There is a story about a pear enthusiast who sat up all night just for the joy of tasting a pear at the precise moment of perfect ripeness. Extreme maybe, but there’s little more disappointing than biting into a pear that looks like it must be beautifully ripe, only to find it still crunchy as an apple. I only hope that he was still able to enjoy it in his exhausted state!
If you have a passion for pears too, it’s well worth growing two or three. They make a fine tree with beautiful blossom for cheering up a dull lawn, or they can be trained against a wall or grown in containers. There’s little excuse for not including pears in your planting plan!
Types of Pears
European pears (Pyrus communis) fall into three categories: culinary, dessert, and perry pears. In my opinion it’s hardly worth growing pears that are meant specifically as cookers, because most dessert pears are really dual-purpose fruits that are just as good cooked as they are eaten raw. Perry pears are the best kind for making a dry pear cider, which was once regarded as equal to the finest of wines. You can use a mix of perry and culinary pears if you’re not snobbish though.
Pear trees can grow unmanageably large – far too big for most gardens, and impractical for harvesting – so make sure to choose plants that have been grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock to restrict their size. Most will be.
When planning your fruit garden, keep in mind that you’ll almost certainly need at least a pair of compatible pears for good pollination. Pears are divided into four pollination groups – 1, 2, 3 and 4, sometimes alternatively shown as A, B, C and D. Make sure your trees are either in the same pollination group or belong to adjacent groups for sufficient pollination. Just to be awkward, some pears are triploids, which need two pollination partners to bear fruit.
The earliest pear varieties fruit in summer, with mid-season varieties ripening in late summer. Remember that they need to be picked a few weeks before they are ripe though! Most pears are ready to pick from early autumn, but they can be left on the tree until hard frosts are forecast, then ripened off the tree.
Planting a Pear Tree
Pears are hardy and will grow well in many areas, but they do need a little cossetting in cooler regions. The flowers appear early and are easily damaged by frost so it’s best to grow them somewhere sunny and sheltered, but not in a low-lying area that could become a frost pocket. If your garden is cold, try training them against a sun-facing wall where the radiated heat will help protect the blossoms if there’s a cold snap. Pear trees take well to being trained as cordons, espaliers or fans.
The best time to plant a pear tree is between late autumn and early spring, while they are dormant. At this time of year most fruit trees are available bare-rooted
, which is quite a bit cheaper than buying pot-grown plants. I personally prefer planting in the autumn because it gives the tree time to settle in to its new home and put down roots before commencing the hard work of pushing out new growth in spring, but if your garden experiences early freezes you’ll need to wait until the soil softens in spring.
Pears will adapt to most soil conditions but they do prefer a rich, slightly acidic, loamy, well-drained but moisture-retentive soil. Plant your tree in a large hole. Current thinking is that square holes are better for encouraging roots out into the surrounding soil than round ones. Add plenty of compost to the backfilled soil for a slow release of nutrients and to help improve the soil structure.
Or grow your pear in a large container of loam-based potting mix – pears cope surprisingly well in roomy pots.
Caring for and Pruning Pears
Keep newly-planted pears watered while they establish, and treat them to a mulch of organic matter such as compost, well-rotted manure or leafmold once year. Give them a boost with poultry manure pellets every few years; an occasional liquid seaweed feed makes a good tonic too. For pears in containers, remove the top 5cm (2in) of potting mix each year and replace it with fresh potting mix laced with a balanced organic fertilizer.
Pruning pears is really easy. Unless you’ve trained them to a specific shape, all they need is for the 3Ds (dead, damaged and diseased wood) to be removed each year, plus any badly placed or crossing branches.
Fireblight is a serious disease which causes shoots to die back and blossoms to wilt, and you may also see oozing white liquid or cankers. The disease can affect apples and other related plants as well as pears. If you see signs of it, prune back into healthy wood and burn the infected tissue, making sure to disinfect tools between cuts to prevent the disease from spreading. There are fireblight-resistant varieties available.
Spraying the trees with a winter wash based on plant or fish oils can help resolve problems with aphids, while pheromone traps can be used to monitor codling moth populations. Sugar-hungry wasps can be a problem on fruits in the autumn, so take care when picking up windfalls.
Harvesting and Storing Pears
Home growers have a slight advantage in guesstimating when pears are likely to be ripe enough to eat because they know exactly when they’ve been picked. That’s not a foolproof guide though, because European pears are always picked while still underripe. Keep them somewhere cool and dark after picking – in the fridge is great if you have space. Fruits shouldn’t touch in storage to avoid any rot spreading from one fruit to the next.
Pop them into a fruit bowl to ripen up for a week or so at room temperature, and check them daily for ripeness. They should yield slightly if you press gently on the stem end. Pears ripen from the inside out, so a fruit that is fully ripe on the outside may already be overripe near the core. You’re entitled to feel pretty darn smug if you time it just right!
Delicious as your homegrown pears will be they’re probably not worth sitting up all night for, but I’ll leave that up to you...