Fruit trees and small fruits

My Baby Plum Trees and Their Tough Start in Life

This is my fifth summer in this house and I haven’t done my landscaping yet. I spend much more time on my vegetable garden than on any flowerbed.

It’s not for lack of trying, though! Two years ago, I bought two beautiful plum trees. I figured they’d be pretty, low-maintenance, and since they’re edible, I’d be happy with them.

But therein lies the problem…

You can eat them.

Plums? No, plum trees…

Infestations in My Plum Trees…

Infestation after infestation, they haven’t really grown in two years. In fact, one of them (almost) died.

The first year, gypsy moths did them in, then Japanese beetles got involved. When I bought a hormone trap, it solved the problem, but it was too late, one of my plum trees was completely defoliated and dry.

There’s a lot of debate about hormone traps, because they attract Japanese beetles. People then feel they have more than before.
That’s normal, because that’s the whole point of the hormone trap: to attract the beetles away from your plants.
The trouble is, if you set it up in your little city yard, well yes, you’re likely to get a lot of them, and it won’t solve your problem because the trap will be too close to your plants.
It’s like inviting the beetles on a romantic date, but offering them a McDonald’s on the way. They’ll definitely stop for a burger!
My trap was hung on a tree 10 meters from all other plants (and at least 20 meters from my plum trees) and it worked great. No more beetles on my trees, and it didn’t attract them to my terrace either, since the trap was a good thirty metres from the house.

Photo : Oktavianus Mulyadi

Back to my tree: even though it looked completely dead, I told myself I’d wait until the following year before cutting it down. And the other one, well, it didn’t look too good, but it lived!

This year, no leaves grew on my plum tree, but worse still, I found that my other beautiful tree, in full bloom, had fallen prey to caterpillars! Are you familiar with the Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum)? Well, I encountered them this year…

These caterpillars gather in a silken structure to form a big gang of plum-destroying devourers! (As you can see, I’ve managed to remain polite.) They emerge from the tent during the day, methodically devour every leaf that crosses their path and return to spend the night in their silky hiding place. Until the next day, when they go a little further afield to continue defoliating the branch.

Cute shelter, isn’t it? It’s full of caterpillar poop and it’s wiggling all over the place. A thing of beauty!

I was so angry that I sprayed my plum tree with insecticide and watched them die with unhealthy pleasure.

This caterpillar is not really harmful to mature trees. But as my plum tree was tiny and probably still weak from the summer before, I had to do something!

And Hope!

I resigned myself to cutting down my second, practically stillborn tree, when I caught a glimpse of… hope! Tiny branches had sprouted at the base of the trunk. They’re so small and low that I couldn’t see them protruding from my lawn (don’t judge, we let it grow in May!). My second plum tree, though much reduced, is still alive!

Well, it was full of those pesky caterpillars that also got a dose of poison, but it’s ALIVE!

Conclusion: “pros” have their ups and downs too. Persevere with your projects! I don’t know if I’ll ever have plums, but this summer, I’m starting my own landscaping project, and frankly, I hope it’ll be easier than keeping my plum trees alive, because little flowers are nice, but you can’t eat them, so I don’t have time to waste on that!

Thank you for reading my rant! Do you have a story to tell about plant therapy? Judging from your comments, you often laugh when you read my articles, so now it’s my turn to read your funny stories!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

9 comments on “My Baby Plum Trees and Their Tough Start in Life

  1. Eithne Taylor

    I have two gooseberry bushes which I failed to prune in the early spring. Now they have no fruit. We did have a very dry month of May with days of severe frost which may have damaged the young fruit.
    Should I prune the bushes now?

  2. redfoxtails

    I live north of Cochrane, Alberta and have planted Pembina (2021), a multi-grafted plum tree (Tecumseh, Pembina, Brookred & Brookgold in 2022) and Patterson Pride (2023) in my zone 2/3 garden with some zone 4 micro-climate areas. Our winters can be very cold, or all the snow can melt in mid-winter when the Chinook winds blow. We had a terrible hot dry spring but thankful the June rains have arrived now. I remove the grass from a three-foot area all around each tree and put a full bag of mulch down for each tree in order to survive our changeable weather. The plums are planted about 40 feet inside a partial windbreak area and so far, growing well but no fruit set yet. This could be due to the hot spring and early flower timing of nearby Sandcherry, Nanking cherry and double flowering plum shrubs. I have several American plums that are still too small to bloom. Healthy plants are always better at fending off bugs and pests and we have many local birds that do their part. Pears and apples do well here and seem to have fewer problems.

  3. gardencat

    Have you looked for fruit trees that are native to your part of the world? I’m pretty sure you’d have better luck with them, and they would be more likely to thrive without pesticides.

    Here in central Texas (aka h-e-double-l) persimmons and figs do well as long as we don’t have an unusually cold winter. There’s even a new variety of apple that’s easy to grow. Pears and grapes grow well here, too, but I don’t have room for them.

    I don’t bother with peaches or anything that requires spraying. That stuff’s available at the grocery store.

  4. Sorry, forgot you can’t use emojis, they auto-correct to question marks – I did not have a question. Ha

  5. Thank you Audrey,
    Fruit trees abound here in the Niagara Region, so I stick to raspberries in the fruit line. Your articles are always so helpful and this one shows even experienced and knowledgeable gardeners have their challenges ?

  6. Christine Lemieux

    Oh how I would love to grow apricots. There are even varieties that are hardy enough to grow here in Nova Scotia. My one experiment, years ago, with a jersey mac apple tree was such a huge failure I haven’t planted a fruit tree since. Well, crabapples, many of which have scab and those that don’t have rings of perfect little holes up and down the trunk made by the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker. An interesting bird and at least the holes go on to feed other wildlife. I will stick with berries!

  7. Bohdan Kowalyk

    Are the plums grafted? The sprouts may be from the rootstock.

  8. Ah it’s good to hear we aren’t the only ones in a struggle to grow fruit trees ?! We have been planting fruit trees for the last ten years and it has been an emotional rollercoaster – first, we tried the “Little Fruit tree” method which involves keeping your trees short, so you can easily harvest and put more trees Into a smaller space…which works great in California. Our multiple feet of snow, densifying into ice in the bottom two feet, would crack the lower-than-usual crotch where our fruiting branches began. So we started over, leaving them to grow taller, which is the perfect height for deer to grab mouthfuls of leaves, tearing young branches as they go by in the night. Then the caterpillars arrive. No fruit yet from our plums, pears and apples, but finally our Crimson Passion cherries have begun to produce fruit. When we feel bad we remind ourselves that our berries are doing great – strawberry, raspberry, and black currants – and feel better ?

  9. marianwhit

    Unsubscribing…find someone who actually knows something about plants, and hopefully the ecology. Maybe someone with a few decades of actual hands-on growing of them.

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