and it is bearing fruit, can you give me some idea of whether it is possible to eat the fruit that looks like damson? Thanks

Bill replies...

Your Damson Tree belongs to the same family as Plums and there is no reason why you cannot eat the fruit Nicky.  An excellent all-round variety of Damsons is Merryweather and if you have limited space in your garden the Shropshire Damson is an ideal choice.

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Elly asks...

I have recently planted a damson tree and just noticed that the leaves are now covered in holes, however no other shubbery or apple trees in the garden have this problem.

Bill replies...

The holes in the leaves of your Damson Tree Elly is probably Shot Hole Disease which is a fungal disease that attacks Damsons, Peaches and Cherries.  Brown spots appear on the leaves which then turn into small holes and I am afraid that although they do not cause much harm to the tree there is no cure for the problem.  The disease tends to attack weak trees and I would suggest you give your Damson Trees during early spring/summer a liberal dressing of a general base fertiliser such as Fish Blood and Bone Meal or Vitax Q4.

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Adrian asks...

I have a Damson Tree which is around 12' to the tallest branch. It has gone very straggly and I would like to prune the tree. What is the best advise you can give please?

Bill replies...

I would wait until early Summer before pruning your Damson Tree Adrian - this will cut down on the chances of your tree being infected by the Silver Leaf Fungi disease, the air borne spores are more active during the winter period.  Again to avoid infection once you have pruned your tree I would treat the cuts with Aborex Sealant.

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Amanda Hutchinson asks...

We have a truly enormous damson tree - probably about 20' tall and 30' wide.  It is more like an overgrown bush in that it has 2 main "trunks" and lots of main boughs from low down.  It's growing out and out at the sides, reaching for the light from its canopy.  It's now invading our space, and I'm worried the weight will split it eventually.  How much can I prune (re major boughs) and when is the best time?  It's the life of our garden and I don't want to harm it!

Bill replies...

The time to prune back your Damson Tree Amanda is during the summer months of July/August as this period will cut down  the risk of infection from Silver Leaf Fungi Disease which is more dominant during the winter period.  Regarding the size of your Damson Tree it will require major pruning and I feel that it would be worthwhile to get 'on the spot' advice from a qualified Tree Surgeon regarding which boughs need removing.  But, I would stress that pruning is carried out during the summer period.

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Jenny Creed asks...

I have recently been given a Damson tree which I have planted in our garden. However, I am a bit worried it doesn't appear to have grown and the buds on it are black. Is it too late to do anything? Please could you let me know what I can do as it was a present and I really don't want it to die.

Bill replies...

There is nothing that you can do at the present time Jenny you will have to wait and see if your Damson Tree comes into leaf in the Spring and, if it does come into leaf and with it being a newly planted tree you will need to keep an eye of the watering during the summer months.  If however your Damson Tree does not come into leaf and it has died a reputable Garden Centre should replace the tree.

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J Bowdler asks...

I have a damson tree about 12 feet tall it has slight leaf curl.  I noticed yesterday that most of the fruit seems shrivelled and looks like it is rotting with a white coating.  Is it due to the hot weather or is it because we cut it back in the spring and did not coat the branches after cutting?  It there anything we can do?

Bill replies...

The leaf curl on your Damson Tree could quite easily have been caused by aphids and it would be worth looking on the under side of the leaves to see if there are any present.  The white coating on the fruit sounds very much like powdery mildew which, if badly infected, can cause the fruit to shrivel.  In some respects the small fruit on your tree could have been quite easily caused by very dry conditions and during the fruiting period - if at all possible - it is well worthwhile to give your trees a good watering.  You mention pruning your tree in the Spring - this would not have caused your fruit to shrivel or the powdery mildew to appear but the best time to prune your Damsons is June/July time to avoid infection by Silver Lead Disease.

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Rhiannon Ratcliffe asks...

The bark of my damson tree is splitting and flaking. Is this a disease and should I treat it? It is also growing more branches on one side making it look lop-sided. Can I prune it and if so when?

Bill replies...

If your Damson Tree has been planted in a badly drained/acid soil Rhiannon flecking of the bark can occur and I must stress that Damsons do prefer an alkaline soil.  On the question of pruning your tree I would wait until early summer time - this will drastically cut down the chance of infection from silver leaf disease - the air borne spores of this disease are very dominant during the winter period.

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L Frost asks...

I think I have a problem with my damson tree. I only planted it in October and it has been doing well. Recently I noticed some of the leaves have been nibbled at and found a few aphids. I have also put down some slug pellets as they have been eating my lupins. I visited my local garden centre for some info but not much help. I used some soapy water, but now quite a lot of the leaves have a rust appearance on them.

Bill replies...

With your Damson being a fruit crop I always reluctant to recommend any insecticide sprays and you will usually find that the aphids do not cause large amounts of damage. You mention the rust appearance on the leaves and I am sure that this has been cause by the recent adverse weather conditions.  If however you do decide to spray to control the aphids it is important to use one of the safer organic sprays.

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PLUMS

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Ellie asks...

We have a Victoria plum in our garden, at least 20 years old, I understand. After 2 years of great fruiting, we noticed that the lowest branch is completely dead this year, with grubs under the branch and holes like woodworm all over that branch and extending up the vertical trunk too. I sawed off the dead branch before reading your pruning advice (but I will cover it with a sealing product tomorrow, weather permitting), and before noticing the spread was so far up the apparently healthy part of the tree. What am I dealing with, can I stop it, and will the rest of the tree survive?

Bill replies...

It is important Ellie providing that the weather is fine that all the branches which you have pruned on your Plum Tree must be sealed using a compound such as Arbrex, as this will cut down the risk of infection from the air borne spores of the Silver Leaf Fungi. And I would also use the sealing compound on the cracks and holes which are further along the trunk. 

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Mike Tansey asks...

I have a Plum tree that is very old but every year since we moved here 5 years ago it has borne good fruit.  The branches are now too long and crossing over each other.  I plan to prune it in June but don't know where to start.  It's main branches are shaped like a Y with lots of smaller branches coming from it in all directions.  It's about 8/9 feet tall.

Bill replies...

It is important Mike that you prune your Plum Tree during June/July as this will cut down the risk of Silver Leaf Disease and as the branches of your tree are becoming crowded, some of these can be pruned back but, it is important not to over-prune. Plums will tolerate a more crowded centre than Apple or Pear Trees.  It is also worthwhile to remove any spindly shoots, and some of the main branches can be lightly trimmed back but, again it is important not to over-prune.

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Lucy asks...

We have an old victoria plum tree and next to it, along the fence are 4-5 damson "trees" that almost look like a hedge. They bear almost no fruit, unlike the plum tree. Our neighbour tells us that the damson are killing the plum tree, as they are simply suckers from the original damson root that the victoria plum was grafted onto.  He advises pulling up the damson plants to give the plum tree the best chance of survival - he has seen it weaken over the years.  I had not heard of this before.  Is he correct - should we take out the damsons?

Bill replies...

Your old Victoria Plum tree Lucy will have originally been grafted onto a root stock - the most popular ones at that time were St Julian A (semi vigorous) Brompton (vigorous) and both these root stocks do send up suckers from soil surface and these could easily be the damson shoots which you are talking about.  Suckers from root stock produce very little fruit.  The suckers will be taking nutrients from the soil and will also be restricting the growth of your plum tree and, as your neighbour suggests, it would be far better to dig out these suckers.  You can always trace these suckers back to check if they are coming from the original root stock.

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W C Morgan asks...

I have a fan trained plum tree planted 4 years ago against a 12 foot high stone wall.
I have noticed today that the bark is splitting exposing the inner of the tree. What can I do about this, if anything!

Bill replies...

Plum Trees are susceptible to Silver Leaf Fungal Disease.  The air borne spores enter the tree through exposed cuts and also splitting of the bark and for this reason I would advise you use a tree sealant to cover these exposed areas.  Quite a number of these sealants are bitumen based and one of the popular products is Arbrex Seal and Heal which can be obtained from Garden Centres and DIY Stores.  You will however need to wait until we have a dry weather period before applying the sealant.

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Vera asks...

My two year old dwarf plum tree only produces leaves at the tip of bare spindly branches. How do I correct this and what is the cause?

Bill replies...

Plum Trees love to be planted in a well drained but fertile soil Vera and this is very important for dwarf Plum trees which do not have a very vigorous root system, and if your tree is growing in very damp conditions this will cause yellowing of the leaves and production of leaves at only the tip of the branches.  Your Plum tree is only two years old and you will need to prune back the spindly branches to form the correct structure for your tree.  Also, to avoid infection from the Silver Leaf Fungal Disease you will need to prune the branches back early summer time to approximately half the size.

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Tricia Flowers asks...

I have had a plum tree for a couple of years but before the end of the Summer the leaves curl up and discolour dark brown areas.  The tree didn't bear any fruit last year and two plums in the first year we had it but I'm assuming this is because it is too young?

Bill replies...

Plum Trees are the earliest flowering of the fruit trees Tricia and this makes them more vulnerable to frost damage and this could quite easily be the reason why you have had no plums on your tree.  It is important not to plant Plum Trees in a frost pocket.  Regarding leaf curl and discolouring this could quite easily have been caused by last year's long hot summer - which caused many trees to drop their leaves prematurely.

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Jon Howard asks...

In the garden of my late grandfather there is a lovely plum tree (think it is a Victoria). The tree is far too big to move but for sentimental reasons I wondered if I could take or cutting or similar and establish my own tree. Assuming it is possible how would I go about such a thing? 

Bill replies...

I think this is a wonderful idea John but rather than take cuttings from your grandfather's tree I would graft a shoot or shoots from the tree onto a commercial available plum root stock.  The root stocks available are Pixie (which is semi dwarfing) and St Julian A (which is semi vigorous).  The two must popular methods used for grafting a fruit tree are whip and tongue grafting which is carried out during early springtime and chip budding a fruit tree which is carried out during late summer.  It is difficult for me to explain the techniques by email and it would be easier to ask an experienced gardener to show you the techniques or contact your nearest Horticultural College or Gardening Society.

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Colin Coombs asks...

When should Victoria Plum trees be pruned?

Bill replies...

Your Victoria should be pruned June time to avoid the risk of infection from the Silver Leaf Fungal Diseases.  Very little pruning is required except for thinning out overcrowded shoots and again dead and diseased shoots need to be removed.  Any pruned stems would be better treated with a tree sealant such as Arbrex.

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Chris Poor asks...

I am about to buy a Opal plum tree on Pixie rootstock, however the supplier states it is self fertile, but the RHS web site states it is partially self fertile. Which is right and should I have a problem with pollination? I only require the one tree.

Bill replies...

If you require only one plum tree Chris you will obviously need a self fertile variety and with reference to the Opal variety plum tree you intend to buy, in Ken Muir's Fruit Growing Catalogue 2006/7 Opal is classed as a self fertile variety and, also in the RHS Fruit & Vegetable Garden Book - which is an excellent reference book - Opal is also listed as self fertile and from further information I have received again, Opal is a self fertile variety.  When planting your tree try and avoid frost pockets, plums are early flowering and can be sensitive to frost damage.

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Eva asks...

I was bought a plum tree two years ago, I just placed it in a space, it has fruited, but I would like to move it a more convenient spot, it is a Victoria. Is this possible and when is the best time to try this?

Bill replies...

The time to transplant your Plum Tree Eva is during the dormant period providing the ground is not too wet and also not frosty.  January/February weather permitting would be ideal and you will need to ensure you dig out a good sized root ball when lifting.  Never plant in a frost pocket and Plums also prefer a well drained soil - they do not like wet feet.

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Pauline asks...

We planted a Victoria plum tree a year ago in our garden.  How do we look after it in the winter months?

Bill replies...

You can sit back and relax during the winter months Pauline - all you need to do is after some windy weather check that the roots of the tree have not worked loose and just gently firm the soil around the tree.  In the spring time I would feed your Plum Tree with a general base fertiliser such as GrowMore of Fish Blood and Bone Meal and if possible, your tree would appreciate being mulched around the roots with some well rotted manure.  On the question of pruning the time to prune your tree is early spring/summer time to avoid infection from Silver Leaf Disease.  If the basic structure/frame work of your tree is already established very little pruning will be required and all you may need to do in future years is to thin out some overcrowded branches.

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Stephen asks...

I have a plum tree growing in my garden, and have had a large crop of fruit this year.  However a large number of mushrooms have grown on the tree over the last month or so.  What does this mean and how do I get rid of them?  Any advice would be appreciated

Bill replies...

The toadstool/mushrooms growing at the base of your Plum Tree Stephen are the fruiting bodies and these produce spores which are then dispersed and form fine spider like strands which are called Mycelium - this is the vegetated part of the fungi which lives on decayed matter - dead tree stumps and roots - and it is the Mycelium which produces the toadstools/mushrooms.  To stop the toadstools/mushrooms spreading you will need to remove them by hand before they disperse the spores. The fungi which gardeners' fear most is the Honey Dew Fungi (Boot Lace Fungi) and they will feed on live roots and can seriously damage trees.  The toadstools are amber in colour.  If your require any further information please email me again at BBC Radio Lancashire.

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Marea Campbell asks...

I have a large purple king plum tree that must be over 30yrs old. I notice that in places where I've pulled back the bark it's full of ant nests and wood slaters. It has a bit of wood rot inside the truck also. What's the lifespan of this kind of tree? Is it worth keeping? It still bears fruit.

Bill replies...

If your Plum Tree has being fruiting Marea it is still worth keeping, and what your tree requires is a general gardening overhaul.  I would start by removing the wood rot inside the trunk and I would fill the hole with a plastic bitumen filler - this will help to stop infection from bacterial canker.  I would also remove the ants nests as the ants will be damaging the bark and when your Plum Tree is fully dormant I would spray the trunk with a tar oil winter wash which will kill any pests/predators harbouring in the crevices. The tar oil winter wash can be obtained from any Garden Centre. If you need to prune your Plum Tree this needs to be carried out in the summer months to cut down the risk of infection from Silver Leaf Fungal Disease.

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Ken Aspden asks...

Three seasons ago I planted a young Victoria plum. It had some fruit that year but has not had any the last year and it does not seem to have any this year. The plant seems quite healthy.

Bill replies...

Plum trees are the first of the fruit trees to flower Ken which makes them susceptible to frost damage and this could quite easily have been the problem this year.  It is very important with Plum trees to ensure you do not plant in a frost pocket and I would also be inclined to give your tree a feed with a high potash fertiliser which will harden the shoots off and encourage flowering.  Victoria Plum is self fertile so you will not require another tree for pollination purposes and I am sure when your tree has 'settled down' it will produce the fruit.

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J N Leonard asks...

Can a successful Victoria plum tree be grown from a rooted sucker?

Bill replies...

It really is not worthwhile trying to grow a plum tree from a rooted sucker which will have come from the plum root stock onto which your Victoria Plum has been grafted. The two most popular root stocks used for plums are St Julian A and the new dwarf stock Pixy and it is more than likely that your sucker will have come from one of these two root stocks.

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Kate asks...

We have just moved into a new house with three plum tress. Most of the fruit is infested with small maggots. What can I do about this problem for next year?

Bill replies...

A serious pest of the Plums Kate is Plum Sawfly and the tell tale signs are a tiny hole in the Plum which is surrounded by a sticky glucose substance and inside the Plum is a creamy white grub which is the grub of the Plum Sawfly, and I am sure that this is the grub you are having problems with. What you will have to do next year is to spray your Plum Trees approximately seven to ten days after petal fall - using a contact insecticide and hopefully the insecticide will kill the emerging grubs of the Sawfly before they have chance to enter the young plums.  For this year it is important that you collect any infected plums and disperse of them.

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Cheryl Oates asks...

Dear Bill, we have a plum tree in the far left corner of our garden.  The roots shoot up into the lawn.  Over the past three years we have mowed the lawn taking the tops off the root shoots.  The roots below are becoming stronger and this year really spoiling the lawn.  I want to dig them up and cut them right back as far as possible.  This will cause a lot of disruption to the lawn - is there another option?  Hope you can help.

Bill replies...

What happens with Plum Trees and other prunus species such as Cherries Cheryl is that they all produce large roots - spreading just below the soil surface - and this can cause immense problems on pathways - garden areas and in your case on lawns.  There is no easier answer to the problem, if you cut the main roots back they will start to shoot again and this is going to be detrimental to your Plum Tree.  The bottom line therefore is that you may have to make a choice between your lawn and your Plum Tree.

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Terry Griffiths asks...

I have a Victoria plum tree which has done well this year, I do have some saw fly infestation, but not as bad as previous years due to me hanging up a trap to catch the male fly, the problem I have is the fruit is going bad on the tree and withers away, they have a purplish bloom on the plum I recognise this as the plums that are going to rot, can you please tell me what your thoughts are on this problem.

Bill replies...

It sounds as though your Plums Terry have been infected with Brown Rot which is a fungal disease. The fungi can gain entry through wounds in the fruit ie. birds pecking and Sawfly holes and the spores of the fungal disease can be easily spread by birds, rain splash and insects and the plums deteriorate very quickly and become shrivelled.  You need to remove the infected fruit to stop the infectious spores and you will also need to remove any fruit which as dropped on the floor.

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Dennis Cooper asks...

I have planted a Pixy Victoria Plum in a well drained pot, but as yet no sign of life. After the second week in the pot sap started to run down the branches. I water it regularly. Could the tree be dead?

Bill replies...

It looks as though your dwarf Plum Tree has died Dennis because by now it should be in full leaf and actively growing.  The sap which is now running down the branches sounds very much like as though your tree has been infected with bacterial canker.  It would be worthwhile though cutting one or two small pieces off the branches and if these are completely brown then unfortunately your tree has died.

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Bob Whiting asks...

Two plums, one pear, one apple tree all stand about 5ft high. The Pear loads of blossom result: loads of Pears. Apple [mini ones] loads of blossom, fruit not yet showing. 1st Plum not much blossom or show of fruit. Second Plum Loads of blossom and about eight plums showing. Have the birds eaten the young plums or can I expect more to show later on?

Because of wildlife I'm loath to use slug pellets around my beans. I have lost 15 to slugs and snails. Some say copper strip/pipe placed around the plants as a barrier will stop the slugs/snails from getting at the plants is there any truth in that?.
Is there a gardening book that shows flower, root and leaf structure? I'm having no luck in identifying the shrubs and some of the flowers? Many thanks.

Bill replies...

Hi Bob on the question of your fruit trees your plum trees will be the first to flower and could have quite easily been affected by the late frost. If your apple tree if not self-fertile it will require another tree of a different variety for pollination purposes but I am pleased to hear that your pear tree is 'doing the business'.  I am almost certain that the variety of your pear  is Conference which is self pollinating.

You are correct about the copper strip - it will stop the slugs eating your plants.  What happens is the slugs try to slide over the copper and get a shock.  The copper strips - mats and tape are available in most Garden Centres and DIY Stores.

On the question of gardening books the Royal Horticulture Society produce a wide range of books but one of my favourite reference books is 'The Complete Book of Gardening' edited by Michael Wright and is a Mermaid Book.

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Frank Parratt asks...

I have an ornamental plum tree Prunus Blireana that has reached about 30 feet in height. Please when is the best time of year to have it pruned?

Bill replies...

To cut down the risk of infection from the disease Silver Leaf (which is dominant during the winter months) and attacks all trees of the Prunus Family the best time to prune your Plum Tree Frank is during the summer months - preferably June/July.  The spores of the Silver Leaf fungi are airborne and they enter the branches which are damaged and also from pruned branches  Therefore, to avoid infection I would treat the pruned branches with a recommended Tree Sealant.

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Jackie asks...

Hi Bill, I have just bought a victoria plum tree could you please advise the best place to posiiton in the garden and what type of soil and disease treatment it will need to flourish.

Bill replies...

Your Victoria Plum Tree Jackie needs to be planted in a sunny sheltered position in a well drained soil, and with them being early flowering you need to avoid planting in a frost pocket.  With your tree being newly planted you will need to keep an eye on the watering over the summer months and it will need regular feeding with a general base fertiliser. Little pruning is required in the early stages of growth but any pruning that is required is far better carried out during July as this will avoid infection from the Silver Lear air borne fungal disease.

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Ferzana asks...

Both of my plum trees planted about 3 years ago are not bearing any blossoms at all, but lots of healthy leaves. Any ideas on how I can encourage the trees to produce fruits? 

Bill replies...

It is important with Plum Trees Ferzana that they are planted in a warm sunny but well sheltered site.  They do produce flowers early so it is important to avoid frost pockets.  With regard to your two Plum Trees not flowering I would avoid any pruning and I am sure that in the not too distant future your trees will produce blossom.  Plum Trees will grow in a wide range of soils providing that the soil is not waterlogged over the winter period and I would be inclined  to use a general base fertiliser rather than straight potash when feeding.

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Alan Young asks...

Just removed 2 old Victoria plum trees 25/30'high. I think they could have had silver leaf. The trunks and branches had a darker core. I'd seen 'elephants' toenails' on them in the past 8' up and near base. Many branches had broken last year partly because of the crop but they rotted on the tree.  Have grubbed out the roots with a digger, leaving BIG holes, as I want to replant Victoria, Marjories Seedling and a Merryweather damson.  There was a lot of sawdust from the chainsaw and broken small roots and branches lying about, despite my best efforts to clear it up before the digger came.  Is that a problem?  Under the base of one the tree was crumbly.

Bill replies...

Providing that you have removed most of the branches Alan the chances of infection from Silver Leaf are very slim but, my only worry is the replanting of Plums and Damsons in the same soil which is not good horticultural practice.  If at all possible I would try and work in some new top soil incorporating some well rotted manure before replanting.

last updated: 19/05/2008 at 10:53
created: 20/10/2006

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