How to keep new Santa Rosa Plum very small?

ginjjMay 6, 2012

I bought a Santa Rosa plum as a pollinator for a plum and a pluot in my garden. I know Santa Rosa plums grow very large. I am hoping to be able to keep it small, say 6 feet. For years I've read and tried to do the Backyard Orchard Culture concept of spring and summer pruning, with little luck. I had professionals do it, this tree I'm going to try to do myself.

I planted it last January 2011 I am fairly certain; not Jan 2010.

I have taken many pruning classes, watched people prune, done a fair amount of reading and remain very confused about how to prune correctly. As a result of my uncertainty I tend not to do anything. I cannot let that happen this time.

The tree stands 6 feet now. there are 3 main scaffolds about a foot off the ground. Each of these scaffolds branch off into 3-5 new branches about another foot up. The tree also has many small branches now coming from the main trunk. I haven't a clue as to how to approach this. I need some simple, easy to understand advice, if that's possible. I could find my instructions on how to post pictures and do that if it would help.

Thank you.


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Check out the video...2 minutes in is a Santa Rosa Plum

Here is a link that might be useful: Santa Rosa Plum

    Bookmark   May 6, 2012 at 8:44PM
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blazeaglory(10 SZ22/24 OC Ca)

Buy a weeping Santa Rosa plum

    Bookmark   May 6, 2012 at 9:14PM
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blazeaglory(10 SZ22/24 OC Ca)

To compare my plum tree to yours for an idea. My Santa Rosa sounds just like yours but I have 2 more plum trees attached. All my branches below this area are cut of for a straight trunk. I want to get enough height for a person just to walk(almost) under the eaves and sit comfortable. Not having to reach for fruit while standing. Check out this pic and you will see the Santa Rosa on the left, the Satsuma to the right and the Italian Prune kinda bottom middle/right. The tree stands about 5 feet tall now and is a little over a year old. Dont mind the plot I expanded it yesterday:-)

    Bookmark   May 6, 2012 at 9:23PM
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That video certainly does end up with a short tree. I can certainly do that. He did seem to think about where and what he was cutting which the camera doesn't show. The end result is low and unless I hear otherwise I'll cut mine back to probably 4 feet in the next day or so. He said his final height is 4 feet and then he said he was cutting back to 24" but leaving the secondaries a bit higher. So I'll try that idea. Certainly will be low. Thanks for the link.

I gather the weeping Santa Rosa is easier to keep small but serves as a pollinator. Will probably keep the plum for now as I do like those plums and I would love nothing more than to be able to master the concept of keeping a tree small.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2012 at 9:35PM
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blazeaglory(10 SZ22/24 OC Ca)

Weeping has plums too:-)

    Bookmark   May 6, 2012 at 9:38PM
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If I had to make a short list of rules to help me keep a tree to a certain size I would suggest these:

Emphasize summer pruning over dormant pruning. Summer pruning prevents the tree from accumulating food stores by limiting the amount of vegetative growth available for photosynthesis. Dormant pruning encourages vegetative growth by removing the hormonal brakes that tips provide. So summer pruning starves a tree a bit, while dormant pruning makes it "eat" more.

Constantly remove any branches that grow to the inside of the tree.

Remove any upward-pointing or downward-pointing shoots off of the lateral branches.

Thin and shorten the horizontal branches that are left on the laterals. How much depends on the tree. Just don't let the tree get too bushy, even though it will try to.

Don't let any lateral branch get too long. Just how long is too long I can't say, but I'm going to throw out a number for discussion- let's say, no lateral should be more than 1/4 or maybe 1/3 the height of the tree. Boy, would I love to hear from somebody else on that idea.

Now those are all just thoughts, subject to revision, discussion, and perhaps just ridicule. But that's where I'd start, FWIW.

Comments eagerly solicited.


    Bookmark   May 6, 2012 at 10:22PM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX


Another key component of keeping a tree small is controlling the vigor. That is largely in your control. Excess water and nitrogen fertilizer can make a tree overly vigorous and a real battle to keep small. I run mine dry enough that they hardly grow after May. Past that it's just a matter of learning how to cut back and doing it as often as needed. Cutting to a bud or branch growing in the direction you wish is about all plum pruning amounts to.

    Bookmark   May 6, 2012 at 10:24PM
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Thank you for those easy to understand suggestions fruitnut and M. I do not fertilize my 10 year old fruit trees because they have always grown too much, same with not giving much water. I will not fertilize this tree.

Since this tree is basically a year old plus a few months, can you give me a ballpark figure on watering. I've read to water weekly and I give it a good soaking with a soaker hose. The plum is on a mound so I can't really create a well around it. Maybe I just need to get good at checking with my fingers for dry soil.....

I feel like I can tackle this tree with more confidence now.



    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 12:02AM
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During the past dormant season I attended a pruning presentation given by one of the profs at Cal Poly SLO. His take on pruning for the home grower was very simple:

1. start your scaffolds at whatever height you want
2. prune every branch, every year
3. leave only 6" of new growth each dormant pruning.

This may seem extreme, but you have to think about what happens if you leave, say, 12" of new growth each season. Do the math and you will see that your tree will soon become too large.

The result of his pruning regimen is a very bushy tree with a strong tendency to form fruiting spurs. Eventually, you will need to thin out the inside of the tree (there will be some natural die-back anyway), but in the meantime you have kept the size of the tree under control, and spraying, thinning and harvesting within reach.

Just my $0.02 US

    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 12:06AM
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Can you explain what you mean in #3 by dormant pruning. I think of "dormant pruning" as winter pruning.

I'd love to hear his talk, was it for students only? Do you recall his name?


    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 1:08AM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)


One of the biggest mistakes of home growers is they don't prune. (a couple others are that they don't thin fruit, and have little/no pest control)

Even if you prune imperfectly, that's generally better than not pruning at all.

As an example, I've gotten behind on pruning on several occasions had to prune with a chain saw. I'm not recommending that, but I've done it.

Mark made some good points and would pay close attention to his post (although I don't understand his rules on lateral branches).

I suppose the main point for a new grower who wants to keep his/her orchard at pedestrian height is to vigorously attack/prune those shoots that grow straight up. Those are the ones that will grow to the moon (shading out growth beneath them).

Lastly, avoid too many stub cuts on Asian plums. It will just create more work/pruning.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 11:28AM
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Yes, the "dormant pruning" was winter pruning. You can always do some on the spot surgery during the summer (and/or right after harvest). Cutting growth during the growing season does slow a tree's growth because you remove food-producing leaves. But the dormant pruning will re-energize the tree and also allow you to control the size.

The fellow's name was Dan Lassanske and he actually gave the talk twice, once at the local Farm Supply in SLO and once to the CRFG immediately after a few miles away. I sat through both. I have about 7 pages of materials he gave out that I can scan and post here:

He emphasized that all of the printed stuff was bed-side reading and the major ideas were the three I already listed, the most important of which is to prune every branch every year and only keep 6" of new growth each time.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 11:35AM
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blazeaglory(10 SZ22/24 OC Ca)

Wow this thread has alot of good info! Im sure were all excited to see some growth throughout the year now!

    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 1:07PM
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I was excited to read Olpea's post. Gratifying to find your thoughts considered useful by a skilled hand.

But he wasn't sure what I meant with my comment on maintaining the length of "laterals", and that's probably because I wasn't sure myself when I wrote it.

Let's try this: "The horizontal branches extending from the trunk of a central leader, or from the trunks of a vase, should not be allowed to get too long. For example, maintain a Christmas tree shape on a central leader tree by heading back or using thinning cuts. The longest horizontal branch, or lateral, should not be allowed to grow longer than (1/6, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2?) the height of the tree."

This attempt at a formula must tie in with Harvestman's "Pruning by numbers" description, but he addresses diameters
Maybe I should take the question up in a new thread? It doesn't really speak to the OP's question very directly!



    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 10:14PM
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So much wonderful information! Thank you all. Steve I printed out the pages from the talk given by Dan Lassanske, it looks like good easy to understand pictures.

I've got to sit down with all your ideas on Wednesday and then make some decision. I'll let you know what I decide to do.


    Bookmark   May 7, 2012 at 11:55PM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)

"The longest horizontal branch, or lateral, should not be allowed to grow longer than (1/6, 1/4, 1/3, 1/2?) the height of the tree."


You could start a new thread if you wanted, but I think we are still w/in the scope of this one.

In terms of scaffold length, I suppose it might depend on what type of tree you were pruning to determine whether or not to shorten scaffolds, and how compact you wanted to keep the tree.

I don't try to keep my trees compact (just try to keep them low). From that paradigm, I was having a hard time understanding why someone would maintain scaffold length at some proportion of tree height. But I can see where this would apply for high density plantings, or dense backyard culture.

For my own peach trees, I try to keep them at a height of 8' or shorter. I don't try to shorten the scaffolds at all. A lot of my 8' tall trees have scaffolds 10' long.

However, it seems for the most part, the long scaffolds prune themselves in a way. What I mean is the ends of them get pulled down to the ground. Then sometime after harvest all the low branches get pruned (cause they are too close to the ground) so the low ends get chopped off with thinning cuts. The growth angling up doesn't get pruned (as long as it's not over 8' tall) but the next season it gets pulled down from the weight of fruit and again is pruned off after harvest.

I hope I'm making sense. Maybe another way of saying it is that I try to prune peaches to make them like a rolodex. The growth comes out from the inside and lays down. The lower outside growth is pruned and new inside growth comes out and lays down again to replace it.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 3:29AM
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You're making a lot of sense to me, Olpea. This in particular added up for me-

"The growth comes out from the inside and lays down. The lower outside growth is pruned and new inside growth comes out and lays down again to replace it."

With the help of Harvestman's roadway analogy and the advice of others here on the board I've started thinking in terms of scaffolds as "pencil" (young, spur-bearing wood) makers. In other words, I want a scaffold branch to keep giving me a fresh supply of wood coming into prime bearing age, and I don't want the scaffold to try to take over from the trunk. So when you mentioned chopping off low ends with thinning cuts it made a lot of sense to me.

All this is harder for me to put into practice than to talk about!


    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 8:53AM
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blazeaglory(10 SZ22/24 OC Ca)

I think this summer and early next Spring I will finally have some nice trees to use this info on! My trees are just now at 2 years! Im glad I found this thread:-)

I know this link is for Peach trees but it has some very useful techniques and terms. It has alot of very good detailed info on lengths and stuff.

Here is a link that might be useful: Pruning Guide

    Bookmark   May 8, 2012 at 1:03PM
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miketrees(WA Australia)

Two word answer

Summer Prune

    Bookmark   May 9, 2012 at 9:30AM
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Although I've read here a couple of different ideas, I think "miketrees" summed up what I'll be doing - summer prune. (I will probably "spring prune" now as well since that concept has been with me for 10 years, thanks to Dave Wilson Nursery. I just have to DO IT!!)

Thanks again for your ideas and I'm glad to see others have enjoyed this discussion.


    Bookmark   May 10, 2012 at 11:53AM
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