|Yard & Garden Line News
Volume 4 Number 5 April 15, 2002
Growing Pears in Minnesota Home Gardens
Doug Foulk, Extension Educator, Horticulture
Pear trees are not as commonly grown in Minnesota home gardens as are their close relative, the apple. Perhaps this is due to the pear tree's reputation for becoming very large, for its history of susceptibility to fire blight disease, or the fact that cultivars hardy to our region do not include well-known types like 'Bartlett' or 'Bosc.' And yet, high quality, hardy pears are moderately easy to grow in the southern half of Minnesota-easier in some ways than apples. And even northern Minnesota gardeners have cultivars from which to choose.
Photo credit: U of MN
Start with a Hardy Cultivar...or Two. Or Three?
Pear trees, as a rule, require cross-pollination to produce a large crop. In other words, one normally must plant more than one cultivar in order to get fruit. However, we at the University routinely hear reports of apparently lone pear trees in Minnesota bearing a moderate crop. Indeed, evidence indicates that some pear cultivars may be self-fruitful under some conditions. Therefore, in Minnesota one might be able to get by with only one tree. At the other end of the fruitfulness spectrum, some cultivars are "pollen sterile," meaning they do not have the ability to pollinate another tree. If you plant a pollen-sterile cultivar, you may need to plant a third cultivar in order to get fruit on all three trees.
The cultivars we purchase at the grocery store-'Bartlett,' 'Bosc,' and the pricey Asian pears-are unfortunately, not hardy for growing in Minnesota's climate. The good news, however, is that the main differences between grocery store pears and those we can grow here are size and fresh fruit keeping ability-ours are smaller and do not tend to keep as well. But in terms of quality, Minnesota-grown pears should not disappoint. And perhaps surprisingly, many of the cultivars that we can grow produce fruit closer in character to Asian pears than the more common European types. Generally most available are:
Golden Spice Released by the University of Minnesota breeding program in 1949, 'Golden Spice' is hardy into USDA Zone 3 and still a fine choice. Small 1 ¾" pears ripen in September and are pleasant and aromatic. Does not store well.
Gourmet From South Dakota State University, 'Gourmet' produces medium-sized fruit mid-late September that are juicy and sweet with a crisp texture reminiscent of an Asian pear. 'Gourmet' is pollen sterile, which means that it cannot be used to pollinate a second pear tree.
Luscious Also from South Dakota, 'Luscious' bears medium to medium-small fruits in mid-late September with a flavor similar to 'Bartlett,' but with a crispier texture. 'Luscious' reportedly is somewhat resistant to fire blight, although it is not immune.
Like 'Gourmet,' 'Luscious' is pollen-sterile.
Parker An early University of Minnesota release (1934), 'Parker' produces fruit similar in flavor and texture to 'Bartlett.' Somewhat less hardy than other cultivars listed here, it may not grow well north of the Twin Cities. Harvest mid-September.
Patten Originally from Iowa, 'Patten,' like 'Parker,' produces fruit comparable in character to 'Bartlett.' Hardiness is similar to 'Parker.' Both 'Parker' and 'Patten' are reputed to produce some fruit without a second cultivar for cross-pollination. Harvest mid-late September.
Summercrisp Released by the University of Minnesota in 1985, 'Summercrisp' produces mild, crisp red-blushed fruit strongly reminiscent of an Asian pear. Hardy in most of Minnesota and moderately resistant to fire blight. An early cultivar--harvest in mid-August.
U of MN
Ure Developed in 1978 at the Morden, Manitoba Research Station, and hardy throughout Minnesota, 'Ure' produces juicy 'Bartlett'-type fruit with good flavor when perfectly ripe. In areas too cold for other pear cultivars, 'Ure' may be grown with the inedible Siberian pear (Pyrus ussuriensis) for pollination. Ripens shortly after 'Summercrisp.'
Other reputedly hardy cultivars-including the natural semi-dwarfs 'Menie' and 'Minie' and the fire blight-resistant cultivars 'Ayers,' 'Jubilee,' and 'Olia,'-may be available through various mail-order sources, but have not been tested by the University of Minnesota. Grow untested cultivars on a trial basis only.
Pear Rootstock Options
When purchasing a pear tree, one is actually selecting a plant made up of two genetically different individuals grafted together, the "scion" and the "rootstock." The scion is the aboveground part of the tree that produces the type of fruit desired (for example, 'Summercrisp'). The rootstock, on the other hand, plays a major role in determining the tree's ultimate size and how long it will take to bear fruit. When purchasing a pear tree, one should know both the scion and the rootstock one is getting.
The University of Minnesota has long advised gardeners to plant pear cultivars grafted to Siberian pear rootstocks only to ensure survival in Minnesota. The primary drawback to the Siberian pear rootstock, however, is that it produces a fairly large tree, 18 or more feet in height at maturity. A tree this large is harder to care for and can be impractical in the urban landscape. Fortunately, we think our options have improved. David Bedford, Tree Fruit Breeder for the University of Minnesota, reports that a planting of pear trees on "Old Home X Farmingdale (OH X F)" semi-dwarfing rootstocks at the Horticultural Research Center in Chanhassen has performed quite well for the last decade. This favorable performance has lead him to conclude that such rootstocks may well prove to be hardy enough for our region. Some resources suggest mulching a dwarfing rootstock to a level above the graft union in winter for protection from severe cold. If you elect to follow this advice, wait until the ground freezes to apply the mulch and be sure to pull the mulch away from the trunk again in early spring.
Most dwarfing rootstocks grafted to pears in colder regions carry an OH X F designation followed by a number. For example, pear trees produced by a local wholesaler are grafted to the semi-dwarfing rootstock OH X F 333, one of the hardier known semi-dwarfing rootstocks. Although mature tree size will vary based upon site, scion cultivar and cultural practices, expect a tree in the roughly 12-foot range on this rootstock.
Choosing a semi-dwarf pear tree has many benefits. Because the trees are shorter in height than standard sized trees, pruning, pest control, thinning and harvest are all simplified. Because the trees are also proportionally narrower in spread, one can more easily fit two or three trees into an urban landscape. And semi-dwarf pear trees require only 3 to 4 years to begin bearing fruit, while standard trees require eight years or more. A semi-dwarf tree will produce one or two bushels of full-sized fruit, plenty for most households.
Site Selection and Planting
Pear trees require a site in full sun, so choose a spot where the sun shines directly for at least 8 hours each day. Because they bloom fairly early in spring, pear trees should not be planted on low sites where cold air may settle. Because wind-driven rain can cause fire blight problems, excessively exposed areas, such as hilltops, may not work well, either. Any good garden soil should suffice, but avoid areas where water stands for several hours after a rain. The pH of the soil should be slightly acidic to neutral, about 6 to 7. Conduct a soil test to determine soil conditions before planting and provide amendments as suggested by the results.
Photo credit: U of MN
Pear trees may be sold bare-root or in containers. If purchasing bare-root nursery stock, closely examine the root system and remove encircling roots or 'J'-shaped roots that could eventually strangle the trunk. For containerized trees, inspect the root systems for encircling woody roots. If woody roots are wrapped around in a circle, straighten them or make several vertical cuts through the root ball prior to planting.
How much space do you need for pear trees? A good rule of thumb for a home garden fruit tree is to provide at least as much horizontal space as the anticipated height of the tree. In other words, standard pear trees should be planted at least 18-20 feet apart, while semi-dwarf pear trees require a 12 to 14-foot spacing. For best pollination, plant multiple pear trees within about 100 feet of each other.
Dig a hole for each tree that is no deeper than the root ball. Slope the sides away from the bottom of the hole until approximately twice as wide as the root ball. Position each tree so that the graft union (identifiable as a swelling several inches above the root system) is at least 2 inches above the soil line. If the graft union is placed below the soil line, the scion will take root, causing a semi-dwarf tree to grow to full size.
After planting hole preparation and determination of proper planting depth, backfill the hole with the same soil that was dug out of it. Tamp gently and water thoroughly to remove air pockets. Be sure and mulch the tree well, taking care to keep mulch away from the trunk.
Pruning for Fruit Production
Pruning a culinary fruit tree is somewhat different than it is for a landscape tree like a birch or even a flowering crabapple. Although there is more than one way to prune a pear tree, in Minnesota home gardens, we commonly use a "central leader" system, where a single central trunk runs the entire height of the tree and supports the fruiting branches. In a young fruit tree, prune to develop a basic structural framework that will support future crops. In order to develop this framework, one's first pruning task is to select or develop what we call "scaffold branches." In a pear tree, these 4 to 5 scaffold branches should begin between 18 and 30 inches from the ground, should be spaced as equally around the trunk as possible and should be spaced vertically at least 6 inches from one another.
U of MN
If purchasing a well-branched tree, choose 4 or 5 well-placed branches with wide (about 60 degrees relative to the trunk) branch angles. If purchasing a smaller tree with little or no branching, remove any branches that are present and prune the trunk about 30 to 40 inches above the ground. Pruning the trunk back in this way is intended to induce branching that will result in scaffold branch options the following year.
Pear branches have a tendency to grow in a more vertical fashion that is optimal for early fruit production. If a young branch is well placed, but has a narrow branch angle, the use of a device called a "spreader" may help. The spreader-as simple as a notched stick, but otherwise available in various forms at a well-stocked garden center-is simply wedged in between the branch and the trunk to create a wider angle. After a several months, the spreader is removed.
After this initial pruning at planting, pears should be pruned on an annual basis in late winter-February or March is fine. Prune minimally as excessive pruning may 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, with the new scaffold branches beginning about 12 inches above the top branch of the first. After all scaffold branches have been selected, pruning consists mostly of removing:
* Dead, broken, or obviously fire blight-infected branches
* Suckers coming up from the roots
* Watersprouts, which are vigorous vertical branches with few leaf nodes
* Downward growing branches.
Annual pruning is a good reason to choose semi-dwarf trees-it is much easier to prune from the ground than it is from a ladder!
Once established, a pear tree planted on a favorable site in properly prepared soil should thrive with minimal fertilization. Nitrogen is normally the only mineral nutrient that needs to be added on an annual basis.
Pair of pears.
Photo credit: U of MN
The branches of non-bearing young pear trees will normally grow 15 to 20 inches per year, while the branches of bearing pear trees will grow 8 to 15 inches in a season. If growth exceeds these rates, apply no fertilizer at all, as excessive growth is weaker and more susceptible to fire blight infection. If growth is normal, however, apply a low-phosphorous fertilizer-a lawn fertilizer containing no herbicide is fine-at the rate of 1 ounce of actual nitrogen per year of tree age, not to exceed 16 ounces. To calculate the amount of fertilizer to apply, divide the actual nitrogen needed by the percentage nitrogen (indicated by the first number in the three-number analysis listed on the bag, i.e. 28-0-5) in the fertilizer. For example, you would calculate an application of ammonium nitrate (33-0-0) for a three-year old tree this way:
3 ounces actual nitrogen
.33 nitrogen in fertilizer
Thus, apply 9 ounces of ammonium nitrate!
The most common mistake novice pear growers make is to try to let the fruit ripen on the tree. Fruit that ripens on the tree ends up gritty and unpleasant. Instead, fruit is picked at a "physiologically mature" stage and then is ripened indoors. A pear fruit is ready to harvest when:
* The skin color turns from dark green to a lighter yellow-green;
*The lenticels (dots) change from white to brown;
* The skin develops a smoother, waxy look and feel.
To harvest a pear, gently take the fruit in the palm of the 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; such an action may well remove the small woody "spur" to which the stem of the fruit is attached, taking with it next year's flower buds. Harvested pears that will not be eaten within a few days should be promptly refrigerated.
Pears store best at 32 to 34 degrees F at about 85 percent humidity. For storage of more than a few weeks, place the fruit in plastic bags with numerous small holes punched into them. This will help increase humidity levels around the fruits while allowing the exchange of gases that accelerate ripening. To fully ripen the fruit, simply 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 for eating. The exception is 'Summercrisp' which should be picked when still green with a red blush and should not be ripened before eating.
Potential Pest Problems
Although pear trees are generally susceptible to a number of disease and insect problems, the fact that they 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 in the future, this situation may change. For now, however, sanitation (promptly removing and destroying fallen fruit and leaves), cultural practices designed to promote optimum tree health, and perhaps occasional physical or chemical intervention are all that is normally needed to obtain a satisfying crop.
Fire blight easily ranks as the major pest of pears in Minnesota. This bacterial disease has the potential to spread quickly and damage-or even kill-unprotected trees. However, in a home garden situation, the observant gardener can keep this problem from getting out of hand. The best solution of course is to choose cultivars with some resistance to the disease. If fire blight symptoms are spotted, infested branches should be promptly removed. For more information on managing fire blight, refer to the Yard & Garden Brief "Fire Blight" http://www.extension.umn.edu/projects/yardandgarden/ygbriefs/p223fireblight.html.
The same insects that attack apple-codling moth, plum curculio and apple maggot among them-may attack developing pear fruits as well. However, damage is often not serious enough to warrant chemical control. If damage does occur, consult a technician at the Yard & Garden Line for proper pest identification and control methods.
Dealing with Dog Spots and Other Spring Lawn Surprises
Deborah Brown, Extension Horticulturist
You don't even have to own a dog to find portions of your lawn scarred by dog spots – places where dog feces have sat all winter, and the grass just won't green up. Those droppings, along with repeated "applications" of urine create areas of "fertilizer burn" that stay brown as the rest of the lawn greens up in spring.
Emma at home.
The first step in "fixing" those spots is to soak them thoroughly with water. This dilutes the material remaining in the soil, driving it deeper and spreading it harmlessly over a wider area. Sometimes this's all that's needed, provided the roots haven't been destroyed. However, if you don't see new blades of grass emerging from those spots within a week or so, you can assume the roots are dead, and the grass will have to be replaced.
Spots that are smaller than your fist should fill in by themselves as surrounding grasses spread. Of course, this only works if the lawn is healthy, and growing vigorously. It takes much longer in a heavily shaded area or in a lawn where grass is thin and weak.
Larger spots will fill with weeds before surrounding grasses have a chance to take over, so they demand more aggressive repairs if you want your lawn to look good. Dig them out, then add some soil from your garden to bring them level with the surrounding grass. Mix a very small amount of starter fertilizer into the soil, then sprinkle grass seeds on top and water the areas frequently. You can also use products that are meant specifically for patching the lawn. They contain grass seed and starter fertilizer in a brightly dyed mulch. Simply spread the material and keep it moist, following label directions.
To repair the front yard, you might even want to make your own sod patches. Dig out the dead spots and replace them with chunks of sod you've dug from a less conspicuous part of your lawn. Then seed those areas where you removed the sod, and keep both the newly seeded and newly repaired areas watered frequently, until the sod takes and new grass is growing where you took out the original chunks.
Often garden centers recommend gypsum for repairing dog spots as it is known to aid in washing high levels of sodium (salts) out of the soil. But gypsum must be mixed into the soil to be of much help, rather than spread on top, and it's no more effective on dog spots than thorough watering.
Plant Pathology Reminders for April:
Janna Beckerman, Extension Plant Pathologist
April 1st isn't just April Fool's Day: April first marked the beginning of the infection period for oak wilt. Do not prune from April through June, and avoid pruning or injuring oaks, which attracts the beetles that vector the fungus that causes oak wilt. If pruning is unavoidable, paint the wound immediately with a water-based paint or shellac.
Oaks aren't the only tree you need to stop pruning-April first marked the beginning of the infection period for Dutch elm disease. To learn more about this terrible disease, read about the History of Dutch Elm Disease in Minnesota http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/naturalresources/DD3765.html.
Developing Questions to Diagnose Plant Health Problems (Or what to ask before you even suspect plant disease!)
Janna Beckerman, Extension Plant Pathologist
Diagnosing plant disease is a difficult task. Prior to attempting to diagnose the disease, it is important to recognize that many problems are abiotic in nature. Drought, flooding and poor soil fertility are but a few of the many environmental components capable of causing plant disorders and predisposing plants to insect or disease problems.(See disease triangle article in Y & G LNews, Mar 01, '00.) After environmental insults, the organism that probably causes the most plant problems is the human "taking care" of the plant! Before assuming the declining oak you are confronted with has anthracnose or oak wilt, take the time to thoroughly evaluate the situation. Explain to the caller that you will be asking a lot of questions before you even ask them to describe the symptoms. You may wish to advise the caller that this phone call will take a few to many minutes. Note: These questions were formulated to prevent the "yes/no" response discussed in the previous issue of Y&G Line News.
What kind of plant is it?
A much needed, but rarely answered question. Do not be surprised if the caller says "it's a tree," or "it's a flower."
REASON: Because most plant disease problems are host specific, by identifying the plant you've reduced the possible number of diseases from the millions to a mere dozen (or two!).
Follow-up question: Although it is unlikely that the caller will know the answer, ask for the name of the cultivar or to read you the plant label it if is still present. Some cultivars are uniquely susceptible or resistant to a specific disease or phytotoxic compounds.
For example, certain apple cultivars are hypersensitive to the strobularin class of fungicides (application results in tissue and even tree death!). Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' seems to be very susceptible to leaf spot diseases.
How long has the plant been planted?
Transplant shock and improper planting are leading causes of plant decline and death.
REASON: New plants often go through transplant shock. It is likely something is wrong with the way the plant was planted or its care afterwards. This would require a different set of questions than if the plant was established and developed symptoms years later.
Follow-up question: How was the plant cared for after planting?
Please describe the problem:
Having the caller describe the situation in their own words provides you with clues as to what the problem is.
REASON: Recognize that within the general public there is a broad difference in understanding plant health. Some people may only be calling to have you confirm their suspicion. Others will call with little to no knowledge of plants or plant care.
Follow-up questions: Take notes as to the symptoms the caller described. Save these notes until you have asked the questions below.
When did you first notice the problem?
When asking this question, recognize that when the problem started and when the homeowner noticed it might be two distinct things!
REASON: Most plant disease problems develop as a bell curve: In the beginning, only the most observant quickly recognize a problem. As this problem develops and symptoms become more severe, more people will seek your services. The least observant people will call at the end of the season.
Follow-up question: How quickly did this occur?
If that answer is suddenly, or overnight, realize that, this does happen, but that it is a rare occurrence. Try to develop questions to allow you to determine if the person was unobservant as opposed to the plant dying that quickly.
Follow-up question: Questions like "How often do you water/pruned this tree?" or "When was the last time you weeded/ watered/ deadheaded your planting bed?" will help you determine if the person regularly observes the affected plant. This question enables you to see if the person is attentive to the plant and that the problem did occur suddenly as opposed to the person suddenly noticing a problem because they were in their backyard for the first time in three weeks.
Note: You should suspect that chemical injury might be involved if plants die in less than 3 days. Many homeowners do not understand the nature of chemicals (weed-and-feed), or do not follow the label guidelines.
Follow-up questions: Is the problem spreading? Chemical insults are a one-time occurrence and do not spread.
How many plants are affected and are they the same species?
Unrelated plants that are dying in the same area suggest that there is an abiotic problem.
REASON: A disease usually starts in one area and spreads out in an infection pattern that only affects the same or closely related plants. A disease won't kill your pines, petunias, and pansies.
Follow-up questions: Have you applied any chemicals in that area? What type of weed and feed do you use? Do you or a professional apply this?
Where is the plant planted?
This question provides you with the location of the plant with respect to architectural structures (sidewalks, road, house), how much light it receives and drainage issues.
REASON: This question allows you to determine if the plant is in the correct site. Not properly choosing the right plant for the site (e.g., high light plant in full shade) usually results in stress (which appears as poor flowering or fruit yield), decline and even death.
Follow-up question: Is the plant is sun/part sun/shade? Has there been construction within the last five years? Are de-icers used in the surrounding area?
Answers to this question lead to:
When do you water?
This question tells you more than just the caller's watering practice, but how well they know how to care for their plant(s).
REASON: When it comes to yard and garden, most people water too often or not often enough. Very few people actually water their trees after they have been safely transplanted.
Follow up questions: How do you water? Light, frequent overhead watering exacerbates foliar disease problems. Does the water adequately drain? You may want to suggest they perform a drainage test. (Drainage tests are discussed in Y & G L News April 15, '99.)
Tell me about your soil.
Many people do not have the vocabulary to do this adequately. At this point, you may recommend a soil test to them.
REASON: This question allows you to determine if the plant is in an appropriate site (e.g., Problems such as iron chlorosis will be frequently observed in plants grown in heavy clay soil, high pH or other nutrient deficiency).
Follow-up question: Can you ball the soil up in your hand and roll it into a ribbon? This would suggest that there is a lot of clay in the soil. Is there a lot of sand in your soil?
These questions are just a framework for the diagnostic process and provide a starting point from where you can begin to develop additional questions on your own based on the caller's responses to these questions. Often times, it's a matter of asking the one "right" question that really clarifies that specific situation. You know you've asked the right question when the palm of your hand hits your forehead and you find yourself saying "Now I know what the problem is…"
Test your diagnostic savvy monthly with Disease Watch at: http://www.extension.umn.edu/projects/yardandgarden/PlantPathWeb/Plpa.htm
Name That Arachnid
Jeff Hahn, Assistant Extension Entomologist
What looks like a scorpion but is not one? The answer is a pseudoscorpion. Pseudoscorpions are small creatures, about 1/8 - 1/5 inch long, with eight legs and a flattened, oval, reddish to brownish body. Pseudoscorpions are arachnids making them related to scorpions, spiders, ticks, and mites. Like true scorpions, pseudoscorpions have conspicuous pedipalps, i.e. the pinchers that are found near the head. However, unlike scorpions, they lack a tail and stinger.
Photo credit: U of M
While scorpions are found in deserts and well as other habitats in the western and southern United Sates, pseudoscorpions are generally found throughout the country, including Minnesota and the upper midwest. They live outdoors in a variety of habitats including under stones, loose bark, in moss, in the soil and in leaf litter. They are predators on small insects and mites which they capture with their pedipalps. They are actually common arachnids but aren't usually seen due to their secretive habits and small size.
Pseudoscorpions may occasionally enter buildings. There is often trepidation for some people when they find one in their home. Because of their superficial resemblance to scorpions, there can be a fear that pseudoscorpions can sting. In one recent case, there was concern that the pseudoscorpion might even be some type of parasitic louse (like a crab louse). However, pseudoscorpions do not bite and can not sting and are harmless to people and pets as well as furniture, clothes, food, and other property.
With the recent warm weather, pseudoscorpions are becoming more common indoors. Fortunately, if you find any in your home, it is rare to find more than one or two at a time. Because of their harmless nature (they should be considered beneficial because they are predators) the only necessary control is to physically remove them and place them outside.
Get the low down on this month's insect pests at
The cowslips are one of the early spring flowers. They're also called marsh marigolds. The name cowslip, according to one source, derives from "cow slop" as the flowers supposedly come up in areas where cows have walked and deposited fertilizer. Well, perhaps. I remember the cowslips in damp ditches where our Guernseys never strayed!
This shot and the spring beauty from last issue were taken in Nerstrand State Park. It's a great park for viewing spring flowers.
Next issue we will feature a story on Dr. Ben Lockhart, one of the foremost experts on viruses that cause plant disease. Find out why more and more viruses are being discovered on the plants in your yard!
Please feel free to cut and paste any of the articles for use in your own newsletters. All we ask is that you give our authors credit.
Back issues Yard & Garden Line News are on the Yard & Garden Line home page at www.extension.umn.edu/yardandgarden/. Our home page has clickable links to most of the components of the Yard & Garden Line, such as Bell Museum of Natural History, INFO U and the Soil Testing Lab.
Deb Brown answers gardening questions on Minnesota Public Radio's (MPR) "Midmorning" program on the first Thursday of every month at 10 a.m. Katherine Lanpher hosts the program that is broadcast on KNOW 91.1 FM, and available state-wide on the MPR news radio stations.
If you have gardening questions, please call the Yard & Garden Line at (612) 624-4771.
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