Growing pears in your home garden
Story and Photos by A.J. Heinsz-Bailey
If you are considering adding fruit trees to your landscape, pears (Pyrus communis) are a great way to get started. They will be covered in beautiful white flowers in the spring and succulent tasty fruits in the fall. They are easier to grow than apples, peaches, or plums and they thrive in our hot summers. However, pear trees are an ongoing project. They will need a routine maintenance schedule. It is not difficult, but it is necessary for fruit production.
Let’s start with site selection and spacing. Your success will depend on selecting the proper site. Pears prefer a well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0-6.5. Ask your local cooperative extension agent about soil testing if needed. Pear trees do not like standing water. Full sun is needed for fruit production. Avoid low areas that can create frost pockets in the spring. Even though some varieties are self-pollinating, most benefit from cross-pollination, so allow enough space for two trees. Mature trees can reach 20-25 feet tall with a spread of 15-20 feet. Most pears are grafted, so check to see that you have a rootstock that does well in the South. You will find that 2- or 3-year-old container-grown or bare-root trees planted during the dormant season yield the best results. Late September through April allows for root growth before the hot weather arrives.
There are two types of pears, both of which are grown in Louisiana. The first type is the European, the soft and juicy eating pear. These can be picked green and will ripen at room temperature. Varieties include ‘Ayers’, ‘Orient’, ‘Kieffer’, ‘LeConte’, ‘Moonglow’, ‘Warren’, ‘Perdue’, and ‘Pineapple Pear’. The second type is the Asian pear, which is similar in texture and shape to an apple. Asian pears must be left on the tree to ripen. They are crisp and juicy like apples. Varieties include ‘Hosui’, ‘Shinko’, ‘Olympic’, ‘Shinseiki’, and ‘Niitaki’. These varieties were chosen for their required chilling hours. The chilling requirement refers to dormancy or “rest period.” The pear rests or remains dormant for a minimum number of cold hours (below 45 F) after which the tree will blossom. If the tree is repeatedly unable to stay dormant long enough it does not survive. Fruit trees with high chilling requirements do not do well in the South.
The first year is a critical time for the newly planted pear. Water your tree regularly and deeply each week if needed. The entire root system should be kept moist, but do not overwater. Keep all weeds away from the base of the plant with the use pine needles or other mulch. Weeds compete for water and nutrients.
Fertilizing the pear tree is important, however do not fertilize at the time of planting. Use ½ pound of 6-12-6 fertilizer the following February after planting. Make sure you use a fertilizer that has minor trace elements. Do not fertilize closer than 5 inches from the trunk. Excessive nitrogen will cause too much new growth, which would be susceptible to fire blight. Fire blight is a contagious bacterial disease of pears that kills blossoms, shoots, limbs, and, sometimes, entire trees. Fire blight is sometimes referred to as “shepherd’s crook” because the shoots bend over, forming a blackish hooked end similar to a shepherd’s staff. Cool wet springs are the ideal conditions for fire blight. Sanitation is essential to controlling this disease. Remove and dispose of all fallen leaves. The primary method of preventing fire blight is selecting resistant varieties. Pears have few insect pests; plum curculio and stinkbugs can be a nuisance, but usually do not require treatment.
Once you have successfully planted your pear tree, it is time to start pruning and training it. Why is it necessary to “train” your tree? The answer is future fruit production. The purpose of training is to have balanced vegetative and reproductive growth. The central leader is the most commonly used form on pears. Its chief characteristic is the central trunk with scaffold branches, a shape reminiscent of a Christmas tree. Each year in late February more scaffold branching is selected. Each year a new tier of branches is added. Spreaders are used to widen the crotch angles of the branches. This allows for growth and expansion of both the trunk and the branch. This shape is best for carrying heavy fruit loads with less branch breakage. By the end of the fourth year the tree should be pyramidal in shape with a dominant central leader. The longest branches will be at the bottom decreasing in length as you move up the tree. The goal is to have 45-60-degree angles on the branch crotches.
Pruning is the removal of dead, diseased, or unwanted branches. The purpose of pruning a young, non-bearing tree is primarily to shape the tree so that the developing branches will be in the proper place for future fruiting. Avoiding narrow crotches now prevents branch breaking later. Sterilize your pruning shears between cuts with a diluted bleach solution to avoid spreading disease. The dormant season is when mature trees are pruned. Diseased, dead, and crossing branches are pruned out every year.
Pears are long-lived, easy to maintain, and will usually start bearing two or three years after planting. If you take the time to correctly select, plant, and train your pear trees you will be rewarded for many years to come.
Pear varieties and chilling hour requirements
Asian Pear Varieties:
‘Olympic’ – Sweet with a high sugar content; crisp juicy white flesh; large round pears have a long storage life; ripens late in September; zones 6-9; 550- 650 chill hours (CH)
‘Niitaka’ – Large reddish pear, very sweet; fresh eating and canning; ripens in late September; zones 6-9; 450-500 CH
‘Shinko’ – Medium greenish bronze juicy fruit; the most resistant to fire blight of all the Asian pears; sweet and flavorful; stores well; ripens late August; zones 6-9; 450-500 CH
‘Shinseiki’ – Medium yellow skinned fruit, crisp and white; tart flavor; partially self-pollinating; ripens mid-late July; zones 6-9; 350-400 CH
‘Hosui’ – Large russet-colored round fruits; productive and vigorous tree; ripens late August; zones 6-9; 500-550 CH
European Pear Varieties:
‘Ayers’ – Old southern favorite; fruits are yellow with a red blush; smooth and tender flesh; good fire blight resistance; zones 6-8; 250 CH
‘Orient’ – Sweet and crunchy; great fresh or canned; heavy producer; ripens August; zones 5-9; 350-400 CH
‘Kieffer’ – For canning, preserves, and pies; partially self-pollinating; very firm keeper; ripens late September; zones 5-9; 350-400 CH
‘LeConte’ – Yellow old-timey pear; ripens late August; zones 6-9;
‘Moonglow’ – Extra large yellow with a slight red blush; very smooth flesh and excellent flavor; fresh eating, cooking, or canning; tolerance to fire blight; ripens mid to late August; zones 5-9; 500-700 CH
‘Warren’ or Hattiesburg Post Office pear – Self fruiting dessert pear; highly resistant to fire blight; medium long-necked fruit with pale green skin; smooth flesh is buttery tasting; good keeper; bears fruit in eight to 10 years; self-fruitful; ripens mid-August; zones 5-9; 600 CH
‘Pineapple’ – Large gold pear; very productive; bears at early age; ripens August; zones-5-9; 200 CH
8 cups cored and finely diced pears
1 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
8 cups white sugar
Mix all ingredients. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium, and cook until the mixture is the color and thickness of honey. The longer you cook it, the thicker it gets. Cooking time is 35-50 minutes. Stir frequently while cooking to prevent scorching. Place in sterilized jars and seal while still hot. Makes 12 to 16 half-pint jars.
Louisiana Nursery, louisianasnursery.com
Stark Brothers Nursery, starkbros.com
Legg Creek Farms, leggcreekfarm.com
Willis Orchard Company, willisorchards.com
Century Farm Orchard, centuryfarmorchards.com
Just Fruits and Exotics, justfruitsandexotics.com