Pears: Easy to Grow, but So Many Choices!
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In our last thrilling episode, we had to tell fruit-anxious Melinda in Hampton, Virginia that her 'Cleveland' pear tree was an ornamental that would never bear fruit. She responds:
Q. Well, crap. I got it on sale at Lowes; the guy there said they were "good pear trees for this area". Who wants a pear tree without fruit? I have enough fruitless stuff! Alright, Mike: what is a good fruiting pear tree for my region? Or should I ask my local Extension office and not pester you? Thanks,
A. Well, you're never wrong to ask your local county Extension agents about the best varieties for your region; they're the experts on which plants are best suited to your climate. Where they often let people down is with depressingly incorrect, chemical-heavy recommendations about fertilizers and highly-toxic advice on pest and disease control. So they can help pick the plants, but you should use the organic information in our abundant 'A to Z' archives to care for the trees afterwards.
Now, there are two types of edible varieties to choose between—Asian and European; each of which produces a distinctively different kind of pear. And you need to plant at least two different varieties to get fruit. But Asian and European trees typically bloom at such different times that they can't pollinate each other; and some Europeans will not successfully pollinate other Europeans. So you're not just choosing a single tree; you must have at least two, and they must be good co-pollinators. (Research this well before planting, weed-hopper.)
The good news is that pears are a fairly easy grow when it comes to pest and disease issues. Their biggest problem is a disease called fireblight, which we'll get to in a moment. For now, here's a little bit of detail about the two types from our resident fruit expert Lee Reich's latest book, "Grow Fruit Naturally" (The Taunton Press; 2012).
European pears, explains Lee, are the kind you're most likely to see in the supermarket: pear-shaped, with a flavor he describes as "buttery, sweet and richly aromatic." European pears can be grown in the absolute coldest regions (down to a frigid USDA Zone 2), and are available on dwarfing rootstocks that can keep the trees to a manageable size ('standard' pear trees grow very large).
But harvesting them is an 'acquired art'. To enjoy their fullest flavor, Lee explains that European pears must be picked before they're ripe, properly cold-stored for a time, and then warmed at room temperature over several days before eating. In describing this endless struggle to achieve ripeness, Lee quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who noted that "there are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat." To which Lee responds: "But what a sensuous 10 minutes."
Asian pears can also be grown almost anywhere in the U.S. (they're hardy down to Zone 4). Trying to grow them on a dwarfing rootstock is not recommended, but Lee says they're still a good choice for a small landscape, as the trees put so much energy into fruiting that it naturally keeps them to "a reasonable size".
Some Asian pears are pear-shaped, but most are round like an apple—and like apples, Asian pears have a crisp flesh that, says Lee, "explodes with juicy flavor when you take a bite." Lee stresses that, unlike European varieties, Asian pears must be left on the tree until they're ripe. They also must be thinned aggressively when the fruits are small to get good flavor.
Q. We accidentally introduced fire blight into our orchard when we planted some pear trees this spring - discovering too late that one of them was infected. The "typhoid Mary" tree was a Bartlett, which did not survive. We have cut the other trees that were infected back hard to stop the spread, burning the diseased parts. Now: we really want some Bartletts, as we love them canned for the winter—but have read in two books that pears have a weakness for fire blight, and that Bartlett is one of the most susceptible. Is this true? Can you suggest a couple varieties that may be more resistant than others - especially of the canning variety? Thank you!
---Amy in Grand Traverse County, Michigan
A. In that afore-mentioned newest book, "Growing Fruit Naturally", Lee Reich describes Bartlett as "productive, reliable and VERY susceptible to fire blight", a bacterial disease that yes, pears have a distinct weakness towards. It curls the stems and makes the leaves look like they've been singed in a fire (but, oddly, they don't fall off). Lee says that the best defense is diligent pruning of affected branches and conservative thinning of healthy ones.
In addition, over-feeding favors the disease, so use very little fertilizer. In fact, Lee suggests letting grass grow all the way to the base of susceptible trees to suck up any excess water and nutrients if the trees seems to be growing too vigorously.
Lee explains that the variety "Harrow Delight" has a flavor that's similar to Bartlett, while being resistant to fire blight. But for canning he highly recommends "Kieffer", a well-known European-Asian hybrid. It's very disease resistant; and while it doesn't have the best fresh taste, it's said to be excellent for cooking and jarring up.