Name a fruit that grows on trees in backyards across the region. Chances are you said apple, which is the most common tree fruit in the Upper Midwest. While apples enjoy the limelight, plums are often overlooked, causing many to miss out on the juicy sweetness of these homegrown delights.

If you’ve never eaten a tree-ripened plum, fresh from your own backyard, you’re missing a sweet treat. Winter-hardy cultivars recommended for our region yield fruits with a sweetness and quality unmatched by store-bought plums. If you include a plum tree in your yard, you’ll be happy you did.

Plum trees generally grow smaller than apple trees, fitting more readily into small-space landscapes with a height of 12 to 15 feet without pruning.

Plums also reach a fruit-bearing age earlier than apples, with a plentiful fruit crop two to three years after planting, compared to five to seven years with apples.

When planting plums, select cultivars well-adapted to northern growing conditions, such as Toka. iStock / Special to The Forum
When planting plums, select cultivars well-adapted to northern growing conditions, such as Toka. iStock / Special to The Forum

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Tips for growing plums

  • Plant plum trees in full, all-day sunshine for best fruiting. They should get at least six hours of direct sunlight.
  • Bare-root, dormant trees can be planted in early spring. Potted trees in full leaf should wait until danger of frost has likely passed before planting in mid-to-late May.
  • Allow each plum tree a footprint space of 10 to 12 feet. Because they are relatively low-headed, they can be used effectively as privacy screening in yard corners, along property borders, or by decks and patios.
  • Keep any suckers arising from the tree’s base pruned off at the point of origin.
  • Little yearly pruning is needed besides thinning out small branches cluttering the tree’s interior.
  • Fertilize with a well-balanced fertilizer recommended for fruit trees if the previous year’s growth was less than 12 inches, as visible by the round annual growth scar found on twigs.
  • Bird netting is the most certain way to exclude these pests, applied before plums ripen.
  • Apply tree wrap in late October and remove every April. Continue yearly as long as the bark is thin and smooth.
  • Choose cultivars that are adapted to our region, and readily found at locally owned garden centers. National chain stores might offer non-hardy varieties better suited to warmer climates.

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Choose the best plum cultivars for Northern growing

Mature Waneta and Toka plum trees. iStock / Special to The Forum
Mature Waneta and Toka plum trees. iStock / Special to The Forum

Nearly all plums require cross-pollination from a different plum type for fruit production. They don’t need to be within the same yard. A neighbor’s plum of different type, or American “wild” plum in a nearby shelterbelt, can both be successful pollinators.

The cultivar Toka is well-known as a great pollinator, so it will increase fruit set when included with other plum types. It’s a good quality plum in its own right, so it's a favorite for coupling with another cultivar.

Here are recommended plums for our region. All are winter-hardy in zones 3, except where noted for zone 4 planting.

All are high-quality for fresh eating or processing.

  • Underwood: Red skin with golden flesh. Ripens early (mid-August) and continues over a long season.
  • Waneta: Very large fruit having yellow skin with red blush. Sweet and juicy yellow flesh.
  • Pipestone: Very large, bright red fruit. Skin is tough, but it peels easily to reveal sweet, melting golden flesh.
  • Pembina: Large, red-skinned oval fruit. Delicious yellow flesh is sweet and juicy.
  • Alderman: Large, with burgundy-red skin and sweet flesh. Vigorous tree that flowers heavily; for zone 4.
  • Superior: Large, dark red fruits with firm yellow flesh of outstanding, super-sweet quality; for zone 4.
  • Black Ice: Large, dark blue fruits with sweet reddish-purple flesh. Naturally dwarf habit; for zone 4.
  • LaCrescent: Small yellow fruit is sweet and aromatic on a vigorous tree; for zone 4.
  • Toka: Small to medium fruit with dark red skin. Flavor is rich and spicy. An outstanding pollinator to include with any of the above types.
  • Mount Royal: The only plum on the list that is self-fruitful, producing fruit even if it’s the only plum tree in the vicinity. It won’t act as a pollinator for other types, though. Hardiest of the blue, European-type plums, maturing in early September. Heavy producer of delicious, sweet fruit; for zone 4.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.