KC Gardens

Really? Seriously? Topping ornamental pear trees is a terrible idea

Topped Bradford pear trees
Topped Bradford pear trees

From Dennis Patton:

And people actually call it pruning! It is statements like this that get me into trouble with tree services in the Kansas City area. But whoever dreamed up the worst pruning practice for any tree — topping ornamental pears to “save them” from their fate — is out of their mind.

Let me back up and explain. Ornamental pear trees (many of you call them Bradford pears) have one of the worst branching habits of any tree ever released in the trade. This tree has a number of closely spaced, narrow, upright limbs that attach at the same point on the trunk.

As the tree ages, these limbs all grow together and share the wood that forms the trunk. As a result the limbs are very weakly attached to the trunk. When the inevitable wind or ice storm comes along, they fail. Some describe their failure as peeling a banana. That is, they split out, falling to the ground, and the tree is destroyed. This has not happened widely for a number years in the KC area. So many of you forget they are prone to failure. But it is really only a matter of time.

Now someone has figured out that if we top the trees every few years, reducing the weight of the branches on the crotches, they are less likely to break. Okay, I buy this justification, but only to a point. Because wait, the resulting tree that has been butchered — okay, topped — is ugly, ugly, ugly. It takes several years for it to regrow and develop its natural shape. I will grant you that its natural oval shape is becoming in the landscape. But a tree that has been hacked back multiple times is uglier than Cinderella's stepsisters and does not deserve a place in the landscape.

This topping does prolong the tree’s life, but at what cost? I will tell you at what cost — a reoccurring expense to your pocketbook. For topping to be effective it must be done over and over every few years. Topping ornamental pears creates a cash flow for the tree company at your expense. If you stop the retopping, you are right back where you started with a brittle tree, even more susceptible to snow and ice.

So why do this in the first place? Is this tree that we have known for years as an “accident waiting to happen” really worth the repeated pruning expense? Not to mention that ornamental pears have now become an invasive weed tree, choking out native vegetation such as the milkweed for the Monarch butterflies. Why do we prize this tree when really one cut pruning should be done; I hope you get my drift of where the cut should be made. Hint: think low and permanent.

Yes, I agree the tree is pretty when it flowers. But is 51 weeks of ugly really worth one week of pretty? Topping this tree to keep it around is really like throwing money down a hole. If you have that much disposable income to keep this tree around let me tell you about my poor children's college fund.

Bite the bullet and get over it; this tree is not worth a dime. Don't let a bad practice lull you into a sense of security thinking you are doing the right thing. Take that money you will invest in pruning and remove the tree. Plant a new, better quality tree that will last for generations to come.

As I see it, it just does not make sense to waste good hard-earned money on a tree that has so little value in the landscape. I know this article will leave some of you steaming mad. But as you can see it is a subject I am passionate about, so I’ve gone overboard to help you see that there is a better solution. I guess you know how to let me know if I’ve pushed one too many buttons. But since I have adopted and accepted the philosophy that life is too short to accept ugly plants, I have been liberated and feel the need to share in an effort to end this absurd practice.