pear-tree

How to Prune a Pear Tree

Have you ever wondered how to prune a pear tree? I’ve compiled this post in order to answer that question and give you some tips on how to do it. First, of course, the tree must be healthy, so keep an eye out for any signs of disease or pests- if there are any, they should be dealt with immediately before attempting to prune. 

Some pear trees have what is called a spur system (a group of branches growing from the trunk) which will need to be cut back as well. For more information about pruning your pear tree, read on!   

This blog post is full of helpful advice on how to take care of your pear tree by trimming away dead wood and infested areas. Read on to learn how you can prune a pear tree with confidence!    

Pruning is one of the most important things you can do for your trees. The right amount and type of pruning gives them space to grow and provides an environment where they can put their energy into producing high-quality fruit instead of getting tangled up in each other’s branches.

Pruning your pear tree every year helps to promote its growth and ability to bear fruit, in addition to protecting it from infections. You will want to prune in the winter and get rid of your tree’s oldest branches. Then, thin your tree out into a pleasing, effective shape to keep your tree happy and healthy.

Pruning & Training

Young trees are pruned to train them to become structurally sound, make them easy to care for and ensure the production of high-quality fruit. Pruning will:

  • Control size for easier care in maintaining and picking fruit
  • Increase strength – develop strong limb structure
  • Distribute sunlight evenly throughout the tree
  • Regulate fruit-bearing – removes excess fruitwood
  • Renew fruitwood – to continue strong buds and flowers
  • Remove undesirable wood- dead, broken, and crossing branches.
  • The optimum time of year to prune fruit trees is the dormant season, December, January (best) and until the middle of February, but note the summer schedule for Apricots.

There are two types of pruning cuts:

  • Thinning cuts are used to remove lateral branches at their origin or to shorten branch length by cutting to another lateral that is a minimum of 1/3 the width of the branch section being removed. Lateral cuts should be angled and done just outside of the branch bark ridge and branch collar. Cutting into the branch collar can damage the plant and cause decay.
  • Heading cuts are when a plant is cut back to a stub, lateral bud or small lateral branch. When heading back to a lateral bud or small lateral branch, the cut should be made at approximately a 45* angle away from the bud or branch and a ¼ inch above it. Heading cuts may result in a flush of vigorous, upright growth.

The strongest growth goes to the terminal bud. When cut, the lateral bud becomes the terminal bud, and growth continues in that direction.

Training/Pruning Systems

Open Center or Vase-Shaped can be used on all fruit and nut trees. Best for European plums, Asian pears and almonds. It makes big trees, shading from heavy top growth can be a problem.

In the first year, select three to four limbs distributed evenly around the trunk. Leave small branches on these limbs for early fruiting and sunburn protection. Head limbs half their length should be 24-30″.

At the second year, select one or two limbs on each primary. Head these back to ½ their length (24-30″). Remove other limbs.

Central Leader makes a small tree, about half the size of a vase type. Excellent for distributing sunlight.

After the first year, select three to five lateral branches, lowest about 12-15″ above ground, spaced evenly around the tree, two to three feet apart vertically. Head leader and laterals that may compete with leader.

Following years develop another series of laterals every two to three feet higher up the central leader. Finally, it will likely be necessary to spread laterals physically when five to six feet long in order to form a proper angle (about 45°) with the trunk.

“Y” System starts at knee height as other systems. Makes a small tree. Easy to train. Good for peaches and nectarines. Space trees six to seven feet apart in rows 15 feet apart. The “Y” is perpendicular to the row. For apple plums, pears and cherries, increase the distance between trees to eight to ten feet. Develop lateral branches from all sides of each arm of the “Y.”

Most gardeners who plant pear trees hope to enjoy pears in their pantry. Therefore, to facilitate the anticipated harvest, they prune the pear tree to ensure that its branches are large enough to bear the weight of the fruit and low enough to be within easy reach. 

Often young pear trees are trained to a central leader; this means the gardener allows one central upright trunk and various strong, lateral branches to develop while pruning all the rest. When a pear tree is left to its own devices, it can grow 40 feet high. Pruning back such a tree is not the work of a moment.

Topping

When a tree has overgrown its location, topping — lopping off the tree’s crown — is one quick alternative that comes to mind. However, topping is a poor choice both for the tree and the gardener. When you cut large, upright branches between nodes, the gaping tree wounds can become infected or rot. 

Even if the cut branches do not die back, each cut stimulates the growth of numerous epicormic sprouts that look unsightly and are only weakly attached to the stem. The gardener will have to prune the tree often to keep the tree clear of sprouts.

Reducing Tree Size

Crown-reduction pruning is a better way to reduce the height of a tree, although it too should be seen as a last resort measure. Each upward-directed branch is pruned just above a large lateral branch with a diameter of at least one-third the diameter of the cut branch. 

This type of pruning, while still putting the tree at risk, looks more natural, increases the time between prunings and reduces tree stress. Crown-reduction pruning should be undertaken in early spring while the tree is still dormant. Then, if the height of the pear is much too tall, plan to reduce it slowly over three or more years to a manageable height.

Failure to Fruit

Regularly pruned pear trees are more likely to fruit than neglected trees, but a pear tree may fail to fruit for many reasons. For example, some pear cultivars thrive in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones five through 9, but that does not mean that your tree does. 

If your pear tree belongs in a cooler zone, it may not get enough winter chill hours to fruit. Perhaps most important, pear trees require cross-fertilisation to fruit; this means that another pear tree must be planted fairly close by so that its pollen can fertilise your pear’s blossoms.

Prune

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The pear (genus Pyrus) was one of the earliest fruit trees to be cultivated. Prized for its fragrant white blossoms, sweet fruit and graceful tapering shape, the pear tree is grown widely in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 5 through 9. 

To ensure high-quality fruit and protect against pests and disease, pear trees should be pruned annually in the late winter or early spring before they begin to bud. While most pear species do not attain heights of more than 25 feet, they can be a challenge to prune as most of their branches naturally angle upward.

Make sure your pruners are sharp and clean before pruning. Next, disinfect the blades with rubbing alcohol to prevent spreading viruses or other diseases to your tree. Finally, prune back any new suckers at the base of the tree. These detract energy from fruit production.

Cutaway any broken or dangling branches, as these can be entry points for insects and disease. Always make sharp diagonal cuts and prune to the collar, or the nub where the branch meets the trunk, to allow the tree to heal cleanly.

Prune any twigs or branches that are angling downward or rubbing against other branches. Though these may not seem to pose an immediate threat to the tree, they will cause greater problems as they grow, and it is best to remove them early. Since most pear branches angle upwards, these downward-pointing branches will stand out and interfere with lower limbs.

Prune inner branches that will be heavily shaded or difficult to reach when harvesting the fruit. Try to create a “scaffold” of alternating branches with open spaces in between, leaving room for the fruit to grow to maximum size.

Shape the crown of the tree by cutting it back to a single leader. As pears are usually vertically oriented trees, many competing leaders may cluster at the top, unbalancing the tree and making fruit difficult to access. Instead, choose one strong central leader and cut back competitors.

Check for any other stray branches that disrupt the overall shape of your pear tree. When pruning is complete, collect the cuttings and recycle as compost or mulch.

Prune fruit trees when the leaves are off (dormant). It’s easier to see what you are doing, and the removing dormant buds (growing points) invigorates the remaining buds. Summer pruning removes leaves (food manufacture), will slow fruit ripening and exposes fruit to sunburn. However, summer pruning can be beneficial when used to slow down overly vigorous trees or too large trees. It is usually done just after harvest.

Right after planting a new tree, cut if off to short stick 24 to 30 inches high and cut any side shoots, remaining below that, to one bud. This encourages low branching and equalises the top and root system. Next, paint the tree with white latex paint to protect it from sunburn and borer attacks.

Young trees should be pruned fairly heavily and encouraged to grow rapidly without any fruit for the first three years. After that, leave most of the small horizontal branches untouched for later fruiting.

When deciding which branch to cut and where to cut it, remember that topping a vertical branch encourages vegetative growth necessary for the development of the tree and opens the tree to more sunlight. Topping horizontal branches are done to renew fruiting wood and to thin off excessive fruit. Horizontal branches left uncut will bear earlier and heavier crops.

Upright branches generally remain vegetative and vigorous. Horizontal branches generally are more fruitful. A good combination of the two is necessary for fruiting now and in future years. Remove suckers, water sprouts and most competing branches growing straight up into the tree. Downward bending branches eventually lose vigour and produce only a few small fruits; cut off the part hanging down.

New growth occurs right where you make the cut; that is, the influence of the cut only affects the buds within 1 to 8 inches of the cut surface, not 3 to 4 feet down into the tree. The more buds cut off, the more vigorous the new shoots will be.

Do most of the pruning in the top of the tree to expose the lower branches to sunlight. Sun exposed wood remains fruitful and produces the largest fruit. However, shaded branches eventually stop fruiting and will never produce without drastic topping and renewal of the entire tree.

Make clean cuts (within ¼”) of bud; don’t leave stubs. Use spreaders or tie downs to get 45° angles branches of upright vigorous growing trees. Peach and Nectarine remove 50% of last years growth. Fig, Apple, Pear, Plum and Apricot remove about 20% of last years growth. Cherries only summer prune the first five years.

Tree Condition

Unpruned trees may be eye-sores at best. They often appear as a network of crowded, twisted and overlapping branches. There may be several large, tall primary branches arising at narrow angles, close to each other. Low side branches may be sparse, absent or “deer pruned” to head height.

Although the trunk and general framework may be sound, the functional portion of the tree is usually a solid canopy of weak, crowded branches at the top or periphery of the tree’s canopy. Trees may have annual shoot growth an inch or two at best and irregular crops of small, wormy fruit.

A word of caution about the origin of trees. Some old trees have arisen from seed or as suckers from the rootstock or root system below the graft union. With few exceptions, these trees are typically inferior to named varieties and do not justify your efforts, especially if your reason is fruit production.

Planting a new tree or grafting (topworking) the existing tree with named varieties or cultivars are better options (for information, see Propagation of Temperate-Zone Fruit Plants, UC publication 21103).

Tools

Good tools for the job will not guarantee success, but poor ones invite poor work and accidents. Price is a general reflection of quality, and three tools are essential for pruning:

  • Hand pruning shears
  • Lopping shears (loppers) with 24- to 30-inch handles
  • A folding or fixed handled pruning saw, with 8- to 15-inch curved blades and wide-set teeth

Folding ladders and extension ladders are unsafe and not designed for unstable ground or tree work. An orchard (tripod) ladder is the only ladder considered acceptable and safe, even on hillsides and uneven ground. Properly cared for, an orchard ladder will last a lifetime and more.

Principles

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Although pruning is one of the oldest horticultural practices, the principles on which it is based are not always understood. The novice tends to focus on minor details at the expense of some well-accepted principles.

Whether the task is to prune neglected, mature trees or simply annual pruning of trees under regular care and maintenance, the following principles will serve you well:

  • Have a specific purpose or plan in mind. In this case, the focus is to rejuvenate the tree into one that is structurally sound, functional, manageable and attractive in the home orchard or landscape.
  • Know the age and type of wood where fruit buds form. However, your initial consideration with neglected trees is a tree structure, and more detailed pruning will come in later years.
  • Fruit bud formation is dependent on light. Therefore, the tree must be open enough for light penetration, interior shoot growth and fruit bud development.
  • Dead, dying, diseased parts and interfering branches should be removed. Weak or very narrow crotches may also be removed.

Making Cuts on Your Tree

Prune during the winter on a dry day. Pruning your pear tree during its dormant season before it actively begins regrowth in the spring is best because the tree will put more energy into growing where it was pruned. 

Pruning during this time when the leaves are off the tree also allows for you to see better what you’re doing. You should also choose a dry day to prune your pear tree. If it’s raining or snowing when you cut your tree, there’s a higher risk of infection getting into the wet cuts.

Have a sharp, clean set of shears or pruning saw. If your shears or saw are old and you’re not sure if they are sharp, you can either sharpen them yourself or take them to your local hardware store to have them sharpened for a small fee. 

To clean your shears or saw yourself, dip the blades in isopropyl alcohol for 30 seconds to disinfect them, then wipe them dry with a clean towel. Make slanted cuts that are flush with the branches. Slightly slanted cuts will help deter water from soaking into the cut and having your branch get infected.

You want to also want to make cuts right against the larger branch that the branch you’re removing is growing from. Avoid leaving little stubs when you make cuts. Instead, make a clean, slanted cut right up against the larger branch.

Cut 10-20% of your tree each year. If your tree is healthy, aim to remove 10-20% of the overall canopy of your tree in one year. This will mean more for older trees and not much at all for younger trees. If you prune too hard, your tree may produce the vigorous upright branches called water sprouts, which will start to crowd your tree.

If your pruning pile starts looking a little big or more than 10-20% of your tree, it’s time to stop immediately. Wait until next year to prune more.

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