How and When to Prune Pear Trees

You’ve heard that it’s important to prune your pear trees. You’ve purchased a pair of pruners and have looked at a few resources but you’re still not quite sure when to carry them outside and start snipping.

Maybe you’re nervous, too. How, exactly, does one prune a pear tree?

A close up vertical image of a gardener using a pair of secateurs to prune a pear tree pictured in light sunshine. To the top and bottom of the frame is green and white printed text.
Photo via Alamy.

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If you want to learn more about growing pears, read our guide.

In this article, we’ll point out exactly why pruning Pyrus trees is important, and walk you through the steps you need to take.

Here’s everything we’ll cover:

Why Should You Trim Pear Trees?

If you’re wondering why you should bother to cut branches off your pear, you’re not alone. What good does cutting limbs off do?

Here’s the secret: trimming young pear trees helps them grow into and maintain the shape you prefer.

A close up horizontal image of large pears ripening on the tree pictured in light sunshine fading to soft focus in the background.

But pruning also does much more, and trees of any age can benefit.

By trimming away boughs that are touching each other or growing too close together, you help eliminate the threat of injury. When there’s friction between them, the bark can rub off, creating an entry point for pests and disease.

And when leafy branches are growing too close together – even if they aren’t touching – sunlight can’t reach every bough individually.

According to experts at the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, pruning fruit trees improves airflow between limbs. This can help dry out excess moisture, like dampness from a recent rainfall, more quickly.

This, in turn, helps keep fungal infections away.

The experts at the People’s Trust also say that a well-pruned tree lets more sunshine in, resulting in large, vigorous leaves and buds.

Diane Brown, extension educator at the Michigan State University Extension, adds that sunlight is crucial in helping the leaves to make sugar, allowing the tree to grow as it should, and helping to produce high-quality fruit.

Delicious!

When to Trim

You should plan to prune in late winter or early spring. Experts at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension say pruning them at this time helps to protect their winter hardiness and health.

Be on the lookout for winter dieback, or cold damaged wood, and prune it away, too.

A close up horizontal image of a gardener pruning a pear tree pictured in light sunshine.

You’ll still be catching the tree at the tail end of its dormant stage, but the wounds created by the pruners will heal quickly as the growing season begins, reducing the chance that insects will infest the branches through the open cuts, or that disease will take hold.

If your pear desperately needs a trim though, late summer is an option, say the experts at the Maine Extension.

You’ll only want to remove dead or broken branches at this point, as a heavy trim in summer will weaken the plant. You never want to remove more than a third of a tree’s growth in a given year.

To keep your tree as healthy as possible, cut back dead or diseased branches, or limbs that are rubbing against each other, once a year.

How to Prune

Before you begin snipping away, consider what you wish to achieve with your Pyrus tree.

Do you want to train it into a shape ideal for bearing large yields of high-quality fruit year after year? Or would you rather it grow with a more natural look, potentially at the expense of a larger harvest?

If you’re really fancy, or short on space, you can try growing them in the espalier style.

If you prefer the first option, you’ll probably want to prune your pear into what’s known as a “single leader” or “central leader” shape.

Since pears tend to grow straight up, the central leader shape honors the way pears like to grow while also maximizing light exposure to the lower and middle branches, which helps promote fruit production and quality.

But if you’d rather maintain a “natural” look, with branches that grow more naturally and uniformly while also keeping the tree healthy, you can do that, too.

We’ll cover how to prune with either of these goals in mind in a moment. But first, a few tips and notes on equipment.

A close up horizontal image of a pair of Fiskar's pruners isolated on a white background.

Fiskars Bypass Pruners

Use a sharp pair of bypass pruners for young specimens and small branches. I like these from Fiskars, which are available from the Home Depot.

For older trees with thick limbs, use a pruning saw like this one from Fiskars, also available from the Home Depot.

A close up horizontal image of a Fiskar's pruning saw isolated on a white background.

Fiskars Pruning Saw

Always cut about an inch above an outward-facing lateral bud, which allows a new branch to grow outward rather than crossing back inward toward the trunk.

For branches that curve upward, make an angled cut so that water can easily run off the open wound. For boughs that stick straight out, a straight cut works well.

Always clean and disinfect your pruning tools before making any cuts.

Never remove more than a third of the tree’s growth in one year.

You can learn more general tips in our guide to the basics of pruning.

Pruning to Create a Central Leader

Your goal here is to allow the trunk to grow straight upward, and to create two to three sets of strong scaffolding branches growing outward from the center.

A close up vertical image of a small pear tree growing in a backyard orchard.

Pruning of this type should be done at planting time, or during the winter following the tree’s first summer.

If you’re starting out with a whip, or a branchless tree, you’ll want to make what’s called a “heading cut” at planting time, wherein you cut a few inches off a branch, typically removing the tip and one or two buds.

Heading cuts stimulate new growth.

Your heading cut on a whip should reduce the height to 30 to 45 inches, says Diane Brown of the Michigan State University Extension. This will encourage side shoots, which will become your scaffolding branches as the tree grows.

If you’re starting out with a branched tree, you can skip this step. Instead, prune dead, diseased, or broken boughs away by cutting them back to their point of origin.

This is called a “thinning cut.” Unlike a heading cut, a thinning cut does not stimulate new growth but instead redirects energy into the existing branches.

When you cut entire boughs off, take care to leave about one-quarter of an inch of the stump in place, essentially leaving only the branch collar behind.

The branch collar is a ring of thickened tissue surrounding the branch’s attachment point to the trunk. If you cut nice and close to it, the collar will naturally seal itself back over in time.

A longer stump, on the other hand, can rot and potentially breach the collar area’s protective tissue, ultimately infecting the entire tree. But if you cut too much of the stump off, you risk removing the collar entirely, and injuring the trunk.

A close up horizontal image of a cut made through a branch of a tree.
Photo by Laura Ojeda Melchor.

When the tree has several branches, after about a year of growth, choose four or five to keep. Pick branches with a crotch angle of 45 to 60 degrees.

A narrower angle can result in a weak branch that can’t properly support fruit. It can also cause bark to get trapped in the crotch and begin to crack – an open invitation for rot.

The lowest branch you choose to keep should be about two to three feet off the ground.

Over time, these boughs will become your lowermost scaffolding branches.

In the first several years of growth, also cut away any developing fruits as soon as you see them. This will allow the tree to focus on growing strong and healthy instead of producing fruit, and after year three, you’ll be able to let it bear pears!

Continued Care for Central Leaders

Two or three years after you form the first set of scaffolding limbs, select a second set from the branches that have grown above the lower scaffold.

The crotch of the lowest branch in your second scaffold set should be about two feet above the crotch of the uppermost branch in your lower scaffold.

Cut back any limbs in that in-between space. Leaving this space relatively open will allow sunlight to reach the center of the tree.

A close up horizontal image of unripe pears growing in an orchard pictured on a soft focus background.

Once you’ve done that, trim the branches in your second scaffold set back so that they’re a couple of inches shorter in length than the lower boughs.

According to extension expert Diane Brown, your pear will begin to look a little bit like a Christmas tree.

This shape – narrower at the top, and broader at the bottom – prevents the upper branches and leaves from blocking overhead sunlight that needs to reach the lower scaffold.

If you’re growing a dwarf pear variety, your shaping work is done after you create this second set of scaffolding branches.

But if you’re raising a semi-dwarf or standard tree, you’ll need to create a third and final set.

Whenever the tree has grown several more branches – generally a year or two after you create the second set of scaffolding branches – you’ll repeat the step above to create the third set of scaffolds.

Remember to trim them to be a couple inches shorter than the middle branches.

When your pear reaches the desired height – around eight to 10 feet for a dwarf, 12 to 16 feet for a semi-dwarf, or about 20 feet for a standard variety – you can opt to trim the central leader at the top of the tree, cutting it back to your desired height.

If your pear gets too tall, you may have difficulty harvesting fruit, depending on your height preference and expectations for the tree.

A horizontal image of gardeners up ladders in an orchard, pruning in winter pictured on a blue sky background.

Do this every couple of years to maintain the desired height.

After doing all this work, you can sit back and relax for the most part. The tree will retain the form that you have coaxed it to grow into, and will only need minor adjustments every year or two.

Trimming for a Natural Look

If you love your pear trees but want them to look more natural while still providing fruit every year or two, you can choose a more laid-back trimming option.

A horizontal image of a large pear tree isolated in the landscape pictured on a blue sky background.

All you need to do for this one is to:

  • Cut back broken, dead, or diseased branches.
  • Remove branches that are crossing, growing inward toward the trunk, or rubbing against each other.
  • Trim away any branches with crotch angles narrower than 45 degrees.

Let the tree grow as tall as you want. Every two or three years, stand back and look at the overall shape of your pear.

If you see any limbs sticking out awkwardly, or notice that some areas of the tree are too dense with lateral branches for light to penetrate, you can choose to do a bit of pruning.

Use thinning cuts to remove the lateral branches you don’t want, cutting them back to their point of origin, leaving the branch collar intact.

Otherwise, you really don’t need to do much at all.

A Note on Age

Pruning to shape a pear is best done when the tree is young. Once it’s around five or six years old, the shape is more or less set in stone, and heavy trimming could be detrimental.

A horizontal image of a large pear isolated in the landscape in light autumn sunshine pictured on a blue sky background.

If you’ve recently moved into a home with older, neglected pears, cut with care. Remove those broken, dead, or diseased branches first. Then, use thinning cuts to remove branches that crowd the tree.

Make room for sunlight to hit the innermost branches from every angle, taking care not to prune back more than one-third of the branches.

For a severely crowded, tangly tree, you may need to thin about a third of the branches off every year for two or three years, until it looks adequately thinned out.

Did your central leader die back or break off? See our guide for what to do if the top of your tree dies.

A Peary Delicious Bounty

Whether you choose to create a central leader or use a more natural method for pruning your pears, you’re sure to get plenty of delight out of growing your fruit tree. Or, if you’re like me, your fruit trees, plural.

A close up horizontal image of pears growing in the garden pictured on a soft focus background.

How do you like to prune your pears? Let us know in the comments below! We love reading your stories and answering your questions.

For more helpful tips, remember to check out these articles on growing pears next:

About Laura Ojeda Melchor

Laura Ojeda Melchor grew up helping her mom in the garden in Montana, and as an adult she’s brought her cold-weather gardening skills with her to her home in Alaska. She’s especially proud of the flowerbeds she and her three-year-old son built with rocks dug up from their little Alaska homestead. As a freelance writer, she contributes to several websites and blogs across the web. Laura also writes novels and holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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