I hugged a pear tree once, almost kissed it. My cousin and I were riding mopeds at my great-aunt’s. She watched us from the porch as we chased each around one of her pear trees, growing closer and closer until…Twenty-five years later, I still swear that limb reached down, snatched me up, and threw me off.
During summer visits, I’d follow my great-uncle around as he examined his trees for bugs and fire blight, peppering him with questions about what he was doing, why, and could we go swimming yet. As I tend my mini-orchard, I look back on those halcyon days and marvel at his patience.
Let me pass on the first lesson I learned about pears.
Pears are not apples.
European pears, the most common type grown in American gardens, ripen better off the tree than on it. You pick them when they’re pear-shaped rocks with little to no flavor and a texture reminiscent of cardboard. Under the right conditions, they transform into the soft, delicious pears we all know and love.
Plant Asian pears if you imagine sinking your teeth into a freshly picked pear. If you let European pears ripen on the tree, they turn into mush.
When it comes to crop values and marketability, pears are not apples. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, apples are the second most valuable fruit crop after grapes. In 2016, the worldwide gross production value for apples was $45.849 billion, but pears were only valued at $13.358 billion. For universities and private researchers, apples are a cash cow.
Although the recommendations in this article represent the current best practices, pears lackluster commercial potential when compared with apples and grapes means there is less research and development for pears than for other crops.
Some sources recommend that home growers focus more on the scion selection than the rootstock. A few either don’t mention or don’t recommend rootstocks for home growers. I say ignore rootstocks at your own peril.
If you plan on selling your homestead within the next five years, a precocious, i.e., early bearing, rootstock may be the best choice for you. If you live in an area with diseases like fire blight and leaf spot, combining a disease resistant scion with a disease-resistant rootstock mitigates your risks and offers the greatest chance of success.
Types of Pears
Whether you’re in Siberia or Syria, pears grow in nearly every region of the world. Unless you live in a desert region, the question isn’t whether you can grow pears. Among others, there are Chinese pears, Asian pears, and European pears—think Bosc, Anjou, and Bartlett.
Instead of getting lost in pear classifications, let’s focus on how you plan to use them and their harvest time.
- Will you can them or eat them fresh?
- What about your customers?
- Does harvest begin in late summer or early fall?
- Are they still harvestable in December or even April?
- Will the harvest time interfere with a more profitable crop or spring planting?
If you’re a market farmer, look up a couple of French restaurants and ask their chef what varieties of pears they want most. Even if the restaurant goes out of business before your pears are market ready, the cooking and fresh eating properties that made that chef request a given variety won’t change.
At the same time, you should always research the pear’s individual properties.
Kieffer pears, the old 1800s homestead standby still found beside old farmhouses, are what they used to call winter pears. You harvest them, stash them in a root cellar, and forget them for a few weeks. Without this crucial off-the-tree chill period, they’re rock hard and gritty. They also make fantastic pear preserves.
If you love heirloom varieties and are thinking about heirloom pears, google the pear like so:
Kiefer pears site:archive.org
You can also research them at your local library. Keep in mind that today’s market is more harvest and eat than harvest and store. If your great-grandparents grew a large garden or lived on a farm, odds are they knew how to handle Kieffer pears. Sadly, we’ve lost this knowledge.
Old storage favorites like Kieffer get a bad rap when we unknowingly apply modern advice to our ancestor’s favorite foods.
Old Pear Trees
The Endicott Pear Tree in Danvers, Massachusetts is almost 390-years-old. Despite showing signs of decay in 1763, it still bears fruit. It’s also survived multiple hurricanes and vandals. If you read that and started thinking “what rootstock”, here’s the bad news. It’s a seedling tree.
When a seedling tree sends up root suckers, they bear the same fruit as the original tree. Rootstocks don’t. There’s another difference: longevity.
Young trees take up less space and yield more per acre than old ones. For an orchardist, it often makes financial sense to yank out the ancient trees and replace them with saplings.
If you’re a homesteader, that massive pear tree outside your kitchen window lends your home a certain charm. Replacing a gorgeous old tree with a twig as big around as your finger will not do your curb appeal any favors. If yield per acre isn’t a factor, look into renovating your old trees.
Renovating an old fruit tree requires a detailed understanding of that particular tree. It’s part art, part science, and all experience. Even if you plan on removing the large limbs yourself, consulting a certified arborist beforehand will help you prevent unnecessary damage to your old tree. To find one, contact your state arborist association or forestry commission and ask them about certified arborists in your area.
See Apple and pears: renovating old trees for further information.
As with apples, pear rootstocks influence precocity, vigor, disease resistance, and cold hardiness. Historically, growers used rootstocks to control the tree size.
Seedling pear trees typically reach a height between 20 and 30 feet.
As with apple trees, you have dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard rootstocks. In general, dwarf rootstocks produce a tree 1/3 to 1/2 the size of a standard pear tree, 1/2 to 2/3 for semi-dwarf, and greater than 2/3 for standard rootstocks.
Due to disease pressure, recommendations for pear rootstocks are highly regional. For instance, a California grower may use Winter Nelis or Bartlett. In the southeast, Callery pear is the most popular rootstock.
Note, Callery pear’s most well-known cultivar is the Bradford pear. In my area, developers began planting Bradford pears because they grow quick and have a pretty shape. Home buyers liked them. In less than ten years, they escaped the subdivisions. Now, they’re in our forests and crowd out native trees, including oaks and dogwoods. Callery makes an excellent rootstock, but it requires management.
Contact your local extension office or look up “pears” on your nearest school of agriculture’s website to find the best rootstocks for your area. Rootstocks for Kentucky Fruit Trees provides a good overview of the most common pear rootstocks.
Before selecting a scion, you need to check two things: your coldest winter temperature and your chill hours. For most growers, your chill hours will determine what works best in your region.
In colder regions, look for winter-hardy varieties that ripen early.
If you plan on selling your pears at the farmer’s market, cross-pollination will guarantee you the best yield. Look for two or more varieties that bloom at the same time, and prioritize taste, flavor, and texture over storage and canning ability.
For the home garden, a standard or seedling-sized self-fruitful pear, i.e., self-pollinating, will produce more pears than your family can reasonably eat. In time.
Remember that fruit and nut trees are the gardening world’s long game. Depending on the rootstock, you’re looking at 3 to 7 years before you pick your first pear.
Although high-density apple orchards are a common sight in some areas, high-density pears are more unusual.
Grafted to dwarf rootstocks, like OhxF 87 or Pryo 2-33, these plantings require intensive management and trellising. These rootstocks are harder to find. High-density pears may produce smaller fruits.
The estimated yield is about 29 tons per acre after maturity. After seventeen years of careful tending, low-density pears yield about 16.6 tons per acre. That’s why they say pears are for your heirs.
That said, high-density pears are experimental in the US. Cornell University’s Terrence Robinson published a paper titled “High-density pear production with Pyrus communis rootstocks” in Acta Horticulturae in 2011. Michigan State’s Todd Einhorn has also conducted extensive research in this area.
Without more experimentation and specific regional recommendations, high-density pears are too risky for most market farmers.
If you’re interested in high-density pears, you may want to contact your local university and ask if they have any ongoing trials or dwarf rootstock recommendations.
Pears bloom around the same time as tart cherries and plums, which is a week or two before your apples. Unless you live in zone 9, you’ll likely need frost protection to guarantee a good pear crop.
If you’re thinking about planting a pear tree or two, here’s a tip. Your house creates several microclimates—the south-side is usually the warmest—and also acts a windbreak. Plant trees at least 20′ away from your house, so you don’t crack your foundation. Larger rootstocks and seedling trees may require as much as 50′.
Although rootstock and scion selection offers some passive protection, you may require a more robust system such as micro-sprinklers. Methods of Freeze Protection for Fruit Crops covers different methods of passive and active frost protection and includes a critical temperatures chart on page 7.
Location and Site Preparation
Select an area with good drainage. Dig down 2-3 feet and check for any clay or rock layers that may hinder root development. Ideally, your site should be slightly elevated as this will help protect your trees from frost.
After grading your site, adjust the pH to between 6.2 and 6.8.
Although some nurseries offer trees as old as 5-years, these trees are more difficult to establish than younger ones. Avoid them in favor of medium-sized whips.
Some nurseries also offer potted dormant trees. Plant these in the late fall or early winter, preferably before your first snow.
For large orders and unusual varieties, you may need to order them a year in advance.
Planting Pear Tree Whips
Open your trees as soon as you receive them and check the roots. Keep the roots moist. Do not let them dry out!
Plant your trees when the air and soil temperature are both above freezing, preferably when you expect several weeks with temperatures above 45⁰F.
Heel them in if it’s too cold and you expect a delay longer than five days. Otherwise, you can store them in an unheated basement or shed. Just don’t forget to check the roots daily.
On planting day, soak the tree roots in water for 30 minutes to one hour. Dig a hole 18″ by 18″ deep. Then trim any roots that are either broken or too long for the hole. Eyeball the dark soil line on the whip and plant it to that depth. If you can’t see the original soil line, make sure all roots are below at least 4″ of dirt. Fill the hole and tamp the soil down with your feet.
Give each newly planted tree 2 gallons of water.
Afterward, place a split piece of 4″ black drain pipe about 16″ long around the tree trunk. This will protect it from rodents. You can also use 16″ by 12 1/2″ piece of hardware cloth bent into a cylinder.
Stake your new trees using 2×2 stakes and number 9 wire or old clothesline. Thread a piece of water hose over the wire to protect the trunk.
If you’re growing dwarf pears, loosely tie the pear to a 10′ tall stake driven 2′ into the ground. 1″ aluminum conduit works well for this.
Row Spacing: 25′
Tree Spacing: 12′-15′
Alternatively, plant trees with a square 25′ by 25′ grid. Note, the closer spacing above allows 145 trees per acre—28 more than if you use a grid.
Protecting Your Trees from Deer and Other Pests
Deer love sugary treats. Your pears are not an exception. Unless you’re growing these for a food plot, consider protecting your orchard with a deer fence.
Throughout the year, monitor your trees for signs of fire blight. In the early stages, fireblight is controllable with a combination of summer pruning, fertilizer reduction, and, sometimes, streptomycin. If you let the infection advance, you’ll lose the tree and possibly your entire orchard.
When your tree’s buds swell, band 1 lb of 10-10-10 fertilizer per tree about 1′ away from the trunk.
Increase the fertilizer to 2 lbs per tree.
Increase the fertilizer to 3 lbs per tree.
After Year 3
Monitor your tree’s terminal growth. Your goal is 2-3″ of terminal growth per year. Adjust the nitrogen as needed. More nitrogen equals more growth.
Pears are prolific bearers. For the largest fruits, thin until you have no more than 1 pear every 6″. This may be done by hand or with chemical thinners.
The Great Pruning Controversy
Pruning fruit trees is an ancient agriculture practice that predates the Roman Empire.
Advocates claim that pruning allows greater sunlight penetration, increasing fruit size. It also creates a pleasing shape with strong crotches that can withstand heavy fruit and snow loads.
Opponents, including Sepp Holzer and Masanobu Fukuoka, point out that a fruit tree growing in the woods far from civilization and pruning knives will bear just as readily as the pruned tree beside your house. They may also tell you that no field trials pit age-old pruning wisdom against Mother Nature.
They’re both right and wrong. Although I’m not aware of any recent trials involving non-high density apple or pear trees, the University of California has conducted two field tests involving walnuts. Spoiler alert, Mother Nature won. Heavily pruned walnut trees yielded less than either unpruned or minimally pruned trees, which both yielded about the same. They concluded pruning walnut trees isn’t economical.
Ystwyth Valley Apple Breeders recently reported that during a juvenile seedling (apple) trial they conducted, the differences between pruned and unpruned heights and leaf nodes were statistically insignificant.
This is consistent with T.J. Talbert’s findings in his 1939 article “A Comparison of Pruned and Unpruned Apple Trees”. He found that that pruned trees outproduced unpruned ones after their 14th year. By this logic, if your pear orchard follows a 50-year plan pruning may make more financial sense than if it uses a 20-year plan.
Although this sounds like gardening heresy, pruning may not offer a significant benefit, particularly if you’re a home gardener or homesteader.
So why do all the universities and gardening books recommend pruning?
For thousands of years, we’ve farmed and gardened, accumulating a wealth of conventional wisdom and superstitions. As devoted as modern-day researchers are to science, challenging tradition presents both funding and cultural difficulties. Personally, I wonder if fruit tree pruning is one of these beliefs.
That said, I’m a pruner.
I don’t prune my trees because of what’s written in scientific journals or university fruit-growers guides. I prune them because my granddaddy and great-uncle pruned theirs.
- See Growing Fruit: Training and Pruning Young Apple and Pear Trees for a basic overview, covering the first three years of your tree’s life.
- Clemson Cooperative Extension’s Pruning & Training Apple & Pear Trees goes more in-depth with detailed diagrams.
- Washington State University’s Bartlett Pear Pruning discusses techniques for slightly older, but still maturing, trees.
Let your Asian pears ripen on the tree like you would apples. Harvest them when the skin turns greenish yellow. If in doubt, give one a taste test. They should be crisp and sweet.
Sell unrefrigerated Asian pears within 7 to 10 days of harvest.
Store Asian pears at 32⁰ F. They’ll keep for 3 to 5 months.
Do not let European pears ripen on the tree. Harvest them when they’re fully mature but not ripe.
A fully mature pear:
- is the right size and shape for the variety,
- has a firm texture, and
- twists off easily.
Sometimes, the color changes from green to yellow.
Pick older varieties when they are about 3/4 their maximum size.
Store pears at 30-31⁰ F.
Ripen your pears by moving them to a warm environment (60-70⁰ F)for 1 to 3 weeks, depending on variety.
Avoid temperatures above 75⁰ F.
At the Market
Create a display featuring your most attractive pears and offer samples. If your pears are more suited to canning or baking, offer your customers a few of your favorite recipes. If allowed, let them taste your pear preserves.
Before your pear harvest comes in, add a sign to your booth with regular pear updates. This will build interest before the fruit comes in. Offer a canner’s discount for second fruits.
Halve and can your pears. Make pear preserves. Bake them into pies and tarts. Freeze them or dry them like you would apples.
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