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Pruning Pear Trees

Pruning pear trees is a chore that can be carried out at any time of the year, but it has to be done in winter. The best time is when cold weather will have killed off many of the insects and diseases that could damage your tree. 

It’s important to remove dead or diseased branches with clean cuts because these are more susceptible to infection than live wood. You also need to decide which branches will give better fruit production before removing them from the tree altogether, so this process should always begin by looking for over-cropped areas on your tree where there are too many branches competing for nutrients and light. 

If you are looking to get rid of some of the excess fruit on your pear trees, pruning is a great way to help them grow better. However, there are many different ways that you can do this, so it’s best to consult an expert before you start cutting away at your tree.

How To Top A Fruitless Pear Tree

“Off with his head” worked well for the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, but it is not an appropriate approach for a gardener. While young pear trees (Pyrus spp.) can be trained to various growth habits in which the pear whip is topped after planting, the upper crown of a mature tree should never be lopped off. Nor will topping a pear tree encourage fruit production. Gentler alternatives are available to reduce the size of your overgrown pear.

Pear Tree Training

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 5 though 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.

Gardening

Pears are one of the easiest fruit trees to grow, and they taste great as well. So why not consider growing some pear trees in your garden?  Read on for our guide as to how.

Buying Pear Trees

Local nurseries are the best place to source your pear trees from. However, these trees are a couple of years old and will take another two to four years to start bearing fruit once planted in your garden.  Pear trees can also be grafted onto other fruit trees.

Planting Pear Trees

When planting pear trees, choose a location that receives full sun.  Be aware that pears require a mild summer and a cool to cold winter in order to bear fruit well.  Dig a deep hole and add plenty of decomposed compost or blood and bone.  

Ensure that the compost or blood and bone are well mixed with the soil.  If your tree came in a decomposable peat pot, leave it in the container when planting. Just make a few slits to help the roots grow into the surrounding soil.  If it came in a regular pot or a bag, remove it before planting.  Bare rooted pear trees can be planted directly.  

When using bare-rooted pear trees, ensure that the grafting union is about 8-10cm above soil level. Bury the plant to the top level of soil that it had in the container and water it thoroughly.

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Caring for Pear Trees

Once the tree is planted, it is a good idea to use a stake for the first year, as strong winds can cause the young tree to bend and grow on an angle.  Feed the tree with a balanced fertiliser or a specially formulated fruit tree fertiliser when the tree has established itself.  When the tree starts to fruit, remove any pears that have been damaged by insects.

Pear Trees and Pests and Diseases

Pear trees are less susceptible to pests and disease than many other fruit trees.  It is recommended to use an oil or spray formulated for fruit trees before the flower buds open to kill insects and prevent disease.  If you have a problem with pear scabs (black spot), spray with Bordeaux or Lime Sulphur before flowering.  The main pest for pears is codling moth.

Pruning Pear Trees

When the pear tree is established, it will need pruning.  Regular pruning will result in more fruit.  Pear trees should be pruned each year in the early spring before new growth begins.  Remove any dead or unhealthy branches.  

Prune the tree so that you can easily access fruit with a ladder.  Also, prune areas that are very bushy as this will help sunlight and air to penetrate, improving the overall health and growth of the tree.  You can prune to maintain shape as well. However, be careful not to prune too heavily, or strong unproductive vertical shoots will form.

Harvesting Pears

Pick the pears when they have reached full size, are still quite hard, and the skin has lost its deep green colour.  Once picked, store in a ventilated plastic bag in the fridge.  Remove when you need them, and then store in the kitchen for a few days until the flesh has softened.  This way, you will get the full flavour of the pears.

How to Prune Old, Neglected Pear Trees

In the first year, you need to reduce the tree’s height if it is too tall to pick the fruit easily. Reducing the height by 1/3rd or more is acceptable. One pear tree here was about 20 feet in height, and we lopped 8 feet off it. A little more than 1/3 in this case, but you can be more ruthless when you have taller trees.

During this first year of hard pruning, cut out any dead wood, any limbs that are crossing over each other and not allowing any light and air into the centre of the tree. You also want to cut back the main side branches to be in proportion and balance with the rest of the pruning and cut them back to a strong side shoot or riser.

In the second year, your pear tree will need further pruning. This can be done in the summer. Remove all the vigorously growing top shoots and leave just a few minor ones to grow to give the tree some shade. Any shoots that are coming off the trunk, or developing on the lower branches, leave these, as this is the growth that you are trying to encourage. You want the lower half of the tree to be more vigorous in growth than the top half.

During the winter of year two, you can further reduce the height of your pear tree, but no more than a foot or two. Any more than this, and you will end up damaging the potential yield of your pear crop or even damage the tree itself.

During the next growing season, continue to thin out the shoots coming from the top half of the canopy and allow those from the bottom to grow. Again, prune in a way that the shoots grow outwards rather than upwards. Again, cut out any shoots that are crossing over to allow more light and air into the tree.

During the following year, continue to remove the new shoots from the top canopy, but this time, instead of removing almost all of them, remove only half of them.

During the following winter, cut back the side branches by about a foot and now shape your tree so that all your fruiting branches are evenly spaced over the whole of the tree, from the top to the bottom canopy.

If you need to reduce the side branches by 2 feet to do this, do it. Again, it depends on how tall your tree is and how much you will decide to remove.

You may still need a ladder to get to your fruit, but if you are really lucky, the tree will be at a height that allows you free access without a ladder.

Keep the tree lightly pruned for the following years, always removing some of the top vigorous growth and not allowing it to get taller than you have it in your final year of hard pruning.

How to Feed Old, Neglected Pear Trees

Old, abandoned fruit trees are usually found with grass knee-high around the trunks and choked with weeds. Remove all grass and weeds from under the tree until where the branch tips end. This is known as the drip line.

Now get a garden fork and loosen the soil gently around the tree, right up to the drip line, making sure that you do not damage the roots. Next, get yourself some well-aged farm manure, spread it under the tree, and lightly fork it in.

You may have to add lime to the manure if your soil is very acidic. The ideal pH level for growing pear trees is 6.0-6.5. I always advocate saving old fruit trees first rather than replacing them with new trees.

First of all, if you are very lucky, you may find that the variety of pear trees that you have is an heirloom variety that will give you far superior tasting fruit than the wishy-washy modern varieties.

Secondly, once you have finished the 3-year pruning schedule, your tree will produce much more fruit than any new 4-year-old pear tree would.

When to Prune Fruit Trees

Neglecting to prune your fruit trees won’t stop the production of fruit. However, we recommend you prune annually to improve fruit quality and establish a strong framework of branches to support heavy fruit loads.

Pruning fruit trees can result in larger fruit that is easier to harvest. The tree will be much tidier and takes up less space in the garden.

We’ve put together this quick guide for when you should be pruning your trees. But, if all of this seems a bit confusing or too difficult, give us a call, we’ll arrange to come and do your pruning for you at the right times that it should be done.

Winter Pruning vs Summer Pruning

Winter pruning of fruit trees usually results in vigorous growth. The harder the fruit tree is pruned in winter, the more vigorous the growth will be in spring. Winter pruning is used to train a tree to a particular shape or to encourage substantial growth. Winter pruning is recommended for newly planted trees up until the tree has achieved the desired height and shape.

In general, summer fruit tree pruning retards growth. The already established framework is maintained. The new growth that follows is tamed and is much less vigorous than growth following winter pruning. This allows more energy to be put into fruit. Once a system of summer pruning is established, very little winter pruning of the framework is required.

When To Prune Fruit Trees

The only fruit trees which require a defined pruning period are apricots which should be pruned only when the trees are actively growing (e.g. spring or summer)

Winter pruning time for other fruit trees is from autumn, when the tree is beginning to lose its leaves, through to spring, as the flowers are beginning to open.

Summer fruit tree pruning can be carried out before or after harvest. Remember: Winter pruning promotes vigorous growth; summer pruning inhibits growth.

Winter is the best time to prune deciduous fruit trees such as apples, pears and plums. These trees will fruit well whether or not they are pruned. But if the trees grow too tall, the fruit is high and hard to reach, and when there is unproductive wood, they don’t tend to crop reliably. 

The aim of pruning fruit trees in the home garden is to assist the tree in producing reliable quality crops, with good size fruit on a manageable size tree.

But the trees now need attention. For example, when pruning apples, look for a central leader, and prune to make sure there are no competing branches.

Remove and clear the clutter within the tree. We want a nice, open framework and not too many competing branches because it won’t fruit properly. So remove any crossing and low branches.

Remember, the shoot on the end of each tip is called a terminal, and this won’t ever fruit, so reduce that to just five or six buds. There’s also a branch that comes off the side of the shoot at an angle of between 30 and 60 degrees, and that’s called a lateral. 

Leave the laterals intact because they will develop fruiting spurs for next season. And the little stubby bits of growth, which are fruiting spurs, will develop apples this season. Try to prune a quarter of an inch past a bud and at an angle. And remove any old fruit left hanging on the tree.

Pears fruit on the little flowering spurs, just like apples, but they also fruit on the tip of one-year-old laterals, and so when pruning, reduce the terminal and leave these to produce fruit for next year.

When pruning plums, it is important to train the tree into a vase shape. This means opening up the centre of the tree to let in the light. Then, look for six to nine nice, strong branches that can form that framework. 

When working with Japanese plum, look to see what interferes with the shape of the tree. The next priority is to reduce any tall, whippy growth. Plums fruit on fruiting spurs and one-year-oldmid-to-late laterals, so it’s important to remove any old or dead wood that’s cluttering the tree to encourage new growth. The ideal is to end up with a strong terminal with lovely fruiting spurs ready for this season’s plums.

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Good orchard hygiene is also important, so after finishing, collect the prunings, and dispose of them and remove any old, rotten fruit because these could harbour disease.

In winter, it’s tempting to stay inside where it’s warm, but a little bit of effort pruning fruit trees will pay off. the fruit quality and

Late winter

  • Winter prune deciduous fruit trees such as apple, pear (always lightly), peach, nectarine, cherry and plums.
  • Autumn-fruiting raspberries (primocanes) should be cut back in late winter to within a few centimetres of the ground. Newly planted raspberries and hybrid blackberries should also be pruned.
  • Pruning blueberry bushes should be performed after harvest has finished, ideally in late winter.

Spring

  • Pruning citrus trees by removing diseased or dead wood. Also, cut out any crossed branches that are rubbing.
  • Thin some small fruits on early-season stone (apricots, plum and peach) and pome (apple and pear) fruit trees to improve the quality and size of the remaining fruit.
  • Passionfruit vines can be pruned in mid-to-late spring.

Summer

  • Continue thinning small fruit on late-season deciduous fruit varieties into the early part of summer.
  • Carry out summer pruning on deciduous fruit trees after harvesting in late summer.
  • Cut out summer-fruiting raspberry canes (floricanes) that have completely finished fruiting.

Autumn

  • Summer pruning of deciduous pome and stone fruit trees should be completed by early autumn.
  • Shoots of blackberry hybrids that have fruited should be cut down.

Other

  • Bananas (yes, you can even grow some varieties of Bananas in Melbourne) are cut to the ground after fruiting. Each plant will be replaced by an emerging sucker.
  • Avocados are pruned lightly immediately after harvest. Trim only one side or the top of the tree annually. Rotate the part that you trim each year to maximise fruit production.
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