How to Grow Pear Trees

Spring 2000
Toki Oshima drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

One of the most beautiful sights in the world is a branch laden with Seckel pears – something about that rosy blush against such smooth bronze flesh. Perhaps the anticipation of their sweet, juicy flavor brightens the sight even more. A home grown pear picked just before full ripeness, the aroma, the delicate flavors, the sweetness and the juice running down your chin combine for an experience that calls up visions of ambrosia and Greek gods. Here’s a breakdown of how to grow pear trees.

Types of pears and their uses

Pears, Pyrus communis, are an ancient fruit, a few thousand years older than their sister pome, the apple. Like the apple, they are a fleshy fruit surrounding a seedy core. Pears can be round or flattened, conical and tapered without a waist, pyriform or tapered with a waist, oval, calabesse, or long and quite strraight. The hardiest pear varieties can thrive in Maine’s cold climate. Pears tend to need less care and maintenance than apples, while producing a high percentage of good fruit. A pear tree will start to bear well in six to 10 years, and can produce for over 100 years. The fruit is highly adaptable for specific uses, from fresh eating or dessert quality fruit to canning, drying, perry (pear cider), pickling, or vinegar making. It is one fruit that tastes almost as good canned as fresh.

Choose a tree that is young, approximately 1/2″ diameter in the trunk, 4 to 5 feet tall and lightly branched. If bare-rooted, make sure the roots are kept moist. An abundance of roots is more important than a big top. When choosing a potted plant, avoid a tree with roots pushing through the bottom of the pot. It may have been a slow grower from the preceding year.

Soil and site selection

Most pears are hardy to zone 5 or warmer, but a select few, all excellent varieties, are hardy in zone 4 and some into zone 3. Zone 4 hardy pears include Clapp’s Favorite, Bosc, Golden Spice, Beurre Gifford, Gourmet, Bartlett (zone 4-5), Comptesse Clara Frij, Patten, Seckel, Nova and Luscious. In much of zone 3 Ure, Tyson, Vt. Beauty, Nova and Stacyville are hardy.

Like most fruit trees, pears thrive in a humus-rich soil on a site with good air drainage and plenty of sun and with wind protection. Pears can tolerate a wetter soil than apples or peaches as their roots regenerate after sitting in wet ground. They do not do as well on a sandy, light soil.

Planting pear trees

Now that we have a site to grow pear trees, it’s time to start planting. Dig a hole that’s twice the size of the root ball. Avoid curling the roots around the hole – spread them evenly. Fill in the hole with the richest soil on the bottom, planting the tree at the same level to 2″ higher than it grew in the nursery (you can usually see a soil line on the trunk.) Water as you fill in the hole, tamping lightly to avoid air pockets. Mulch around the tree, but leave a 6 inch ring open at the trunk.

To ensure that your tree gets a good start, prune off most or all of the branches and clip the central trunk to 4 to 5 feet just above a healthy looking bud. This gives the roots time to establish themselves and grow without the stress of trying to nourish a lot of branches. Pears love a heavy organic mulch. Fertilize very lightly in the spring or with just a few trace minerals such as azomite, colloidal phosphat or oyster shell sprinkled under mulch. Doing this can supply much of the fertilization that will be needed. Excess nutrition can lead to excessively lush growth.

As the season progresses, encourage your tree to an open shape. Pears are very upright trees, but fruit is borne on spurs that are produced on more horizontal branches. Limb spreaders can encourage such horizontal branching. As much as 2 to 4 feet of growth can occur in one season. The limber branches of pears lend themselves to espalier and trellising.

Tree pollination

In order to grow pear trees, two different pear trees are needed for pollination. A few varieties are partially self-fruitful, but bear better if cross-pollinated. Pears bloom early, often when the weather is cold and wet and few pollinators are flying. (Their buds are slightly hardier than apple buds.) They have less fragrance than most fruit and their blossoms are low in nectar. Having as many as three trees planted 20 to 30 feet apart helps with yields.

Magness, Luscious and Gourmet pears are sterile and will not pollinate other pears. Seckel and Bartlett will not pollinate each other. If you grow these two varieties, a third will be needed. Comice, Bartlett and Flemish Beauty are partially self-fruitful.

Long-term care

Over the years, prune your pear trees to a central leader or a modified central leader. Most important is cutting out thickly branched areas. Good air circulation improves fruit quality.

Good air circulation also reduces susceptibility to fireblight – a bacterial disease that thrives on fresh lush growth (as do the sucking insects that can spread the bacteria.) Fireblight makes a branch or section of a tree suddenly wilt and turn brown, looking much like it has been through a flash fire. Blighted branches should be pruned off and burned, the pruners cleaned with bleach. To avoid fireblight, plant resistant varieties, avoid over fertilization and the encouragement of lush growth and prune for good air circulation, but only when the tree is dormant. Less heading back of the tree and more limb spreading to encourage horizontal growth also reduce fireblight conditions. Fireblight resistant varieties include Golden Spice, Kieffer, Magness, Moonglow, Seckel, Tyson, Ure, Warren and Stacyville.

Harvesting your pears

A pear ripens from the core out. Fruit must be picked before it appears to be ripe on the outside, then allowed to finish ripening in cool storage. Varieties prone to grit cells or a gritty versus buttery flesh develop more grit as they ripen. When the ground color of the flesh turns from hard green to greenish yellow, it is time to harvest. Golden fruit may be starting to rot around the core. Winter varieties keep up to a month or more, while fall and summer varieties will last a week or two. A pear is ready to eat when the flesh at the base of the stem gives slightly when pressed.

Though it’ll take some finesse, it’s not difficult to grow pear trees. That first bite, with the juices running down your arm, will be the reason for all your labors, as will the ambrosial aroma that comes from a freshly opened jar of your own canned pears – to say nothing of dried pears, delicate thin slices of Maine’s own candy. I hear the gods on Olympus calling.

Now that you know how to grow pear trees, it’s time to start your own orchard.

By Roberta Bailey

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