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I have a pear tree, which is very zealous. Whatever it decides to do, it does in excess. First in the spring it sends out all sorts of new branches--all of them vertical. I snipped them off after they grew a few feet, but they merely resumed their skyward climb for 10 feet! Then the pear tree flowered and produced tremendous amounts of fruit. All the branches bent over more than a bow and arrow bends. Some of the branches literally snapped under the weight. What can I do to help this poor tree?

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Have you looked at questions in the pruning tag? Specifically, How should I prune an overgrown peach tree is very relevant, given the state of the tree from your pictures. You'll also find the the answer to this question on cherry trees helpful in reducing the height of your tree. The points under "Pruning" in the answer to this question will also help you. Let me know if any of these (or all) helped answer your question fully and we can mark it as such –  Lorem Ipsum Oct 2 '11 at 5:49
    
I looked at the linked articles without coming across a way of dealing with the incredibly tall, long, and spindly branches which grow each year. –  JoeHobbit Oct 2 '11 at 8:18
    
Thanks, at least now we know what's lacking in those answers. Perhaps folks answering this can take into account your comment above and address it in their answers :) –  Lorem Ipsum Oct 2 '11 at 14:22
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If you are fertilizing this tree, I'd recommend that you stop, it doesn't seem to need any more!

From what I can tell from the photos, it looks like this tree doesn't get full sun -- it looks like there are other trees that might be slightly shading it. This could cause some of the vigorous vertical growth that you see -- it's trying to get up into the sun. (I say this more for understanding than for anything you can do about it, short of cutting down some of the competition...)

In your circumstance, you want to do a summer pruning rather than a winter (dormant season) pruning. The dormant season pruning will stimulate more vigorous growth, when your goal should be instead to open the tree up to let more light in. Just don't prune too late in the season -- since any pruning will stimulate growth, you don't want fresh green growth to be exposed to winter chill. It's best to do it in early/mid summer so that the new growth has a chance to harden off before winter.

Your goal should be to establish "scaffold" branches (these are the main, roughly horizontal branches). There should be about 4-6 distributed evenly around the tree, about 4' in height vertically from one scaffold to the next. (Imagine that you have four scaffold branches at a height of 6' pointing north-south-east-west, and then another four main branches at a height of 10'. I just picked 6' and 10' out of the air -- use what works for your tree.)

If you are trying to control the height, you can cut back the central leader to just above the top scaffold.

When you do have to remove lateral branches, cut them back to the trunk. (Using the scaffold example mentioned above, imagine that there's an extra lateral branch pointing northeast at 6' high, and it's 5' long. Don't just cut it back to 3' long, cut it back where it comes out of the trunk. If you don't prune it all off, it will just keep growing with several extra small branches pointed in that direction, and they'll interfere with the scaffold branch. It looks like you have a few lateral branches that have done exactly this.)

The general pruning advice given in Mike Perry's answer is good, though I'd recommend removing any downward-facing branches. These don't help anything, and they're more likely to break when loaded with fruit.

An addition to the tools he lists there, you might also consider a pole pruner. This is a long, telescoping handled (12-16' or so) pruner to reach tall branches. It has a pruning saw attached to the end. It also has loppers on the end with a rope that you pull to close the shears. Just don't stand under the branch that you're cutting!

Lastly, don't worry about it too much! I've seen apple and pear trees that have been rather neglected that still look good and produce more fruit than a family (or two or three) can possibly use. And in my experience they're resilient in the face of pruning mistakes...

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Thanks for pointing out the shade and fertilization issues. It is in a clearing but there are some tall trees on the south side which do shade it some, and we have been fertilizing it annually up till now. (the picture was taken from the north, so the trees on the south side are visible) –  JoeHobbit Oct 3 '11 at 19:08
    
@JoeHobbit What have you been "fertilizing it annually" with? –  Mike Perry Oct 3 '11 at 20:35
    
@JoeHobbit: If it were me, I'd probably skip the fertilizer next year and see how it goes. If they slow down too much, you can fertilize with half the amount the following year. Or put down compost as described in Mike's answer. –  bstpierre Oct 3 '11 at 23:40
    
There are these "fruit tree fertilizer" stakes that I pound into the ground: 2/3 per tree. They look like this: lh4.googleusercontent.com/public/… –  JoeHobbit Oct 4 '11 at 3:05
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@JoeHobbit Personally I wouldn't waste your money on those "chemical" tree spikes. My personal take on feeding (fertilising) trees: None of my fruit/nut trees are flowering & How and when to plant young grafted fruit tree? & What time of year to mulch/feed trees? –  Mike Perry Oct 4 '11 at 17:04
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To go along with the information already given by "yoda", the below University Extension Office articles should fill in any missing gaps (eg Vertical shoots, branches that develop each each year):

If after reading those articles you still have any questions unanswered please let us know so we can try our best to address them...


Advice, observations from looking at those 2 photos you've posted:

  • Remove limbs that cross (rub against each other) ie Remove one of the limbs, so that two limbs aren't rubbing against each other.

  • Relieve the weight on some of those "downward" branches by shortening them.

  • Remove (cut-out) some of those "downward" branches.

  • Reduce the height so it's in scale with the overall shape of the tree (this will need to be done over the course of a few years).

  • Thinning the fruit each year will greatly help reduce the overall stress on the branches ie Will prevent the branches from sagging too much under the weight of the fruit.

  • Before wintertime arrives, cleanup the "orchard floor" ie Rake up all the leaves and pick up all the fruit from the ground underneath the tree(s), doing so will help prevent diseases from overwintering in the ground under the tree(s).

    • It looks like you have a good size "tree ring" (cleared area) around the base of the tree(s), once you've finished clearing that area (and the surrounding area) prior to Winter, lay down a 2inch (50mm) thick layer of mulch. Personally I would use good quality compost, start approx 4 to 6 inches (100 to 150mm) away from the trunk of the tree(s) and work out to the edge of the "tree ring". Using compost as a mulch in this situation has the added benefit of feeding the tree(s) naturally and slowly. Then add a fresh 1inch (25mm) layer every year after you've cleared the "orchard floor".

Some "general" tree pruning advice:

  • First, decide on the height and shape you wish to finally achieve, keep in mind this may take 3 or 4 years to achieve on mature, overgrown trees.

  • Never prune off more than ⅓ in a pruning season (per year).

  • Keep the tree balanced ie Don't prune one side "heavily" & the other "lightly".

  • Only prune at the correct time of year (for your tree).

    • Exception to above point: Remove damaged limbs immediately.
  • Remove limbs that cross (rub against each other) ie Remove one of the limbs, so that two limbs aren't rubbing against each other.

  • Nowadays it is not considered necessary to treat the cuts with any kind of sealant. This is especially true if the cuts are made correctly, the tree should be able to heal itself naturally.

Appropriate pruning tools for trees:

  • Pruning shears, up to 1inch (25mm) diameter.

  • Lopping (long handled) shears, up to 2inch (50mm) diameter.

  • Variety of hand saws, from 1inch (25mm) up to 4inch (100mm) diameter.

  • Chainsaws, from 2inch (50mm) up to felling giant Redwoods, Sequoias. Best left to the pro's when using this dangerous power-tool.

For an excellent resource on how to prune trees, take a look at the following document from the US Forest Service:

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What I did on a apple tree in this type of trouble was cut off the thinner branches, leaving the vigorous sturdy shoots. Then I topped them off at the third main lateral. This slows the tree down and increases the height. Also try to keep the branching thin and airy, and keep the branches that slant down trimmed off to improve the structure.

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