Growing pears in the home garden
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Pear trees, like many other fruit trees now grown around the world, originated in central Asia. This relative of the apple is propagated and managed in a very similar manner, but is in some ways easier to grow than apples. Whereas apples can sometimes be pestered by a host of insects and diseases, pears are relatively trouble-free. At the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center, pear trees are grown organically simply because they don't require any sprays to keep them healthy and pest-free. Fireblight is the only disease that challenges pear trees, but this is easy to diagnose and manage.
Commercial pear production in the U.S. is centered in Washington and California, where cultivars such as Bartlett and Bosc are grown. Those cultivars would not survive winters in the average Minnesota garden. Thanks to cold climate fruit breeders at the University of Minnesota and other northern research stations there are several cultivars that are hardy to our region. Most are best suited to USDA zone 4; nevertheless, there are a couple cultivars that will grow well in USDA zone 3. If you're a fan of pears, find an open space in your yard for a couple of these beautiful trees and you'll have fruit for years to come.
- Pear trees require full sun for best fruit set.
- Pear trees can reach 40 feet in height at maturity.
- Two cultivars are generally needed for successful pollination and fruit set.
- Prune annually to keep the tree healthy, productive, and looking its best.
- It can take up to 10 years for trees to begin flowering and producing fruit. However, they may surprise you and start producing as early as year 3.
- Remember, mature pear trees are large and produce a lot of fruit in a short window of time. Be prepared!
Most pear trees need pollen from another cultivar to set fruit. However, some cultivars have been known to set an adequate number of fruit without a second cultivar. The reason for this is not well understood and fruiting is unreliable. If you desire consistent fruit it is best to plant two cultivars with compatible pollen, or be certain there is a pear tree in a neighbor's yard.
Pear cultivars recommended for northern gardens. Cultivars listed in bold are University of Minnesota releases, and include date of introduction.
|Cultivar||Hardiness||Fireblight||Average harvest date|
|Golden Spice (1949)||Excellent||Very good||Resistant||Late August|
|Recommended as a pollen source for Ure. Small 1 3/4 inch fruit. Not recommended for zone 4 where other, better flavored cultivars grow well. Grows to 20 feet tall. Good for canning. Very resistant to fireblight.|
|Gourmet||Very good||Poor||Tolerant||Mid to late September|
|Medium-sized fruit that are juicy and sweet with a firm, crisp texture. Gourmet cannot be used to pollinate a second pear tree.|
|Luscious||Very good||Poor||Tolerant||Mid to late September|
|Medium-small fruits with a flavor similar to Bartlett. Texture is firm but melting. Cannot be used as a pollen source for another tree.|
|Fruit similar in size, flavor and texture to Bartlett. May set some fruit without a second cultivar. Good pollenizer for Luscious. May not be hardy north of the Twin Cities.|
|Patten||Very good||Poor||Susceptible||Mid to late September|
|Large fruit has excellent fresh eating quality, similar to Bartlett. Hardiness is slightly better than Parker. May produce some fruit without a second cultivar.|
|Summercrisp (1985)||Very good||Poor||Resistant||Mid-August|
|Medium-sized, red-blushed fruit with mild flavor and crisp texture strongly reminiscent of an Asian pear.|
|Smaller tree (to 15 feet) produces small Bartlett-type fruit with good flavor. In areas too cold for other pear varieties, Ure can be grown with Golden Spice for pollen.|
If you can't find pear trees at local nurseries, you can order trees online. If you purchase a tree at a local nursery, most likely it will be a potted tree. Most online tree orders will be shipped as dormant, bare root trees in early spring. You can usually order bare root trees any time between late fall and early spring, and the nurseries will ship at the appropriate time for your area.
Most cold-hardy pear trees are grafted onto hardy seedling rootstocks. Seedling rootstocks produce standard size trees, which is why most hardy pear trees grow from 25-40 feet tall. Unlike apple trees, which are now commonly grafted onto semi-dwarfing and dwarfing rootstocks for northern climates, there are very few dwarfing rootstocks for pears that are adequately winter-hardy. A few nurseries offer semi-dwarf hardy pear trees, but these are a little harder to find than the standard size. Semi-dwarfing rootstocks for hardy pears are often from the Old Home x Farmingdale series, or OH x F. If you find a tree grafted onto this rootstock, you can be quite sure it will survive in Minnesota and produce a tree that tops out at about 20 feet tall.
Most aspects of planting and caring for pear trees is similar to that of apple trees. The soil should be slightly acidic, pH 6 to 7, and well-drained, meaning that water does not stand for long after a rain. Choose a spot with full sun and a good distance away from any structure or other trees. Remember, most pear trees will be very large when mature.
Steps for planting:
- Dig a hole for each tree that is no deeper than the root ball and about twice as wide.
- You may mix in up to one-third by volume compost, peat moss, or other organic matter. Most of what goes back in the planting hole should be the soil you took out of the hole. There is no need to add fertilizer to the hole.
- If planting bare root trees, remove encircling roots or J-shaped roots that could eventually strangle the trunk.
- For potted trees, inspect the root systems for encircling woody roots. If woody roots are wrapped around in a circle, straighten them or make several cuts through the root ball prior to planting. This may seem destructive, but it actually helps the plant produce a stronger root system and prevents the formation of girdling roots that eventually weaken the tree.
- Position each tree so that the graft union is 2 to 4 inches above the soil line. You can identify the graft union because there is a swelling where the cultivar meets the rootstock. If the graft union is placed close to or below the soil line, the cultivar will root, causing trees to grow to full size.
- Spread the roots, making sure none are bent. Have someone help you get the tree standing up straight. Begin replacing soil, removing air pockets as you go. After the hole is filled, tamp gently and water thoroughly to remove remaining air pockets. The soil may settle an inch or two. If so, add more soil to the proper level.
Planting time is a good time to install a tree guard to protect your tree from winter injury and bark chewing by small mammals. There are many available, from thick paper wraps to plastic spiral and corrugated types. Tree guards exclude voles, also called meadow mice, and rabbits, preventing them from feeding on the bark. Guards also reflect sunlight from the trunk, which helps prevent sunscald in winter.
Once the tree has rough and flaky mature bark, neither winter sun nor chewing animals are likely to harm it, so tree guards will not be necessary. For the first few years, however, it's important to protect the trunk of your pear tree.
A bit of simple pruning should be done when the tree is first planted. See our apples page for initial pruning instructions.
Water the tree with a slow sprinkler after planting and fill in if the soil settles. Newly planted trees need to be watered every week for the first year. If the soil seems moist, your tree probably has plenty of water. Don't wait for leaves to droop before watering. Remember, overwatering can be just as damaging as under-watering. Roots need to be moist but not waterlogged.
As the tree grows, the roots will be deeper into the soil profile and will generally not require as much watering. If it's a particularly dry season, give your tree a deep watering every once in awhile until the leaves begin to fall.
Pear trees benefit from a stake at planting. Tying the tree to the stake encourages a straight trunk and allows the roots become well-established. The stake can be removed after a few years.
Through the seasons
Follow this list of tasks to keep your pear trees healthy and productive.
|Things to do||When to do them|
|Plant bare root trees as soon as the soil can be worked||April, May|
|Plant potted trees after threat of frost has passed||May, June|
|For existing trees, prune before growth begins, after coldest weather has passed||March|
|If last year's growth was less than 12 inches, apply compost around the base of tree||April, May|
|Pick off smallest pears to encourage larger fruit||June, July|
|If it is a dry spell, water trees as you would any other tree in your yard||May through October|
|Harvest||August through October|
|Rake up fallen leaves and fruit; compost or discard||October, November|
|Apply tree wrap in late fall to prevent winter injury||November|
|Keep an eye out for deer and vole damage; put fencing around tree if needed||November through March|
A layer of mulch will help hold moisture and prevent weeds. Keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunk.
Fertilizer and mulch
Most fruit trees do not need any fertilizer the year they are planted. The only nutrient that can be limiting for plant growth in gardens is nitrogen. If trees are growing between 18 and 24 inches in new growth each year, then there is plenty of nitrogen in the soil. You can always apply compost as a mulch around the tree base if tree growth begins to slow down.
It is always beneficial to keep a 3-4 inch layer of mulch around the base of your fruit trees. This helps moderate the soil temperature and retain moisture in the soil. Mulch also helps prevent weeds and grasses from growing around the base of the tree. Just remember, keep mulch a few inches from the trunk to prevent trunk rots and damage from rodents.
Fruit trees should not have grass or other plants growing up to the base. Pull weeds regularly and cut away any root suckers that may sprout around the base of the tree. Again, a few inches of mulch will help reduce the time you spend weeding around your fruit trees.
Insects and other creatures
Although pear trees are generally susceptible to a number of insect problems, the fact that these trees are relatively uncommon in the Minnesota landscape often prevents these problems from becoming severe for home gardeners. As more people add pears to their gardens, this situation may change. For now however, sanitation (promptly removing and destroying fallen fruit and leaves) and pruning to promote good airflow through the tree are all that is normally needed to obtain a satisfying crop in most years.
Japanese beetles are becoming a nuisance to pear trees just as they are to many other plants in Minnesota. Look for them in late June to early July. As soon as you see one, you can be sure there will be more. Take a bucket of soapy water out to your tree and flick the beetles into the bucket. Wait for them to die, then dispose of them. Do this every couple days for a couple weeks and that should take care of them.
Small mammals can be problematic to fruit trees, especially young trees. Voles and rabbits feed on bark at the base of the tree, and even young branches when they can reach them. As mentioned earlier, plastic tree guards can prevent some of this damage. Make sure the tree guard is pushed down into the soil to a depth of two inches. This will keep voles from burrowing under them to get at the tree.
Another option is to put a hardware cloth cage around the base of the tree. Like a plastic tree guard, it should be pushed into the soil to prevent entry of voles. It should extend up the trunk to just below the first branch, and should not fit tightly around the tree. Leave a few inches of room for the tree to expand. Once the tree has rough and flaky mature bark, chewing animals will not harm it, so tree guards will not be necessary.
If larger mammals such as deer pose a problem, a cage of fencing may be required until the tree is old enough to withstand occasional nibbling. Make the fence a little taller than the tree, and wide enough so it does not restrict or rub against the branches.
Diseases and other challenges
Most pear tree diseases are not seen in home gardens, except perhaps fireblight. Fireblight is the major disease of pears in Minnesota. This bacterial disease has the potential to spread quickly and damage or even kill trees. However, in a home garden situation, the observant gardener can keep this problem from getting out of hand. The best solution is to choose cultivars with some resistance to the disease. If your pear tree is exhibiting symptoms of fireblight you should prune diseased shoots immediately. When pruning out a diseased shoot, cut at least 6 inches below where you see discolored bark. After each cut, dip your pruners in a 1:3 water:denatured alcohol mixture or a 1:9 chlorine bleach:water mixture. Discard or destroy diseased prunings.
Fireblight symptoms can be confused with winter injury symptoms. The tell-tale sign of fireblight is the brown shepherd's crook appearance of shoots. To minimize fireblight, manage your tree to prevent extensive growth of young shoots in excess of three feet in varieties of susceptible pears. Reduce excessive use of nitrogen, including compost, to reduce plant vigor. Water sprouts or suckers should be removed promptly on susceptible cultivars. Avoid any pruning during bloom and up to two weeks after bloom.
Pruning pear trees is very similar to pruning apple trees. There are many methods of pruning and training these trees, which can become a bit overwhelming if you take it too seriously. Mainly, you want to prune a tree to have well-spaced branches and a balanced appearance, while eliminating problematic branches (those that are broken, diseased, or dead). If you want to keep it simple, follow these general guidelines you will have a perfectly fine pear tree. If you want to understand pruning in a little more detail, read on. If you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of pruning and training, check the additional resources below.
General pruning guidelines
- Remove diseased, broken, or dead branches
- Remove any downward-growing branches
- If two limbs are crossed, entangled, or otherwise competing, remove one of them completely at its base.
- Remove any limbs along the trunk that is getting bigger in diameter than the trunk.
- Remove suckers coming up from the roots or low on the trunk
- Remove watersprouts, which are vigorous vertical branches
- Make pruning cuts close to the branch collar at the base of the limb. For larger limbs, start the cut from the underside of the limb to avoid tearing the bark
- Remove large limbs first, starting with the top of the tree
- Thinning cuts remove entire branches at the branch collar and are almost always the recommended type of cut. Heading cuts remove only part of a branch and encourage vegetation growth below the cut, and are not as common.
Fruit trees should be pruned on an annual basis in late winter/early spring, preferably after the coldest weather is past, and before growth begins. Prune minimally, especially with young trees, as excessive pruning will delay or reduce fruiting and create too much leafy growth.
Once the first set of scaffold branches has been selected, select a second set above it. Scaffold branches should be spaced about 12 inches apart. Always keep the conical form in mind when pruning.
Most pear trees are pruned and trained to allow a central, main stem, or leader, be the foundation of the tree off of which side branches, or scaffolds grow. The tree ends up with a conical or pyramid form. In orchard-speak, this is called central leader. This is a simple pruning method, and it makes for a compact, balanced, easily managed tree, with fruit that has maximum access to sunlight and air circulation.
Figure used with permission. http://learningstore.uwex.edu/assets/pdfs/A3639.pdf
This shows the first three years of pruning in the central leader method. You can see how the central trunk is the main structure of a tree that has a pyramid shape.
Renovating old trees
Have you moved into a house that has an old, overgrown pear tree? Are the branches overlapping and going every which way? Don't lose hope. This tree is probably fine, it just needs a little work to get it back in shape and productive again.
Reclaiming a mature pear tree that has been neglected for several years can be a challenge, and will take a few years of pruning to make the tree productive again. Here are a few guidelines for renovating a neglected tree:
- Decide which branch is or will be the leader
- Then decide which branches you are going to save based on the branch position around the trunk
- At this stage, pruning out a few large branches in year one will open the tree up, increase light and air flow
- Don't prune too much or the tree will put all its energy into making new branches and not fruit
- During year 2, make a few more decisions on where branches should remain and remove a few more
- Follow the general pruning guidelines to prune out branches that are diseased or broken
Harvest and storage
The most common mistake novice pear growers make is to let the fruit ripen on the tree. Fruit that ripens on the tree ends up gritty and unpleasant. Instead, fruit should be picked at a physiologically mature stage and then allowed to ripen indoors. To harvest a pear, gently take the fruit in the palm of your hand and lift and twist in a single motion. Alternately, use one hand to hold the spur and the other hand to lift and twist the fruit. Avoid pulling or yanking the fruit, which may damage the small woody spur to which the stem of the fruit is attached, taking with it next year's flower buds.
Promptly refrigerate harvested fruit in perforated plastic bags or a loosely covered container. This will help increase humidity levels around the fruits. To fully ripen the fruit, remove it from refrigeration and allow it to sit at room temperature for a few days. When the fruit turns a more golden color and the flesh at the stem end yields to thumb pressure, the fruit is ready to eat.
The exception to these harvest guidelines is Summercrisp, which should be picked when still green with a red blush, and should not be ripened before eating.
Harvest pears when...
- the skin color turns from dark green to lighter green.
- the lenticels - dots on the skin - turn brown (not all cultivars.
- the skin develops a smoother, waxy look and feel.
Plastic tree guards help prevent trunk cracking and damage from rodents during winter.
Tree guards or tree wraps can help prevent winter injury, or sunscald, to young trees. The white material reflects sunlight from the trunk, which helps prevent it from heating up on a cold, sunny winter day. If the bark temperature gets above freezing, water in the tissues under the bark becomes liquid and begins to flow through the cells. When the sun goes down or behind a cloud, the liquid water suddenly freezes, damaging the cells and sometimes killing the tissue on one side of the trunk.
Tree guards can be removed once the bark becomes thick and scaly, after about 6-8 years. In the meantime, loosen the guard periodically to allow the tree to expand. Plastic tree guards can be removed for the growing season and put back on in fall.
Growing Fruit in the Northern Garden
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University of Minnesota Department of Horticultural Science
Pruning and training
Fruit Production for the Home Gardener
Penn State University Extension
Fruit Growing Guides for Commercial and Home Growers