When to prune
Winter is a good time to prune free-standing apple and pear pear trees to improve the tree’s shape. Prune when the tree is dormant and before the buds begin to burst, between November and early March.
However, all restricted and trained trees such as espaliers, cordons and fans - be they apples, pears or stone fruit - are summer pruned because winter pruning tends to encourage rapid growth and spoil their shape. Prune espaliers, cordons and fans mainly in summer and then tidy up a little in winter, if needed.
How to prune
The first cuts
The standard equipment is sharp secateurs, a pruning saw and loppers and you are aiming to create an airy shape so start by removing the 3Ds - the dying, the dead and the diseased wood.
It’s easy to spot in early winter as a healthy section of growth will have buds and a shine to the bark. Remove any old fruit at this stage - should there be any.
Opening up the tree
After the 3Ds have been removed, take a long look at each tree and take your time before making any more cuts because you can’t stick it back on! Every tree has its own habit, upright, sprawling or wayward, for instance. Different varieties grow at different rates and this is loosely governed by the root stocks.
Identify the main branches (known as the primaries ) and reduce their length by a third in winter, making a slanting cut above an outward facing bud.
The cut slants away from the bud, with the highest part of the branch directly above the bud - so that water drains away. Once spring comes new growth will radiate outwards creating an airy tree. If you cut to an inner bud the new growth will veer towards the centre and the tree will become crowded in the middle. Branches will chafe and your fruit will never ripen because the sun won’t be able to reach it. You are aiming for an open airy shape.
Pruning side shoots
The side shoots on the main branches, the growth emanating off the primaries, should be left alone in winter. However, in summer these side shoots (or laterals) are pruned back to slow growth down, usually to three leaves above the cluster of leaves below. Generally this is done in mid-July for pears and the third week in August for apples - although it may be later in colder places. The shoots should be semi-ripe, springy to the touch and not soft. Should new secondary growth appear in September, remove it.
Once the side shoots have been reduced and you’ve got an airy shape with outward-facing branches, try to identify the spurs, nobbly collections of fruit buds. Most apple and pear varieties are spur-bearers and they hold their fruit close to the tree’s framework. If you think there are too many spurs the traditional thing is to remove any under the branches because fruit is less likely to ripen in that position. However, some varieties are tip-bearing and bear their fruit along the branches or at the very ends. A fruit bud is rounder and plumper than a leaf bud and gradually you will learn to tell the difference.
Rejuvenating an old tree
The most important consideration is to open up the heart of the tree by removing any central branches at their source. Don’t cut the branches right back to the trunk. Leave a stub or collar of several inches and allow it to callous over. Wound paint is not necessary. Don’t be tempted to remove lots of branches all at once though, do so over a four-year period so that the tree does not suffer die back. Trees can respond vigorously by producing water shoots - long wippy growths that go straight up. If this does happen remove these.
It is fine to reduce the leading branches to restrict the width and height, however. If you see any dead areas on the branches, almost as though someone has munched through the branch and taken a bite, it could be apple canker, a fungal disease. Remove and burn this wood.
Losing the battle?
If you have a very vigorous tree that puts out an enormous amount of growth every year stick to summer pruning because removing growth every summer subdues the tree.
If the trees are really old?
If the trunk of the tree is sound you can rejuvenate your tree over several years. However, if the trunk is damaged it may be better to get rid of that tree. You can contact community orchard groups in your area and ask them to take some scion wood and graft it on to a new tree. The Mid-Shires Orchard Group (www.msog.btik.com) for instance, cover Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. Common Ground should have a list of orchard groups - www.commonground.org.uk
Decaying fruit trees offer a wonderful resource for insect and bird life and they also have interesting lichens so do consider carefully before disposing of the tree. It may be a heritage variety local to your area.