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They say the best way to learn how to do something is to try it out. I don’t know who “they” is, but I certainly hope they are experienced fruit tree-trimming professionals in this particular case. CFO has been asking me for four years now to trim back my unruly pear and cherry trees. For four years now, I have had very convincing reasons to leave the dwarf-turn-giant trees untouched, most of them sounding like “I can’t because its damaging to trim the trees in [insert current season], but I will definitely do it next season.” I managed to get away with this excuse for four years only because he rarely commits my excuses to long-term memory.

Why have I been so resistant to tame the wild timbers? Trust me, it is not because of some deep-seated belief that the trees are of nature and nature shall run its course. This is what I use to explain why I refuse to weed my lawn. No, the truth is that I am terrified of trimming those trees. The discovery that we had fruit trees, long before the garden was installed, was like a beautiful amazing gift. It wasn’t mentioned in the home sale, in fact, none of the landscaping was mentioned in the home sale. (Home buying tip: if landscaping is not described as a selling point, that generally means it is the opposite of a selling point). What if I did it wrong? What if instead of cutting the dead wood, I cut off all the blossoming wood? Our neighbors had a peach tree when they moved in, that had a booming crop one year, and three years later, that tree is but a shadow of its former self, and has never had a single fruit since. Our neighbor is an aggressive tree trimmer. So while I have no evidence he trimmed the tree to death, in my mind that is the cause of his peach-less summers.

Alas, CFO is no fool, and this past summer he did a little of his own research and told me that winter was the best time to trim trees and those trees NEEDED a haircut. I had my “its way to cold” excuse all lined up to go, when behold, we had a freak warm-up weekend mid-February and temps rose to a balmy. Excuses out the window.

I headed out to take a look. I had armed myself with tree reading, and printed off a cheat sheet, and my tools. These trees are approximately 18 feet at this point, which means there will be a lot of looking up.

The three step approach I read about includes:

  1. Trim dead, diseased or dying branches, watersprouts, and any limbs below the grafted point.
  2. Thin out the branches so that there is 6-12” of air space around each branch, making sure that branches do not cross each other. Trim the least healthy branches.
  3. Cut back 30% of all new growth from the previous year.

Sounds simple enough right? Well…the thing is, READING about something is much different than DOING something. Here is a more realistic DIY tree-trimming primer:

  1. Does it snap off when you bend it? Its probably dead or dying, or you’re really strong. Either way you have accomplished step 1. For higher up branches, hope for the best.

Would it surprise you to know, that ALL tree parts look the same? The only way to tell a dead from dying branch is to either have x-ray vision or speak native tree language and ask the damn thing. Wood looks like wood. You know how I know a dead branch from a live branch? Because one is on the ground and one is on the tree.


Dead or Alive? Look closely. 

  1. Keep the prettiest looking limbs and branches, and cut everything else off.

I mean, how do I know what is the “healthiest” branch in a jumble of branches? How is that even advice? I went for aesthetics, and also thought about where fruit would be the easiest to pick. I did make sure to trim back any crossed limbs, that at least was easy enough.

  1. Cut back 30% of new growth…oh hell, skip this part because that is a $#!+ ton of trimming to do.

New growth?!? If I can’t tell dead wood from live wood, how can I possibly be expected to know what “new growth” looks like? What a ridiculous proposition. I think the tree-trimming community has really over-estimated the general population’s detailed attention to trees. For the record, this is what new growth looks like.


Do you see that tiny little wrinkle, and the subtle color change on the bark (this has been color enhanced)? That is what you are supposed to look for, and then trim 30% of each of these little branches…and they are 10 ft above your head. Let’s just stop here.

Check out the before…


Follow my steps and…



Ta-da! Fully trimmed trees. There is approximately equal chance that I killed these little guys as I helped them, and I am hoping for the latter.

As one step below a tree-trimming novice, I can’t in good faith recommend following my advice, but I can safely say I know the proper way to trim trees: hire someone.

Stay tuned for pear and cherry photos (or lack there of ) later this year…