How far back can I trim this tree?
February 8, 2015 8:43 PM   Subscribe

Our house came with a young Bradford Pear. We haven't taken very good care of it and now it's too big and droopy at the bottom and thin at the top. Can we start over?

I have a Bradford Pear in my front yard that is about 15 years old. As is obvious from this photo, it has been allowed to grow wide and low, pretty much the opposite of what is recommended for this particular tree. When weighted down with leaves, most of its branches droop, leaving the middle and top thinned out and funny looking. I've had a few branches break, and I've tried to at least cut out the branches that are actually growing down, but it's becoming clear that the tree could benefit from an aggressive trimming.

We've had a couple professionals look at it over the years -- one a "tree doctor" who creeped out my wife and didn't appear to know much about this breed of tree (not particularly popular in my desert city), and the other a general landscaper who said it could use a trim but he wasn't sure when the best season would be to do it. At this point, lacking the weekday time and $ to hire someone, I'd just like to do it myself before it blooms and grows leaves later in the spring. I have a chainsaw, a handsaw on a 25' fiberglass pole, and other tools.

So, would the tree be hurt if I cut back about 1/3 of its volume right now? There are currently buds on it.

I'd also like to cut out the bottom ring of branches right at the trunk -- I'm concerned the tree will split where they connect if I don't do this soon. If I did that, should I treat the area where I cut them off?
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

If you like the tree, yes, you can thin it out. But you can't thin it down to 1/3rd of its current volume all at once without stressing the tree. You would want to trim no more than about 20 percent of the crown at one time.

When you trim it back, evaluate the tree. Look for branches that are undesirable and eliminate those at the trunk, leaving a "collar" so that the tree can heal over the cut. I agree that you could cut those lower branches. And then back away for a while. It will be worth it to cut a little at a time in order to have a sturdier, safer tree.

You do not need to treat the cuts. Bradford pears are fast growing trees, and if you've made your cut properly it should heal over quickly.

Don't ever top it. Topping -- cutting straight across a branch -- will make your tree more dangerous . Tree topping seems to be so common, unfortunately.
posted by Ostara at 9:49 PM on February 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

When you cut the branches off (leaving a collar as Ostara recommended), start by cutting a little further out first, removing most of the weight so you can then do a nice clean cut at the collar just where you want it, without your blade getting stuck in the cut or having the branch break off midway through and damaging parts of the tree you're trying to leave intact. Make three cuts for each branch removal:

1 - a shallow cut up from the bottom, maybe a foot from the trunk and a third of the way into the branch.

2 - a dowward cut just outside of the first cut, removing most of the branch.

3 - a final cut at the collar.
posted by jon1270 at 4:46 AM on February 9, 2015

You might consider just cutting it down. The expected life span of a bradford pear is only 15-20 years anyway and as I recently experienced, an older pear tree that decides to kick the bucket tends to do so in a surprisingly abrupt way (and it cost me almost $1000). If you know anyone who is a woodworker, see if they will help. Pear wood is really really nice stuff to work with especially for wood turners.
posted by Poldo at 5:00 AM on February 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Pruning link
posted by jon1270 at 5:04 AM on February 9, 2015

Bradford Pears are notoriously weak and an older, overgrown one is probably one good windstorm from coming down anyway. I'd remove it and plant a higher quality tree in its place.
posted by COD at 5:34 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Was going to come in to suggest cutting it down and spend the money on a replacement. Bradford pears are EVERYWHERE in Atlanta and while beautiful in their prime, 15 years is about it. They are notorious for splitting and falling when least expected, no matter how carefully pruned. I've taken down two at the 15 year mark and replaced the one in the front with a more sturdy, red maple. Find a strong tree suited to your area that will give you 50 years of trouble free happiness and ditch the pear.
posted by pearlybob at 6:14 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Call an arborist. We had an avenue of these trees and they are VERY pretty (and hence the popularity) they are also total pains in the ass. We pruned ours twice a year, spring and fall. They call it 'canopying' the tree.

I will say that as a person who has suffered serious damage to my backyard and my car due to weak trees dropping dead (a huge 40 ft pine) or dropping huge limbs on my car, that having all the trees on your property assessed and taken care of is totally worth it. I can also say that it can run to money.

If you're in Atlanta, I have a great guy who I can recommend.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:20 AM on February 9, 2015

I've never heard of "canopying" a tree, are they raising it?

M.C. Lo-Carb!: "We haven't taken very good care of it and now it's too big and droopy at the bottom and thin at the top. Can we start over?"

No, you can't start over. It sounds like you want to top it, which is not a good idea. It's a waste of time, makes trees more prone to problems and it just looks like utter shit. I wonder why people want to have mutilated trees around their houses? I always hear people say that their tree is getting "too big". Too big for what? That tree has a lot of space around it, but if you feel it's overwhelming the front, just remove it and replace it with a smaller species appropriate to your region. I can understand the very low limbs being annoying, though.
As has been mentioned, Bradford pears do suck. They have nice fall color and nice flowers and a symmetrical form, but they have horrible structure and start falling apart after a relatively short time. If you want to keep that one around, you could remove the lowest couple of limbs and do some thinning as was suggested and follow good guidelines. But honestly, pruning takes years to do well, you'd do better to get a good arborist who's not a creep and have them do the work. But again, with a Bradford, you're probably better removing and replacing it. And if you do replace it, prune it or have it pruned occasionally for it to perform better in its space.
posted by Red Loop at 7:11 AM on February 9, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice everyone! I know it's past its prime, but it's still pretty, especially in the fall, and we'd like to enjoy it for as long as we can. We already have new trees replacing old ones in the back yard and I'm sad that we'll probably sell the house before they give any shade whatsoever!

I'll focus on getting the bottom branches out and will trim the rest only lightly.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:50 PM on February 9, 2015

Your paper phone book will have contact info for the Cooperative Extension Service. They are great with questions like this, and a wide variety of other stuff. They may have names of people who can do this for you, or other resources.

I pruned an apple tree pretty ferociously, cutting about 1/4 of the branches. It was very happy afterwards.
posted by theora55 at 7:55 PM on February 9, 2015

Also, @CoronaTools hosts #treechat on Twitter every Tuesday at 11AM PST/ 2PM EST, and a lot of arborists participate in that discussion if you want more input. I am glad that you want to enjoy your tree!
posted by Ostara at 1:20 PM on February 10, 2015

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