Information from Dr. Stefano Musacchi, WSU Horticulture; Summary by Tianna DuPont, WSU Tree Fruit Extension.
Dr. Stefano Musacchi, professor of horticulture at Washington State University and Bob Gix, horticulturist at Blue Star Orchard shared pear pruning tips at this winter’s pruning demonstration in Tonasket, WA. The goal of these demonstrations is to cover pear pruning for higher density orchards, of which many techniques can be used in larger trees as well. Here are a few of the concepts for pruning young pear orchards Musacchi shared.
Create the tree architecture and promote renewal
“The secret to pruning is to find balance,” Musacchi explains. “At first you want to let the tree grow. Then you want to define the axis. Generally, higher density young pears would be pruned as a spindle or a bi-axis. Here we are using 3 axis to reduce vigor. You have to look ahead to cultivate additional leaders with correct placement. After the tree is defined you will work in a three year cycle of pruning in order to maintain small productive wood in the tree. Two-year-old wood will be productive this year. One year old wood will be productive next year. Look for cuts which will also promote new growth next year which will have productive wood three years from now. You want to develop a rotational strategy to produce new wood, develop 1-year-old wood and produce fruit on 2-year-old wood.”
Removing large branches
Large branches create shade in the canopy. “Instead of few large branches, I would prefer to have smaller branches,” Musacchi explained. Trees with many smaller branches can bear as much fruit as trees with few large branches without creating as much shade while increasing vigor. “We need at least 30% of the ambient light in order to induce flower bud formation.” Removing large branches over time helps ensure that sufficient light to produce buds and fruit reaches a larger portion of the canopy. It is critical for an ongoing renewal process. Don’t cut too many large branches. Remove one to two large branches per tree per year. Pruning that is too aggressive can result in excess tree vigor the following year.
Heading cuts on one year old wood (Tira Savia)
Tira savia, which literally means ‘pull sap’ in Spanish, is a term describing a technique for invigorating branches by pruning the end of the branch. Cuts are on one-year-old shoots leaving two to three vegetative buds. This promotes new shoot growth in the external part of the limb. The difference from regular heading cuts is that these are made close to the shoot tip.
This pruning technique can help to control vigor and manage shoot growth. Removing the tip also helps to break apical dominance and reduce the blind wood in the basal part of the branch. Sap flow to the area is increased. “Tira savia helps keep the secondary structure of the branch active and alive,” Musacchi stresses. “In Bartlett, if the vigor is reduced by bending the branches too much, the number of new flower buds will decrease.” Anjou have a different pruning technique.
Minimizing blind wood
Blind wood is an area of the branch without buds. Blind wood is usually located in the basal part of the branch. Some varieties tend to produce more blind wood than others depending on their growth and bearing habit. In order to minimize blind wood (and excessive suckering), it is important to prune and train for optimum branch angles. In Bartlett, the optimum branch angle is 45o. When Bartlett branches are at a flatter angle (i.e. 90o from the tree) they tend to produce blind wood. “I don’t like branches which point downwards [on Bartlett],” Musacchi explains. “These branches will be weighed down with the fruit and produce blind wood.” If you need to renew some branches (10% per year is recommended) select those where the tip of the branch is not higher than the point where the branch enters the tree for removal. If too many branches are not at the optimum angle, consider a plan for removal where there is another branch to train in its place. Generally, not all of these cuts can be made at once. Try to look forward, identify what branch should take its place, train that branch and then remove the shallow angled branch the next year.
Reduce competition with the apex
“When trees are young, we want to reduce competition with the apex (apical dominance) in order to reach full height and fill out the canopy, but at the same time have some feather production.” Pears grow in a very acrotonic way and in the older trees it is important to maintain a conical shaped pear tree that will allow light to permeate the entire canopy. “If we do not maintain the conic shape of the tree, we will start to form an ‘umbrella,’ particularly on an Anjou pear tree which requires a different pruning compared to Bartlett.”
Remove the shoots and branches that are competing with the axis. Musacchi recommends a cut that leaves a stub so that it will continue to produce new shoot and potentially new branches that can be used in the future. You can use the 30% rule to decide what to remove. “In the top part of the tree, branches whose base is more than 30% the diameter of the trunk should be removed.”
Pruning principles developed for higher density orchards are useful for traditional trees as well as smaller, higher density trees.
Removing clusters of older spurs
Clusters of older spurs tend to have smaller buds and produce smaller fruit. Thinning some of these “chicken leg” clusters helps optimize fruit set. Maintain spurs growing from the bottom of the branch.
Girdling and Notching
Pear trees, like many plants, produce auxin – a plant growth hormone, in their growing meristems and shoot tips. Auxins flow down inhibiting bud break for a distance below the growing shoot tip. A shallow cut into the cambium interrupts the flow of auxins to the dormant buds and these buds will start to grow. In areas where the trees have problematic blind wood, girdling and notching can create a bud swell. Girdling is most effective on 2-year-old wood. Use narrow clippers to reduce the risk of branches breaking. Six inches apart is a good distance.The best time to girdle or notch is in late February when the sap is starting to flow.
The goal is dynamic pruning. “We need to rotate the branches to there is always good size wood and good size buds,” Dr Musacchi explains.
For detailed information on pruning pears check out Pruning Bartlett Pears to Optimize Fruit Quality, a video tutorial featuring WSU’s Dr Stefano Musacchi.
Endowed Chair – Tree Fruit Physiology and Management
Tree Fruit Extension Specialist