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Pruning Pear Trees

Pruning is a very important part of proper fruit tree care, but many people find the task overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be! Keep these things in mind:

  • You can have confidence in knowing that not everyone will prune the exact same way (including the “experts”).
  • It is definitely best for your tree to do some pruning versus no pruning.
  • There are three main reasons you should prune your tree: its survival, stimulation and shaping.
  • If a fruit tree is left unpruned, it will not grow well— and in some cases, may not grow at all.

NOTE: This is part 7 in a series of 10 articles. For a complete background on how to grow pear trees, we recommend starting from the beginning.

Survival

When your tree is dug up from our fields to be shipped to you, the root ball loses many of its tiny feeder roots, which are needed to absorb moisture and nutrients. Pruning helps balance the top growth of your tree with the root system, giving the roots time to re-establish in your yard before spring growth.

When your Stark Bro’s bare root tree arrives, our professionals have already pre-pruned your tree for you. Because of this, you DO NOT need to prune them again when you plant. The only pruning done at this time would be any broken branches or roots.

Plan to prune your fruit trees during every dormant season. In Zone 6 and farther north, you should wait until late winter. A good reference book, such as Pruning Made Easy, can be invaluable for answering questions and guiding you through the pruning process.

Stimulation

In addition, cutting the tree back stimulates stronger, more vigorous growth from the remaining buds. After a single growing season, a tree you prune will be bigger than a matching unpruned tree.

Shaping

Even more important, your fruit tree needs to be shaped. The natural shape of a fruit tree is not always the best for maximum fruit production. Trees you receive from Stark Bro’s have been pruned in the nursery row for proper shaping, but correct pruning must continue at home. If you keep up with your pruning and shaping each year, you’ll make mostly small, easy-to-heal cuts.

Pruning Tips from the pros:

10 o’clock pruning angle.

  • Narrow, V-shape crotches are an open invitation to disastrous splitting later on, particularly when your tree is ripening with a large bumper crop. For your branches: choose wide 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock angles.

Pruning to a bud.

  • Make sharp, clean cuts close enough (about 1/4 inch) so you won’t leave a clumsy stub that’s hard to heal over. Stay far enough above the bud so it won’t die back. Slant the cuts and the new growth will develop beautifully.
  • Every branch has buds pointed in various directions. Since you want vigorous new growth to spread away from the center of the tree, make you cut above a bud that’s aimed outward. This helps your tree grow into a spreading shape.

Prune For Success

Fruit trees develop better if they’re pruned at the right times in the right ways. Here’s how:

Help the tree form a strong framework.

Remove weak, diseased, injured or narrow-angle branches, the weaker of any crossing or interfering branches, and one branch of forked limbs. Also remove upright branches and any that sweep back toward the center of tree. You want to keep your tree from becoming too thick and crowded; some thinning is necessary to permit light to enter the tree and to keep its height reasonable. All these objectives promote improved bearing, which is your overall aim. You’ll be pleased with the results.

Prune trees to Central Leader shape.

Trees do best when pruned and trained to a central leader tree. This type of tree has a pyramidal shape with a single upright leader limb as its highest point. This leader is the newest extension of a long, upright growing trunk from which all lateral branches arise. As with all strong growing branches, the leader should be headed at approximately 24-30” above the highest set of scaffolds branches. The uppermost bud on the leader produces a vigorous new leader, and no other shoot should be allowed to grow taller. Lateral limbs should be selected from shoots growing out from the central leader. These should be spaced vertically 4-6” apart, have growth that is more horizontal than vertical and point in different compass directions from the trunk. Any unbranched lateral branches should be headed back by approximately ¼ of their length to encourage side branches and to stiffen lateral branches. All laterals should have a wide branch angle.

Pruning Whips (Unbranched Trees)

Prune back to 28-36” above the ground at planting time. After the new branches have grown 3-5”, select a shoot to become the leader and scaffold limbs.

Off-season pruning

Sometimes pruning needs to be done even when the season isn’t the best. If a branch is broken by the wind or by a heavy load of fruit, emergency treatment is necessary. Prune back the ragged edges; making a smooth cut that leaves no stubby stump. Fast-growing “water sprouts” can be removed as soon as you see them rather than waiting until winter.

Spur pruning

Do not prune a spur tree as aggressive as a regular tree. Spurs allow fruit to form on each limb and bear from the trunk out. Spur type trees grow slower and develop many small spurs rather than long shoots, so fewer should be removed. Sometimes too many fruit spurs grow along a branch and will need to be thinned out to encourage bigger and better fruit on what remains.

Fruit Thinning

There are several reasons to thin fruit:

  • To reduce limb breakage
  • Increase fruit size
  • Improve fruit color and quality
  • Stimulate floral initiation for next year’s crop

Home gardeners thin fruit trees by hand. During May and June, many fruit trees will drop or abort fruit. This is a natural process that allows the tree to mature the crop load.
Trees may bear biannually, that is bear fruit every other year, bear heavy one year, then light the next year. Thin the heavy crop to correct bearing habit.

Apple Trees

The best time to thin apple trees is within 20 to 40 days of full bloom. Space each apple 6 to 8 inches apart on the branch. In clusters, leave the king bloom (the center bloom in the cluster of five flowers) as it will develop into the largest fruit.
On spur type varieties many fruit spurs grow along a branch and will need to be thinned out to encourage bigger and better fruit on what remains.

Pear Trees

Pear trees seldom require thinning. Remove small or blemished fruit as soon as they are seen. Leave two fruits per clusters to improve size.

Cherry Trees

These fruits are not thinned.

NEXT: Spraying Pear Trees
Previous: Pest & Disease Control for Pear Trees