Pruning a pear tree

Removing an unneeded branch back to a juncture. George Weigel


I have an ornamental pear tree and prune it when the branches are rubbing together. I also clip off suckers from around the base and prune off low branches that hit my head when I’m mowing. Should I be pruning off anything else for any other reason?

A: I can think of one more really good reason — thinning out excess branches.

Trees often put out more growth than they really need, and this excess growth can make a tree too dense.

For one thing, an overly dense tree becomes more of a “sail” in windstorms, meaning more wind force can hit the tree and increase the odds that it’ll lean or blow over in a storm. A thinned tree lets more of the wind blow through, thus lessening the sail effect.

Second, trees with too many leaves won’t dry out as fast, and that can increase the incidence of leaf diseases. Thinning lets air and light in a little better and dries the foliage faster.

Winter is a good time to thin trees because you can see the inner branch structure better. Look for branches growing inward and for areas where two or three or more branches are all growing out of the same general area. Cut these excess branches back to just outside the joint where they attach to a bigger branch or the main trunk.

The sooner you make these cuts, the better they’ll heal. I grind my prunings into mulch with a chipper-shredder.

To get maximum flowering out of an ornamental pear, wait until after the tree drops its blooms in spring to prune. But the down side of that is 1.) it’s harder to see the branches then, and 2.) it’s a messier proposition with all the leaves falling off during the process.

Another situation where pruning is needed is whenever you notice any cracked or injured branches (true of any tree, not just pears).

And a last good reason to prune is for shaping and size control purposes. Whacking off the low-hangers (as you’ve been doing) is one example of that. But you can also maintain the desired size and good shape of your pear by selectively snipping back long branches to a branch juncture.

For me, that’s the last step in pruning that I look to do, and I do it with hand pruners and/or loppers — not with power tools. I step back, look, decide which branches need to come back to where, then I make the cut, then I look again.

Yes, it takes a lot longer than just shearing the whole tree with a chainsaw. But you’ll end up with much healthier tree if you approach this more like an artist than a butcher.



There are two key differences between apple and pear trees which need to be taken into account when pruning a pear tree. The primary difference is that pear trees will grow far more upright compared to an apple tree. The branches want to reach for the sky in their search for light. In order to encourage early and large amounts of fruit this tendency to grow upright needs to be managed.

The second difference is that pear tree wood is relatively soft compared to apple wood and it is more likely to break under the weight of a full crop of fruit. This weakness needs to be considered when pruning.


The equipment needed to prune a pear tree depends on how thick the branches are and how high the tree is. Three pieces of basic ‘equipment’ though are always needed and these are:

  • Secateurs – these must be sharp to avoid crushing rather than cutting cleanly any stems and small branches. Before cutting in earnest, try out your secateurs on a redundant piece of wood to make sure they cut cleanly. If they don’t then buy a new pair or get the old ones sharpened (difficult nowadays).
    Clean your secateurs thoroughly to ensure they don’t transfer any disease, pest or spores. Boring but very important especially when working on more than one tree – clean between pruning different trees. To clean, wash them thoroughly in soapy water, clean them again with bleach, rinse thoroughly under running water and then dry off with a cloth.
  • Knowledge and time – knowledge can be gained by reading this article thoroughly before you start. As far as time goes, a new one year old tree can be pruned in five minutes, but an old overgrown tree may take several hours and this may well need to be spread over three or four years.
  • A dry day – not really equipment but pruning should always be done on a dry day. If you cut stems and branches on a wet day the risk of infection entering the cuts is much increased. The British weather is not always the best for pruning in winter but there will be dry days and it’s best to wait for one of them.

The above equipment will be sufficient to prune most pear trees up to three or four years old but when the branches begin to thicken and the height of the tree increases the following additional equipment will also be needed:

  • Pruning saw or carpenter’s saw. Either will do the job, the choice is up to you. We would go for a pruning saw because they are specifically designed for the purpose but they are more expensive.
  • A ladder – if the tree is tall then a ladder is essential. It’s always safest to cut a branch when you are at the correct height and it’s also likely to produce the cleanest cut. Without going into all the safety aspects of using ladders, at least make sure it is on flat, even ground and is securely tied to a strong branch on the tree.
  • Chalk (optional) – if a tree is particularly overgrown and out of control it’s often best to mark the main branches to be cut with a piece of chalk at the point of the proposed cut. Then stand back (after getting off the ladder of course!) and consider if the proposed cuts are really as you want.


For most pear trees the best time to prune is in mid winter to very early spring. If you prune too early the tree may respond by sending out lots of tender shoots which will be severely damaged by frosts. These will then provide an ideal entry site for a variety of bacteria, fungi and pests.

New bare-rooted trees will be supplied from November to March and these should be pruned immediately after they are planted – see the section Pruning Newly Planted Pear Trees below.


When a pear tree goes dormant in the winter, nutrients and energy is stored primarily in the roots, main trunk and to a lesser degree the main large branches. Almost no energy is stored in the smaller branches. The diagram below, before pruning occurs in January, shows this more clearly. The dark pink area shows the major energy reserves and the lighter pink areas show less concentrated reserves.

In spring when the tree comes out of dormancy the natural response is to produce new growth in areas where pruning has occurred during the winter. This growth response is concentrated in areas where the tree has been pruned. The diagram below showing the energy reserves in mid April time illustrates the effect on a tree which has been severely pruned in one area only.

The heavily pruned area receives a higher than normal amount of the energy reserves which causes the tree to produce lots of new green growth in that area. This also has the effect of delaying the production of fruit. Note that this effect is localised and generally does not affect parts of the tree which have not been heavily pruned.

To summarise the effect of winter pruning, it increases the growth of branches and foliage in the next two years and at the same time delays the production of fruit. If done carefully however it can improve the shape and structure of the tree allowing heavier crops in later years.


The most common shape of a pear tree (for the amateur gardener) is an open-centred one where the main leader has been pruned out and four or so main branches grow evenly spaced from the centre. See the picture below of a young tree with four side branches but the main stem (the leader) has been pruned away. Click the picture to enlarge it.

Another shape, more commonly found in some orchards is the central leader tree shape. With this shape the central leader is allowed to grow and three branches are allowed to form at at about 75cm / 30ins above grown level followed by another layer 50cm / 20ins higher and then another layer 50cm / 20ins above that. We suggest that the previous method is probably the best for the amateur gardener.


When pruning a pear tree it’s important to be able to identify what are called “fruiting spurs” because this is where the fruit will form. If you prune off fruiting spurs you are effectively reducing the capability of the tree to produce fruit for a year or two. See the picture below (click to enlarge it) for an example of a fruiting spur. Do not prune off fruiting spurs unless they are on a branch you want to get rid of or the area is becoming congested with older fruiting spurs.

Fruiting spurs will normally appear on stems which were originally grown two years previously. They can appear anywhere on the branches. They will take a year, occasionally two, before they begin to bear fruit. The year after fruiting another one or two fruit buds will begin to appear. The picture above shows a fruiting spur with two fruit buds on it but they can grow and form many fruit buds.

After six or seven years a fruiting spur will begin to become congested with fruit buds and also the cropping capability will decline. At this stage it’s best to gradually start pruning off older fruiting spurs which will encourage new, healthy ones to appear elsewhere.


Summer pruning of pear trees is normally reserved for espaliers and cordon shaped trees but it can also be used to force a pear tree into bearing fruit if it is reluctant to do so. The normal reason for a pear tree not flowering and bearing fruit is that it is growing in perfect conditions! If you get the soil nutrients on the high side side, correct moisture levels, a good loam type soil and the tree is growing in full sun all day it will in all probability take a year or two longer to bear fruit compared to a tree which is in less ideal conditions.

To encourage a pear tree to bear fruit you need to encourage it to produce fruiting spurs. To do this lightly prune the current year’s growth by a quarter to a third, do not prune older wood at all in summer. The best time to summer prune a pear tree is in early to mid June time, never prune between mid July to late November.

What you are doing by summer-pruning is reducing the tree’s ability to store energy because it has fewer vigorous branches with lots of leaves on them to absorb the energy of the sun. If summer pruning is done around June time the tree will not produce new vegetative growth because it can detect that daylight hours will soon be reducing and autumn is only a few months ahead. Instead it will put much more of its energy into producing fruiting spurs which will bear fruit the next year.


This section describes how to prune pear trees in the first two years. If your pear tree is older than this click here for details on pruning older pear trees.


This section deals with pruning a pear tree which you have recently bought and planted. First decide if the tree is a one year old or a two year old. This should be made clear to you when you bought the tree or on the labels that come with it. If you don’t know, then as a rule of thumb a one year old tree will have less than six side branches, normally two or three. A two year old tree will have five or more side branches. Read the instructions which came with the tree and follow their guidelines.

Prune a new one year old pear tree in winter after it has been planted. Normally the tree will be about 150cm / 5ft tall but this varies. With the tree planted you should cut it to a height of 90cm / 3ft above ground. This may sound harsh but this then allows the tree to put all its energy into producing branches at the correct height. Make the cut just above a bud and slant the cut so that any water settling on the top will run away from the bud.

Tidy up the tree by cutting back any branches to about 5cm / 2in. That’s it for a one year old tree.


A two year old pear tree should have previously been pruned as detailed above when it was a one year old. This applies to two year old new bare-rooted or container grown trees as well as those already growing in your own garden.

The pruning used for a two year old tree is important because it will define the base structure of the tree for the rest of its life. Although we show you a real life tree in this section every one will be different. Understand the overall objective behind this stage of pruning and you can apply it to almost any pear tree which has been correctly pruned at year one.

  • Four main branches – prune so that you have three to five main branches coming off the central trunk. If you have more than this the tree structure will become crowded. If you have less the tree will find it difficult grow in a balanced fashion.
  • Even spacing around the main trunk – aim to have the main branches evenly spaced around the tree. If for instance you have four main branches they should be pointing left, right, forwards and backwards. It will be unlikely that this can be done exactly but try to select main branches which fit this criteria best. It’s at this stage that you may decide three main branches is best to achieve a balance around the tree.
  • Correct spacing up the main trunk – ideally you want to aim for branches which are spaced about 10cm / 4 in apart up the trunk. Keep the lowest branch at least 75cm / 2ft 6in above ground level, slightly higher is best. Again, this is the ideal but with most trees a compromise will be required.
  • Main branches should be pointing outwards not upwards – pear trees are renowned for having branches which want to grow vertically. If any of the main branches grows almost vertically it will cause crowding of the centre of the tree, something definitely to be avoided. Pear tree wood is relatively soft and easily broken by heavy crops. Branches which are at an angle of about 60° to the main stem (see pictures below) are far stronger than branches which grow almost vertically.

    The angle between the main trunk and the branch is ideal in the picture above.

    The angle of branch 1 in the picture above is too
    narrow and vertical. If a main branch is growing nearly vertically it needs to be pruned to an outward facing bud – the cut needs to be made fairly near the main trunk to force the branch to grow outwards and not upwards

Remember, the description above is the ideal and almost all pear trees will need some compromise.


When pear trees get beyond three years old each tree is sufficiently unique in its own right to make specific advice about pruning very difficult. Differences in the variety, previous pruning history and environmental conditions all give rise to different tree shapes. However, the same general principles apply to pruning all established pear trees. Those principles are:

  • Avoid pruning out fruiting spurs – if you examine a pear tree structure in winter, when there is no foliage, you will be able to see the difference between the current year’s stem growth and older growth. You will also be able to identify fruiting spurs (stems from which fruit will be produced in the summer). To maximise fruit production do not prune the fruiting spurs unless they become congested or diseased. See the section above on fruiting spurs for an explanation and clear picture.
  • Aim for a wine glass shape – the basic idea is to encourage branches to point outwards from the main trunk. The reason for this is to keep the central part of the tree relatively free from growth allowing good air circulation and reducing the risk of fungal infections.
  • Prune in gentle stages – if you hard prune a pear tree it will fight back the next spring with a vengeance, especially well established trees! Their reaction will be to sprout small stems especially from areas which have been cut back hard. These groups of small stems are almost certainly unproductive as far as as fruit is concerned and the area will become congested. If you are faced with an overgrown tree then spread cutting it back over at least two years, preferably three or four years
  • Remove crossing and touching branches – where two branches cross each other, natural movement from wind will cause the branches to rub together and open up the bark to infections. Remove one of the crossing branches to prevent this.
  • Remove diseased wood – whilst pruning a pear tree keep a look out for diseased wood. This should always be removed and cut back into healthy wood. Burn the diseased wood.
  • Clean up afterwards – fallen branches and fruit, leaves and any other debris should be cleared away from the base of the tree. If left they provide a breeding found for fungal diseases and a variety of pests.
  • Enjoy and learn from the experience – many books and web articles on this subject profess to offer perfect solutions to keeping your pear tree in check. In reality every pear tree is different from every other one and your experience from past years should be your guide.


Date: 06 August 2019 From: Fred L
QUESTION: : I have a large pear tree that’s been neglected for many years and produces little fruit but even that is poor shape and quality. What options are there to remedy or is it likely to be too late and I should put it out of its misery?

ANSWER: The answer depends on many factors. First, a well pruned pear tree can be expected to be productive for 20 to 25 years, it will live longer but fruit production will tail off significantly.

A neglected pear tree will have a shorter productive life. That may answer your question if you have a rough idea of the age of the tree.

Neglected pear trees can be hard pruned (in stages over a three year time span). This may well rejuvenate it although it’s by no means guaranteed. It will take a total of 4 to 5 years after the first year’s prune before it recovers.

A newly bought one or two year old pear tree will take about 3 years to begin producing fruit. In 5 years from purchasing it, it will be producing fruit to its full ability.

Everyone has their own view on this type of question, my personal view is that the effort expended in (hopefully) rejuvenating a neglected fruit tree is rarely worth the effort. Buy a new one is my advice, others may advise differently.

Date: 08 February 2015 From: John
QUESTION: I planted myself an orchard last winter including 2 conference pears and this is the first time they will have been pruned, they were 2 Y Olds when bought, so more like 3 YO now. I bought the biggest healthiest ones I could find and so have 5 good thick branches on them but are almost vertical in a champagne glass shape rather than a wine glass and were all lobbed off level at about 7 feet high. Do I have to prune the branches close to the trunk or could I put some “stretchers” in to train them to grow outwards more horizontally.
ANSWER: Yes you can, the idea works very well with pear trees. In fact one of my trees is being persuaded to grow more horizontal branches just like that for the last couple of months. It does seem to take about six months to have a lasting effect but it works well. I use nothing more complicated than string looped around the branches weighted down with stones. Be careful though that the bark of the stems is not damaged by the string – padding at the point of contact will help to avoid that.


What’s Growing On: Rules for winter pruning of fruit trees

We’re fortunate to live in California’s Central Valley — one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the country — and thus we have the ability to grow a huge variety of fruit- and nut-bearing trees. Stone fruits (apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, plums), pome fruits (apples, pears, Asian pears), nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), and others (figs, persimmons) all do very well in our climate and soils.

Knowing how and when to prune these types of trees is essential to their successful establishment, their long-term health, and their productivity.

Careful, purposeful training of fruit trees during their first few years of life after planting is crucial to having a well structured, healthy and high-yielding tree in later years. Generally speaking, fruit trees should be trained to have a few main branches that emerge low on the trunk, for easier access when pruning and fruit-picking, at a 45 degree angle for good strength. These main or “scaffold” branches should form an open, un-crowded framework, to allow for proper sun exposure and air circulation within the tree. Shaded and/or crowded branches eventually will stop bearing fruit.

Fruit trees can be trained into several forms: vase-shaped, central leader, Y, or espalier. The pruning methods and timing for creating these forms vary and is too complex to cover in detail here. Consult one of the sources listed below if you have a young new fruit tree and want to know how to effectively “parent” it during its adolescent and teenage phases.

Mature, deciduous fruit trees — those fully grown trees that lose their leaves and go dormant during the cold winter months — can be pruned during the months of December, January and as late as mid-February, while their branches are bare. Late January is our best month for pruning deciduous fruit trees, since it’s well into the dormant season but before the buds begin to swell. Avoid pruning on foggy or rainy days or when the trees are moist, since damp conditions can spread pathogens into freshly cut wood.

Depending on the kind of fruit tree, between 20 percent to 50 percent of the prior year’s growth should be removed to encourage the best fruit production. Consult the references mentioned below for specific recommendations.

When pruning, pay close attention to the location of the buds along the branches. All pruning cuts should be made no more than ¼-inch beyond a bud; don’t leave long stubs of branch without buds. Also pay attention to the orientation of the buds; they produce growth in the same direction they point, and it’s best to end the branch with an outward facing bud. New branch growth emerges at the location of the cut (not closer to the trunk), and the more buds cut off the end of the branch, the more vigorous the new growth will be.

Some types of growth should be removed completely: dead wood, damaged or diseased branches, suckers (small, vigorous, weakly-attached sprouts that emerge from the root line or trunk), downward growing branches, or branches that cross over others. When removing entire branches, make the cut at the attachment point but just beyond the ring of thickened tissue at the base of the branch; preserving this “branch collar” will help maintain the tree’s ability to heal itself. Don’t leave long stubs, and allow cut surfaces to dry out and seal naturally.

Fruit trees also can be pruned during the growing season while leaves still are on the tree. However, this should be done only under limited circumstances, such as to train a young tree or to slow or correct the growth of a too-vigorous or overgrown older tree. Do this type of pruning in late summer after fruit has been harvested.

One principle to remember when pruning actively growing trees, whether fruit or other, is don’t remove more than one-third of the crown (the upper, leafy part of the tree) at a single time. When pruning mature leafy fruit trees, it’s best to remove no more than one-tenth of the overall growth. The leaves are where the process of photosynthesis occurs, and if too many leaves are removed at once, the tree’s capacity to produce its own food (carbohydrates) and your food (fruit) is drastically reduced. This, in turn, will cause a significant portion of the tree’s root system to die, which makes the tree more susceptible to underground fungal infection, internal rot and even death after a few years.

Another very important caveat is to use well-maintained pruning tools. Cutting plant stems or branches with dull and dirty hand pruners, loppers or pruning saws is the equivalent of performing an operation with rough-edged, unsterilized surgical implements. Neat and clean pruning cuts help prevent excessive damage to a tree’s living tissues, and that, in turn, allows the tree to heal its wounds and recover quickly.

Before you head out into the garden for your annual fruit tree maintenance project, grab a sharpening stone and use it regularly and frequently as you shape your treasured trees. Remove dirt and debris from pruning tools and scrub them with hot soapy water both before and after use, to keep them and your trees in good condition.

Disinfection of pruning tools usually is recommended only when working on diseased trees or shrubs. This can be done by soaking tools for at least one minute in a solution of 1 part denatured alcohol to 9 parts water, or by spraying them with a household aerosol disinfectant.

These wintertime pruning recommendations DO NOT apply to citrus trees — oranges, tangerines, lemons, limes, grapefruits, kumquats, etc. Citrus trees are evergreen (keeping their leaves year-round) and they don’t need regular, annual pruning. If citrus trees need thinning, do it in warm weather, either in the spring before trees bloom, or in late summer after harvest. This prevents any tender new shoots from being damaged by winter frosts or frigid winds.

For those of you who want to grow trees that reward you with homegrown, healthy food, here are a few great resources:

• The Home Orchard: Growing Your Own Deciduous Fruit and Nut Trees, by the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) — UCANR Publication 3485. This book was written specifically for backyard orchardists, and it covers a full range of helpful topics, from the planting and care of young trees to the pruning and harvesting of fruit from mature trees.

• Growing Your Backyard Orchard (, a webpage of the San Joaquin County Master Gardeners. This site has links to a wealth of information, including several publications about pruning fruit trees of different ages and conditions; calendars of operations for different types of fruit and nut trees; information on pests and diseases; fruit preservation guides; and much more.

• Fruit Trees: Training and Pruning Deciduous Trees, UCANR Publication 8057 (

• Peach Leaf Curl, UCANR Publication 7426 ( This fungal disease causes severe leaf distortion on peach and nectarine trees; post-pruning treatment with an appropriate antifungal spray is recommended during the dormant season.

• An Illustrated Guide to Pruning, by Edward F. Gillman. This is an exhaustive and beautifully illustrated manual on anything you’d ever want to know about pruning trees and shrubs. Widely used as a horticultural textbook, it’s also an invaluable reference book for both homeowners and landscaping professionals.

• Winter Fruit Tree Pruning 2012 ( This video by Dave Wilson Nursery, although not an endorsement, provides a very good visual overview of early fruit tree pruning.

Whether you have only one fruit tree, are beginning to plant a home orchard with many different trees, or have several established trees, use the late fall and early winter months and these excellent reference guides to prepare for upcoming pruning tasks, and then enjoy a bountiful harvest in 2020.

How to Prune Flowering Pear Trees

A flowering pear also goes by the names Callery pear, Bradford pear or Pyrus calleryana. It can grow to a height of more than 40 feet. The deciduous tree blooms in mid-spring with white flowers and thrives in full sun. Unfortunately, branches grow at a narrow angle, so the tree begins to push itself apart and can self-destruct in a wind or ice storm. Pruning the flowering pear will maintain tree form and structure.

Prune flowering pear trees as late in the winter as possible to avoid winter injury. Summer pruning will dramatically cut the energy portion of the tree and result in less growth. You can prune as soon as buds start to appear, but it’s better to wait until growth is a few inches long.

Identify the node, which is where one twig or branch meets another. Each spring, growth will start with buds and twigs grow until there is a new node. Use a hand pruner if you’re dealing with thin, small branches. Lopping shears or small pruning saws can be used for slightly larger branches. If you’re pruning branches that are about 6 inches thick, use a pruning saw. For those thicker than 8 inches, use a chain saw.

Cut at the nodes to thin the crown. This will increase the amount of light and air that gets to the flowering pear tree.

Remove branches with narrow, V-shaped connections because they are weaker and are likely already cracked. Keep all branches that are attached with strong U-shaped joints.

Achieve crown raising by removing all the branches that are facing downward, at the bottom of the tree. This will provide clearance for pedestrians or traffic. The tree also will have a neater appearance.

I recently received a query that has been repeated over and over this spring. A gardener in Roswell asks for my advice on the proper pruning of her Bradford pear tree in order to avoid limbs breaking as it gets larger.

The gardener, I’m sure, has been admiring the gorgeous clouds of white blooms lining the streets of metro Atlanta this spring. She’s smart, though, to have noticed that Bradford pears seem particularly prone to splitting apart during storms. Big limbs, even entire trees, lie broken after our yearly spring tempests.

Bradford pears are a victim of their own vigorous growth. Every twig and limb seems convinced that it can head for the sky immediately after it sprouts. The result is many vertical branches crowded around the trunk, all reaching heavenward. Simple physics explains that the attachment of a vertical branch is weaker than one which extends at an angle more toward the horizontal. Though the upright oval form of this tree is attractive, the means by which it is achieved leads to weakness.

In addition, so many branches sprout from a trunk that they eventually crowd each other for available space. After ten to fifteen years, large branches on a Bradford pear begin to split and fall if the tree has been left unpruned. The best time to prune a Bradford pear is in the first few years of its life in your landscape. If you wait much longer, limbs will grow too large and their removal could ruin the shape of the tree. This is an excellent time to grab your pruning tools and help your Bradford pear live long and prosper.

PRUNING YOUNG TREES Dr. Jim Midcap, Extension woody plant expert, suggests five steps to pruning a young Bradford pear:

1. Take out any branch that is dead or dying.

2. Select the strongest and/or tallest trunk in the center of the tree to be your central leader. Shorten by half any other branch that is trying to grow parallel to the leader.

3. Prune out the weaker of any two branches along the central trunk that have sprouted within 15 inches of each other. Midcap explains that in five years, pencil thin twigs will be five inches in diameter. When two big limbs grow closely together, either or both are weakly joined to the trunk.

4. Remove any branches that rub against a bigger branch or which pass within six inches of a bigger branch.

5. Try to leave only the branches that grow from the trunk at a 45 degree angle or more; these will be most strongly attached. HINT: You can make wooden spreaders from strong dowels to force adjacent limbs apart permanently. Wedge a spreader between branch and trunk to guide limbs to a proper clearance.

PRUNING OLD TREES An unpruned Bradford pear tree planted five or more years ago is likely to be a tangled mass of twigs and big limbs. With careful observation, you can still decide which limbs should stay and which should go. First to go are the thin vertical limbs in the center of the tree. They provide few blooms and impede air circulation through the tree. Next out are the major limbs that are spaced too closely together along the main trunk. When choosing between two limbs, keep the one that grows more horizontally. Remove the large limbs now, before green leaves appear and they become even harder to manage. Use the “three cut technique” described below to avoid tearing off bark below the limb.

THREE-CUT TECHNIQUE TO REMOVE LARGE LIMBS You can seriously harm the tree (and yourself!) if a big limb is cut carelessly. If only one cut is made next to the trunk, the limb will sag before the cut is complete and strip bark off for a distance down the trunk. It is best to cut the limb once from below and then from above, a couple of feet from the trunk, allowing most of the limb to fall away. The stub that is left can be removed with a single cut just outside the branch collar on the trunk.

TOO MUCH IS JUST ENOUGH If you follow the steps lined above, you might be concerned about the mass of limbs that is piled on the ground after the job is complete. Ignore the shrieks from your spouse and the jibes from your neighbors. The clouds of white blossoms that grace your Bradford pear may be slightly diminished the season after pruning but in succeeding years the blossoms will return in full force. And the wails of your neighbors, whose unpruned Bradford pear limbs have fallen across their new SUV, will be music to your ears!


Pruning Ornamental Shrubs and Trees

Bradford pear crowded limbs

Bradford pear limb failure

Bradford pear limb failure

Tags For This Article: bradford, pear, pruning

Apples and Pears – Training and Pruning

Back to Pears

General Fruit Tree Pruning Information – Why Prune Fruit Trees

Pruning an Apple Tree at Planting

A one-year-old bare-root whip is ideal to plant. Cut it back to around 30 inches to help reestablish the plant’s previous shoot-to-root ratio.

For a branched tree:

  1. Leave branches that are wide-angled and arranged spirally about 6- to 9-inches apart up the leader (trunk).
  2. Remove poorly spaced and narrow-angled branches.
  3. Branches left on the tree should be reduced by up to one-half their length.
  4. Cut the leader about 12 to 15 inches above the top limb.

Training and pruning a one-year old apple tree (click on image to enlarge)

The purpose of pruning a tree in the first 3 to 4 years after planting is to control its shape by developing a strong, well-balanced framework consisting of a central leader with scaffold branches. Apple trees should have a vaguely Christmas tree shape with the lowest scaffold branches having the widest spread (see image above). Most apple trees will not grow into this shape without help. Unwanted branches should be removed when small to avoid the necessity of large pruning cuts in later years.

2nd and 3rd Year Pruning

Prune your apple trees in the dormant (winter) season. March is generally the best month to prune fruit trees. However, you can prune apple trees anytime after leaf drop in the fall.

The most vigorous upright shoot will become your central leader. Create scaffold branches by selecting 4 to 5 branches evenly spaced around the tree. None should be directly above the other. Also, space them vertically up and down the trunk. This is your first tier of permanent scaffold branches. Head back the central leader so that it is 6 to 10 inches above the first tier.

Occasionally, a tree does not grow as well as it should during the first year. If this happens, prune the tree back to a whip and start over. You will delay fruiting by a year but you will have a more manageable tree.

In the third year, branches will have sprouted just below the leader’s heading cut made the previous year. From these branches, select a second group of scaffold branches. They will be about 2 to 3 feet above the first tier. This is the tree’s second tier.

Training and pruning a two-year-old apple tree. The image on the left shows a sketch of how the tree in the image above may look after the second year.

Branches with broken lines should be removed. The central leader (CL) should be tipped if it grew more than 2 feet. On the right side of the figure, see the same tree after pruning and spreading of branches. All limbs in the first tier of branches (A, B, C and D) have been spread with wooden spreaders, with a sharp-pointed nail in each end, to illustrate the beginning of the Christmas-tree shape. Limbs E and F and G and H only, in the second tier of branches, have been spread with wire having sharpened ends.

Limb Spreaders

It is very important to force scaffold branches to grow at a 60° to 90° angle from the trunk. Use limb spreaders if necessary. Limb spreaders are devices that can aid in earlier fruit production, improved tree shape, strong crotch angles, and better fruit color. Spreaders can be either short pieces of wood with sharpened nails driven into each end, wooden spring-type clothespins, or sharpened metal rods. The spreaders will need to remain in place for 1 to 2 years until the branch “stiffens up.”

Pruning in Succeeding Years

The tree’s entire production will come from the permanent scaffold branches you have selected. Since heavy pruning delays bearing, only necessary pruning cuts should be made during the next few years.

  1. Continue to head back all new terminal growth by one-fourth each year.
  2. Remove any upright limbs (suckers at base or water sprouts on branches).
  3. Remove any broken or diseased limbs.
  4. Always maintain the central leader as the highest point on the tree. The ends of the primary and secondary scaffolds should be kept below the top of the tree.
  5. A major limb off a scaffold branch should not be allowed closer than 12 inches to the trunk.
  6. When two branches grow nearly parallel to each other in a very narrow “V” formation, remove one.
  7. A scaffold developing a wide “V” is also undesirable, for if both limbs are of similar size, the point of attachment is usually weak. Remove one limb.
  8. If two branches are growing closely parallel one above the other, one should be removed.
  9. Fruit weight may bend limbs downward. If a limb bends past horizontal, it weakens and will grow little. On young bearing trees, leave fruits closer to the trunk, but not heavily at the end of the limb to prevent a permanent bend from occurring in the branch.

Large cuts should be made close to remaining limbs. Tall trees will require removal of large limbs. Stagger severe renovation over a 2- to 3-year period. Severe pruning will lead to the growth of many vigorous water sprouts.

Pruning an old, neglected apple tree

Additional Resource

Video – Utah State University Extension How to Prune An Apple Tree

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Pear Tree Pruning – How And When Do You Prune A Pear Tree

Pear trees are ideal for backyard orchards because of their manageable size and breathtaking display of spring flowers. Standard trees rarely exceed 18 feet in height, and many cultivars are much shorter. Proper pruning improves the appearance, health and yield of these fruit trees. So when do you prune a pear tree? Keep reading to learn more about when and how to prune pear trees in the home landscape.

When Do You Prune a Pear Tree?

Pruning a pear tree begins in late winter before the buds begin to swell. Earlier pruning may encourage excessive vegetative growth and suckering in spring and summer. It also increases the chances of winter injury to the pruning sites. Limit spring and summer pruning to light thinning, and try to avoid trimming pear trees after midsummer.

Pear tree pruning also begins at planting time. Cut back young, unbranched trees 33 to 36 inches above the ground to encourage good branching. If your new tree has plenty of branches, remove those that are less than 18 inches from the ground and those with crotches of less than 60 degrees.

How to Prune Pear Trees

As a young pear tree grows, the main stem of the plant should always be taller than the surrounding branches. Pear tree branches naturally grow upright, but the branches spread as it begins to bear fruit. The weight of the fruit pulls the branch down into a more horizontal position.

You can help this process by pulling the branch down and tying it to a stake in the ground with twine. Pad the twine that encircles the branch to avoid damage. If you can’t achieve an angle of at least 60 degrees between the branch and the trunk of the tree, then remove the branch.

Pruning and training to improve the spread of the branches increases the amount of sunlight that reaches the center of the tree. Your tree will produce fruit sooner and in greater quantities as a result. Keeping the canopy of the tree open makes it easier for sprays to reach every part of the tree. It also allows good air circulation around the branches, and this helps prevent diseases.

Pruning wounds in older trees provide an entry point for fire blight, which is a devastating disease that can kill a tree. Limit pruning of mature trees in areas where fire blight is a problem. Use as few cuts as possible to remove damage and thin the canopy. Remove suckers that grow from the base of the tree or in the crotches as they appear.

Many gardeners envision a perfectly manicured home orchard with fresh peaches, apples, pears and other assorted fruits available throughout the season for the picking. Some folks run out and purchase various fruit trees, stick them in the ground, and expect an abundant crop to instantly manifest itself. The truth of the matter is, a lot of these misguided gardeners fail to realize the amount of work that is involved in order to accomplish the harvest they envision.

Most fruit trees are purchased as young container-grown or bare-root stock, and they must be trained from day one by proper pruning in order to reach their full potential. The first few years of a young fruit tree’s growth are critical. Most young fruit trees should be pruned back to a single whip and then encouraged to branch in subsequent years. The pruning style depends on the type of fruit tree growth. Typically, stone fruits such as peaches and plums are pruned in such a way as to create a bowl shaped plant leaving the center open. Other fruit trees such as apples, pears and persimmons, should be trained early on to form a central leader with evenly spaced lateral branches. Most fruit trees require annual pruning and some light maintenance pruning throughout most of the season. Heavy pruning should be done during the dormant season in the months of January through early March. Regular pruning not only encourages healthy growth, but actually helps the plant to produce more fruit. Unfortunately, many folks fail to either prune properly or completely neglect their fruit trees after planting as they discover the somewhat intensive labor requirements. Over several years, these neglected plants can grow into wooly mammoths, and it can take considerable effort in order to bring them back into production.

In my travels, I have seen several fruit trees that were so overgrown, they were almost unrecognizable. Many of these trees have declined so severely that to rejuvenate them would not be worth the effort. As the song says, “You need to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.” If your fruit tree is full of dead branches and covered in moss or lichen, it is probably better to just get out the chain saw and remove the tree. It would be a much cheaper and simpler solution just to purchase some new, healthy, young trees and start over. If, however, you feel your fruit trees are still healthy, but perhaps just suffering from missing a few years of haircuts, then all hope is not lost. By following a few simple tips, you should be able to get your overgrown fruit tree back to size and producing better than ever.

Most neglected fruit trees are going to need fairly severe pruning, so plan to do this during the dormant months we mentioned earlier. It really helps if you’ve got some quality tools on hand to do the job properly. When it comes to pruning equipment, I never skimp and always try to purchase the best I can. You will need, at a minimum, a good pair of hand shears, some strong lopping shears, a handsaw, possibly a pole pruner, and potentially a chain saw. The hand shears will handle branches up to about half an inch in diameter. The lopping shears can tackle branches up to about 2 inches. The handsaw and possibly the chainsaw will remove anything above 2 or 3 inches in size. The pole pruner can be used to remove branches that are far out of reach from the ground or that cannot safely be reached from a ladder.

When fruit trees become overgrown, a common problem that occurs is the root stock sends up shoots from the root system, and they begin to grow into the grafted upper part of the tree. When this occurs, folks often complain about having a tree that produces a multitude of tiny fruit that are nothing like the variety they may have enjoyed in earlier seasons. What is actually happening is the root stock, which is an entirely different plant than the grafted top of the tree, has begun to exhibit dominance and often produces a less-than-desirable crop. Carefully inspect your neglected fruit tree at the base to determine what is truly the grafted portion and what is the root stock gone wild. Sometimes it’s very easy to tell, and other times the root stock grows so closely to the grafted portion, that they tend to blend together. Begin your revitalization of your neglected fruit tree by removing all advantageous root shoots at the ground level. Carefully fish these root stock shoots out and away from the existing tree. Wear gloves and eye protection, as apples and pears have very sharp, thorn-like branches.

After removing all of the imposter root stock growth, it is time to tackle the main branches of the tree. It’s best to stand back and visualize what the tree should look like, and then make a mental picture of which major branches should be removed. Remember that if it’s a peach or plum, you’ll probably have to remove a significant amount of inner, upright branches in order to achieve the bowl shape we mentioned earlier. As you are pruning your peach or plum, try to remove all branches that are growing upright, and prune off all but about one half of the branches that are growing horizontally. The key is to encourage primarily horizontal or lateral growth and to discourage upright shoots. Make clean cuts close to a main branch or just above a bud so that you leave no small stubs anywhere on the tree. Stubs that are left can easily decay and become avenues for disease and insects to penetrate. When pruning, look out for any problem branches that cross or touch each other, and remove one or the other. Any damaged or diseased branches should also be removed at this time. Central leader type trees, such as pears and apples, may need to be topped a little bit in order to bring them down to a manageable height. When doing this, however, you want to make sure you still have a central leader that remains for future growth. In order to see which lateral branches to remove, it’s often best to get under the tree and look straight up at the top. What you would like to see eventually is four evenly spaced scaffold branches per tier of limbs. Remove all other vigorous growth and tip back all lateral branches about a third of their length. Ideally, what you’d like to see is a tree that has evenly spaced branches with several open pockets between them.

Having a home orchard of your own can be a very rewarding experience, providing fresh fruit and the ingredients for making a variety of fresh jams and jellies. Taking the time each year to provide maintenance and pruning will help ensure the success of your home fruit trees.

Posted July 2010 Bob Westerfield is the Extension Consumer Horticulturist for the University of Georgia. Caley Anderson is a Horticultural Assistant working at the University of Georgia.

It may lean over its neighbours or have overgrown its spot, but you cannot treat a neglected apple or pear – one that has not regularly been pruned – with a short back and sides. Radical pruning of apples is always disastrous, because it results in more vigorous growth. It may look like you’ve solved your problem, but next spring, the tree will sprout a mass of watershoots. These are vigorous non-fruiting, vertical shoots produced to restore the balance of roots to shoots. Instead, in any one year, aim to take off no more than 25% of the canopy.

Standard apple and pear trees are pruned into a goblet shape with an open middle for air circulation and light, and equally placed framework of limbs, usually four to five main branches roughly 50-60cm apart. If it has not been pruned for a while, start by removing branches in the centre of the tree to open it up. You may need to take them right the way back to the main framework or point of origin. However, resist the temptation to prune off large limbs – avoid cutting off anything bigger than 20cm in diameter. If, by thinning out the middle, you have already taken off your 25%, then stop. No more pruning until next year.

Next take out anything diseased, dead, dying or damaged, as well as those that are crossing and rubbing. This usually decongests the tree and restores a sense of balance.

You may still need to reduce the height and spread of branches that have grown too large. But don’t just trim off the top of the tree, because that will result in a thicket of new growth where you’ve cut with little of this growth fruiting – particularly if you have a tip- or partial tip-bearing tree such as a bramley or discovery (fruit produced at the tip of the previous year’s fruit) – and you’ll have removed the majority of the fruiting wood.

To reduce the size of a branch, cut back to an outward- and upward-facing, vigorous lower side branch. There’s a rule about ratio: you shouldn’t cut a big fat branch back to a wimpy twig of a side branch; and the lower branch has to be at least one-third the diameter of the branch being removed. Next, remove any lower branches that receive little light and get in the way of moving around the tree.

Finally, in spur bearers (trees that produce fruit on short branched shoots), remove or thin out any spur systems that have become congested: spurs need to be 10-15cm apart along the branch. Remove the spurs on the underside of the branches, because these will produce fruit that won’t receive enough light and will be inferior.

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