Pears

You can enjoy the unique flavors of fresh-picked, homegrown fruit from small backyard trees.

Marc Vassallo November 26, 2010

It Takes Two
Planting varieties suited to your conditions is the best way to ensure that you'll get a healthy harvest each season. It's varieties because most pears are not self-pollinating; that is, they need at least two different trees to pollinate and produce well (more on this in a moment). This isn't a hardship. Who wouldn't want two kinds of pears?

Available varieties include Asian types, European types, and hybrids of the two. The classic European pear varieties—'Bartlett', 'Anjou', 'Bosc', 'Comice', and lately even 'Seckel'— have become highly susceptible to a widespread bacterial disease called fire blight. They're wonderful pears, suited to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 8, but not the best choices for large swaths of the East and other regions where warm, wet springs—prime fire blight conditions—are the norm.

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The good news for organic gardeners is the availability of fire blight?resistant varieties (though resistance is just that, not immunity). 'Magness' is an excellent choice, says Richard Bell, research horticulturist at the USDA/ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in West Virginia. This variety resists fire blight and yields sweet, fragrant fruit in early autumn. Just bear in mind that 'Magness' can't be a pollinator and so needs to be planted with two other varieties, not just one other. Bell also likes 'Moonglow', 'Potomac', and 'Blake's Pride'.

Fire blight-resistant 'Warren' is the standard pear for the South, though it won't do well in the Deep South. For Zones 9 and 10, aptly named 'Flordahome' is often recommended. Travis Callahan, southern pear chairman for the North American Fruit Explorers, likes 'Louisiana Beauty' (a.k.a. 'Leona'), the best pear he grows in Abbeville, Louisiana. It's hard to find in nurseries, but you can get graft wood from the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (info at www.nafex.org). For Zones 3 and 4 up north, Bill MacKentley of St. Lawrence Nurseries, in Potsdam, New York, suggests the small, 'Seckel'-size 'Ure' or his own find, 'Nova', named for his daughter.

In the Northwest, where fire blight isn't a problem but pear scab can be, 'Rescue' is a fine choice.

You can try growing the old favorites if fire blight is not prevalent in your area. Stella Otto, an orchardist in Maple City, Michigan, and the author of The Backyard Orchardist (Ottographics, 1995), is fond of the large, yellow, red-cheeked 'Clapp's Favorite'. Or try 'Flemish Beauty' and find out why it used to be the nation's top commercial pear.

Size Matters
Standard-size pear trees reach 30 feet tall. Even if you have the room for a tree that size, the fruit from its upper branches can be hard to harvest. That's why most home pear growers choose dwarf or semidwarf varieties. (Bonus: Smaller trees start bearing fruit sooner than full-size trees; more on this in the next section.) Like most fruit trees, pear trees are typically grafted—the variety you choose is attached to a rootstock that determines the tree's size.

The traditional rootstock for dwarf pears is quince, which produces a tree that is 8 to 10 feet tall. Not all pear varieties take to grafting onto quince rootstock. It is reliably hardy only to Zone 6, and it's shallow-rooted and therefore less drought-tolerant.

Another option, especially in colder climes, is a semidwarfing tree, typically grown from rootstocks designated as 'Old Home' 5 'Farmingdale' or OH5F. These rootstocks are hardier than quince and produce a tree 60 percent to 70 percent as tall as a standard tree. To find out which rootstock and variety combination is best for your growing conditions, look for a nursery in your region and ask questions before you buy.

Prepare Before Planting
Take time to have a spot for your trees carefully chosen and well prepared before they arrive. "Get the soil right," Stella Otto advises, "then get the trees." Pears are usually sold as one-year-old, unbranched "whips." Dwarf varieties begin to bear fruit three to five years after the whip is planted; semidwarfs produce a full harvest in five to seven years.

Plant pear trees in full sun and give them good air circulation and deep, well-drained soil that's slightly acid (pH 6.4 to 6.8). Set them so the graft unions are 2 to 3 inches above the soil surface. Give each 5 to 10 pounds of composted manure to start; mulch the trees generously; and for a few years, be sure they get 1 inch of water a week either from rainfall or your hose.

How you feed and prune your trees will affect not only their size, shape, and yield but also their ability to withstand fire blight, which thrives on lush, new growth. Left to their own devices, pear trees will shoot straight into the sky. Add too much nitrogen to the soil, and you'll only encourage vigorous, blight-prone, upward growth, which also will delay fruiting and diminish dwarfing. Prune too often, and the same thing will happen. You can train a pear tree so it has one central leader, or main trunk, or you can keep two or three leaders, so you don't lose the whole tree if fire blight strikes one leader.

"Put your pruners in the closet for the first few years and lock the door," says James Cummins, an experienced pear grower and nurseryman in Geneva, New York. It's far more important to frustrate the upright growth by spreading the branches each spring so they grow roughly 60? from vertical. Use a stick notched at each end to spread apart two branches, or hang a weight near the ends of branches to hold them down. Do this in spring, just after petal fall. Cummins also recommends using a spring-type clothespin to establish a wide crotch angle when shoots are about 6 inches long.

Prevention Is the Cure
The big news in pear growing is kaolin clay, a superfine organic spray sold as Surround that coats pear trees in a thin, white protective barrier. The pear psylla, a small sucking insect much like an aphid, is the primary insect scourge of pears, largely because the honeydew left by the pests encourages the growth of sooty mold. Psylla adults simply won't lay eggs on trees sprayed with kaolin, and the kaolin residue irritates psylla nymphs. Your trees will look like they're dusty, but the stuff is harmless. It is so effective, says John Dunley, Ph.D., an associate professor of entomology at the Washington State University Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center in Wenatchee, that even the big nonorganic growers in his area are using it. Cover your trees through bloom, and ideally keep them covered across the growing season, Dr. Dunley says.

Codling moths affect pears less than they do apples, but they can be a problem in some areas. You can control them with nothing more complicated than religiously picking off damaged fruit and disposing of it, with the larvae still inside, thus disrupting the insect's life cycle, says Bill Denevan, a commercial organic pear grower in Santa Cruz, California. Be sure to put it in the refuse pile, not your compost heap.

Fire blight is a bacteria that thrives especially in warm, rainy spring weather. Stella Otto follows the "65/65" rule of thumb: If the temperature is above 65°F and the humidity is above 65 percent, fire blight can develop. The bacteria typically enter the plant via the blossoms, as well as through breaks and damage. The tips of affected branches curl in the shape of a shepherd's crook, and pustules that form on the tree may ooze infectious orange-brown liquid.

It bears repeating that the first line of defense is choosing blight-resistant varieties. Conventional wisdom advises you to prune off infected branches a good 8 to 12 inches below visible damage when you see it and then in winter cut off the cankers that house overwintering bacteria. Stella Otto recommends waiting until winter to cut out damaged branches; you'll be less likely to miss the full extent of the damage and less likely to spread the infection. It's also a good idea to pinch off the extraneous blooms that appear after the tree's primary bloom. Which is why you'll see old pear growers pinch off stray blooms whenever they walk an orchard, as a matter of habit.

Pick of the Pears
The Classics

'Anjou' Sweet, juicy, handsome dessert pear; cold-hardy; typically ripens in late September but needs two months' storage to reach perfection. 
Harvest time: Late 

'Bartlett' Picked green, ripens to yellow; sweet, musky flavor; the number-one commercial variety, but highly susceptible to fire blight. Will not cross- pollinate with 'Seckel'. Sweet, juicy, handsome dessert pear; cold-hardy; typically ripens in late September but needs two months' storage to reach perfection.
Harvest time: Midseason

'Bosc' Hard, crisp, grainy flesh with russet brown skin; tolerates heat and cold; grows in clay soil; keeps for six months in cold storage.
Harvest time: Late

'Comice' Luscious, buttery dessert pear; round, with smooth, green skin, blushed with red; good keeper; pronounced cahm-EECE.
Harvest time: Late

'Seckel' Small, supersweet; coppery red to golden brown; used to be considered resistant to fire blight, now considered susceptible. Will not cross-pollinate with 'Bartlett'.
Harvest time: Midseason

Note: All are now very susceptible to fire blight ('Seckel' a little less so) and best grown in the cool, dry West and in other areas where fire blight is not a significant problem.

Fire Blight-Resistant Pears
'Blake's Pride' Juicy, aromatic fruit and high yield combined with blight resistance; introduced in 1998 by USDA and Ohio State University.
Harvest time: Midseason

'Magness' Hybrid of 'Seckel' and 'Comice'; sweet, highly aromatic; ideal combination of high quality and fire blight resistance; needs two other varieties for pollination.
Harvest time: Midseason

'Moonglow' Mild, delightfully sweet flavor; smooth, nongrainy flesh; similar to 'Comice' with not quite the quality but much better resistance to fire blight.
Harvest time: Early

Note: The key to growing pears in the East and in other warm, wet areas where fire blight thrives is selecting a fire blight-resistant variety.

Other Noteworthy Pears
'Clapp's Favorite' Light yellow skin, blushed red with russet flecks; sweet, spicy, fine-grained flesh; similar to 'Bartlett' in quality but similarly susceptible to fire blight.
Harvest time: Early

'Flemish Beauty' Excellent flavor and looks; once the leading commercial variety but now highly susceptible to fire blight; a great pear where blight isn't a problem. 
Harvest time: Midseason

'Flordahome' Tender green skin, fine eaten fresh; widely grown in Florida, as the name suggests, but can't handle the cold.
Harvest time: Midseason

'Nova' Large, round, melting, and juicy; can be eaten green or ripe; very hardy, a pear for the North.
Harvest time: Midseason

'Rescue' Elongated, with attractive orange and red stripes; creamy smooth flesh; resists pear scab; great for the Pacific Northwest where pear scab is prevalent.
Harvest time: Midseason

'Ure' A yellow pear for the North, from Canada; small, 'Seckel'-size fruit; tree drops fruit but it remains good on the ground for days; extremely hardy; 'Early Gold' is a similar variety.
Harvest time: Early

'Warren' Long-necked, with reddish blush; discovered in Mississippi; the standard pear for the South.
Harvest time: Midseason

Note: These varieties merit attention for flavor, looks, and/or their suitability to a specific climate.

Ripe and Ready
Pears ripen from the inside out. Left to ripen on the tree, they may become mushy. Off the tree, however, they ripen quite nicely. Most pears are ready to pick when the small flecks on the skin, called lenticels, turn from white to brown and are slightly indented. To get your pears ready to eat, use this plan from John Dunley, Ph.D., a researcher and pear lover in Washington State. Store pears in a cool, dry place, such as a basement. A few days before you want to eat them, put a few in a bowl with bananas, which emit ethylene, a ripening agent. Dr. Dunley covers the bowl with plastic wrap. The pears ripen in two to four days. "The pears ripen faster," Dr. Dunley says, "when I put the bananas on top of the pears—and the more bananas, the faster the pears ripen."