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Pear, Pear Tree

Pears from your own garden are a delight. Here, you’ll find tips on planting, maintaining and pruning a pear tree to ensure a good harvest.

Origin and Growth

Today’s cultivated pears (Pyrus communis) are crosses of various wild West Asian and European pears. Even the European wild pear (Pyrus pyraster) is in the mix. The story of cultivated pears can only be reconstructed in a rudimentary fashion as this pip fruit was already very widespread in the Mediterranean during Homer’s time.

Pear trees are voracious growers and form rather small, upright crowns. The oppositely arranged leaves are predominantly oval and have a strikingly shiny upper blade. These trees have very long lifespans, with up to 180 years. Apple trees hardly reach half this age. The flowers often appear one to two weeks before apple blossoms, so can be vulnerable to late frosts. They have the typical flower shapes expected for a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), and are pure white with dark stamens. Just like apple trees, pears fruit on short fruiting stems off mature wood. Pears also have an important role in forestry: the mostly reddish, beautifully grained wood is very popular in furniture building, so is sold for high prices.

Pears from your own garden taste so much better than the fruits on offer at the supermarket. One of the reasons is that they are plucked before they ripen so that they can survive transport and don’t expire too soon. When selecting a suitable pear tree, the size of your garden is an obvious factor. Luckily, there are now many pear varieties suited to small gardens. New compact varieties such as “Condo” and “Concorde” have proven to be much more storable than many old pear varieties. And when it comes to taste, they don’t disappoint up against famous varieties such as “Williams Christbirne” and “Köstliche aus Charneux”.

The stock is essential to the growth of a pear tree. Trees grafted onto pear saplings root deeply so deal with drought well, and are also relatively resilient in the face of winter frosts. Tastier and better-quality fruits mature on quince stock such as “Quitte A”. The cons: their roots are flatter so they are less stable, more vulnerable to frost and more sensitive to lime. When selecting suitable varieties for your garden, it’s best to ask your local nursery as they will be familiar with your local climate and soil.

Location and Soil

Pears need full sun as well as a warm, protected location. A position in front of a sunny wall is ideal, as the trees can benefit from radiated heat. Space-saving trellis training is a possibility here. There are also robust, cold-tolerant varieties that form well mature fruit in less favorable locations, such as the old variety “Gute Graue” and large-fruited “Herzogin Elsa”.

No matter which pear you grow, humus-rich and evenly hydrated, sandy clay soils are ideal. Pears grafted onto quince stock should not be placed in soil that is too heavy or limey. As trees grafted onto pear stock are deep rooters, the soil should be sufficiently loose even down into the deeper layers. On poor sandy ground, pears only thrive sufficiently if there is a high level of humus.

Planting and Care

Dig out a planting hole that is at least double the width of the root ball, and loosen the sole with a gardening fork. It’s important that the tree is not planted too deeply as pears react to this very sensitively. The surface of the root ball should be around ground level and the grafting site should be significantly over this to ensure that the grafted trunk does not form its own roots and override the growth-regulating function of the rootstock. Cover the tree pit with composted bark for at least the first couple years to keep the soil nice and moist.

When it comes to nutrients, pears need around one gallon per tree of mature compost each spring, enriched with around 3.5 ounces of ground horn. This mixture should be sprinkled around the outside of the tree pit, where the majority of the fine roots will be. In dry summers, young trees especially will require additional watering. In fall, a whitewash prevents bark damage caused by the winter sun. If wild rabbits frequent your garden, a cuff is essential to prevent nibbling.

Breeding and pruning

When pruning a pear tree, you are creating the ideal foundations for a good harvest in late summer. Pears grown on slow-growing quince stock such as “Quitte A” need considerably less space than pear trees grafted to saplings as half standard or standard pear trees. Similar to apples, you can cultivate pears as compact or even narrower spindle trees as well as fruiting hedges.

When growing a spindle tree, you should brace all side shoots that have not yet grown too thick with especially cut braces at a flat angle of at least 60 degrees. Shoots growing straight upwards are removed entirely before they can become competing branches. The central growth is cropped so that it branches along its whole length, alongside the longer side branches. Further pruning measures are limited to renovating old fruiting wood: you remove the old, heavily knotted fruiting wood by cutting it behind a younger side branch.

To grow a pyramid crown, you choose three to four strong, well distributed side head branches from the base of the crown, then shorten these by around one third. All other stronger side shoots are removed. The central growth is also cropped so that it ends at least one shear’s length higher than the ends of the side head branches. Pyramid crowns are the preferred crowns for fast-growing pear trees. But they require relatively large amounts of pruning, even over the following years. All water cracks and inward-growing shoots must be removed so that the crown remains loose and airy.

Training pear trees up trellises is a very popular growing method. It’s easiest to use a trellis with horizontal side branches. The sapling must be prepared for this at a young age by being positioned in front of a suitable metal or wooden trellis, having its suitable shoots secured horizontally and pruned so that they form side branches and fruiting branches along their full lengths. Hobby gardeners with DIY skills can build trellises for fruit trees themselves. The vertically growing shoots must either be removed in summer or cropped to short stumps. Formative pruning of pears generally takes place in late winter. Maintenance pruning can be undertaken after the harvest in September or in late winter. The later you prune in spring, the weaker the tree’s growth will be.

Trellis-trained pear tree

Heat-loving pears are often grown up trellises on house walls – such as this young trellis pear grown in a double U shape with vertical fruiting branches

Pollination

No newer pear varieties are self-pollinating. They therefore require another variety close by to pollinate their flowers. If there are no other pear trees in neighboring yards within bee flying distance, you will need to plant two different varieties. Many nurseries and garden centers also sell duo trees consisting of two different varieties on one tree – a good compromise for small gardens.

Harvesting and Use

It’s not easy to tell if pears have got to the right harvest time and the fruit is ready for picking. From experience, it’s best to harvest early pear varieties early and late fall and winter pears late. The fruits are picked by hand individually. Shaking them from the tree risks bruising and damage that negatively impacts storability and shelf life. To store, place them in wooden crates or fruit racks and keep in a cool place if possible. Never store pears next to apples! During the ripening process, they release ethylene, a plant hormone that encourages ripening in pears and causes them to spoil more quickly.

Pears taste wonderful when you eat them fresh from the tree. Have you ever cut a ripe, juicy pear in half like an avocado and spooned out the soft flesh? An absolute delight! If you want to preserve your pears, you should pick them just before they ripen. This means they will keep some bite even in the jar. For pear sauce or jelly, the fruit may be fully ripe – this will have an even more aromatic result.

Propagation

Just like apples, pears are only propagated through grafting. Whether through bench grafting using splice grafts on bare root saplings or in summer through bud grafting, whereby a strip of bark from the scion variety is placed behind a cut T-shaped piece of rootstock bark. One special feature of pear trees is that some varieties are not suitable for certain rootstocks. In this case, an interstock of a tolerated variety must be grafted to the rootstock. After a year, the desired scion is then grafted on at the preferred crown height. These grafting methods may require a little more practice, but open-minded hobby gardeners should be able to give it a whirl. In principle, grafted pear trees grow just as easily as grafted apples.

Cutting propagation is also possible for pears but the success rates are very low and you cannot manage the trees’ growth rates. This method is therefore not suitable for professional propagation.

Diseases and Pests

One of the most common diseases that affects almost all pear trees sooner or later is . This fungal disease can only be prevented by spraying from early April until the end of June. Sulfur-based products or horsetail tea are suitable options. If the tree is already infected, copper-based products are advisable. Make sure that there are no Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis) or savin juniper (Juniperus sabina) plants growing near the pears – both are winter hosts of European pear rust. Fire blight is much worse and cannot be cured in a private garden. This can be identified from brown-black tips on shoots that look like charcoal. Requiring official reporting in some countries, plants infected by this bacterial disease must be removed and burned immediately. Easily confused with Venturia pyrina, an infestation of pearleaf blister mite causes leaf disfigurement.

Alongside the pear psylla, animal pests include members of the Arvicolinae subfamily of rodents. They eat the roots of the pear tree and can damage young plants so much that they perish. If you have any such rodents in your garden, you should plant your pear trees in large protective baskets made from densely woven wire.

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