Pears are excellent backyard trees. They produce a fruit sweeter and juicier than most apples; a fruit that easily ripens off the tree. Pear trees live longer than most apple trees and they require less pruning and thinning.
Most pears, however, require warmer winters than apples. A few pear varieties can survive winters with cold to -20°F, but most demand much warmer winters, ideally to not much colder than 20°F (-6.7°C). Pears should be planted where they warm quickly in spring and where they are protected from wind and frost—especially during their bloom time.
Few pears are self-fruiting; pears yield best when they are matched with a cross-pollinator.
Several considerations should be taken into account when selecting a pear tree or two or three for backyard growing. These factors include: the type of pear and how it will be used—fresh eating or cooking; the tree’s ability to withstand cold winter temperatures or conversely mild winter temperatures; and which varieties will cross-pollinate one another.
After careful selection and early training, pear trees will require generally less upkeep than other fruiting trees.
Here are basics to consider when setting out to grow pear trees:
Types of Pears: There are three basic types of pears:
- European pears have the traditional teardrop pear shape with a neck either short or long; these pears ripen to be either soft or semi-soft and are usually sweet and juicy to the bite.
- Asian pears are sometimes called apple pears because they are round in shape and crisp, firm, and hard to the bite; they, too, are sweet, but not usually juicy.
- A third type of pear is the European-Asian hybrid.
Use of Fruit: When you select a pear tree, consider how you intend to use the fruit. Pear trees are classed for use as follows:
- Dessert pears are for fresh eating; they are picked firm, ripened off the tree, and eaten out of hand.
- Culinary pears are for cooking; these pears do not ripen soft enough for eating out of hand; they remain firm and can be baked or cooked.
- Dual pears can be eaten fresh or cooked.
Tree Forms: Choose the size or form of pear tree that will fit your growing space; remember you need two or three different varieties to ensure pollination and fruiting. Tree forms include:
- Standard pear trees that grow to 20 feet tall and 25 feet wide (6.1-7.2m).
- Semi-dwarf pear trees that grow to 15 feet (4.8m)tall and wide.
- Dwarf pear trees that grow 8 to 12 feet tall and wide.
- Trained fan-shape and espalier pears which grow 11 to 13 feet tall and wide or smaller.
- Cordon trained pears that are trained to grow “arms” along single or double wires similar to an espalier; these trees are usually grown to about 3 or 4 feet tall and wide.
Smaller trees start bearing fruit sooner than taller trees. Dwarf varieties begin to bear fruit three to five years after a one-year-old whip is planted. Semi-dwarf trees bear a full harvest five to seven years after a whip is planted.
Pollination Groups: Nearly all pear trees must cross-pollinate in order to bear fruit. Pear varieties are commonly divided into pollination groups; the members of each group flower at the same time so they are good pollinators for other members of the group. It is important to plant at least two varieties from the same group or with the same flowering time to ensure pollination. (Pollination occurs when bees other winged insects carry pollen from the flowers of one variety to the flowers of a second variety.)
When you select a pear tree, the plant tag or label should list other pear varieties for cross-pollination or the label should tell you if the tree is self-fertile or self-pollinating. Some varieties are self-pollinating, but even self-pollinators can benefit from a having a second variety that flowers at the same time nearby—a sort of pollination insurance policy.
There are dozens and dozens of pear varieties. When you decide on the pear variety you want to grow look at a pollination chart to make sure you select a second variety that is a pollinizer. Here are two examples of pollination charts:
Example One: Choose two varieties from the same group:
- Group A: Chojuro, Korean Giant, Packham’s Triumph, Seckel, Tsu Li.
- Group B: Bartlett, Anjou, Conference, Harrow Delight, Hosui, Magness, Warren, Winter Nelis, Hessle.
- Group C: Beurré Bosc, Clapp’s Favorite, Concorde, Comice, Gorham, Moonglow, Max-Red Bartlett, Winter Nelis.
Example Two: Selected variety followed by compatible pollinizers:
- Bartlett: Anjou, Bosc, Comice.
- Bosc: Bartlett, Comice, Anjou, Seckel.
- Anjou: Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Anjou, Seckel.
- Seckel: Bosc, Comice (Bartlett is not compaitlbe).
- Chojuro: Shinseike, Bartlett.
- Nijisseiki (also called Twentieth Century: Chojuro, Shinseike, Bartlett.
- Hosui: self-fruitful or any other pear in the same bloom time.
- Shinsike: Chojuro.
Some specific pear varieties will not pollinate other specific varieties: Comice and Bosc will not pollinate Conference and vice versa; Bartlett will not pollinate Seckel. Some Asian pears bloom earlier than European pears so they are not good choices for cross-pollination of European varieties; but later blooming Asian varieties will pollinate European varieties.
Rootstock: Like many fruit trees, pears are grafted onto rootstock that grow in many soils and are disease resistant. There are two main types of pear rootstock: quince rootstock called Quince A and a fireblight resistant pear rootstock series called OHxF (there are several OHxF rootstocks—the two original OHxF rootstocks are called Old Home and Farmingdale; several more have been developed).
Most dwarf pears are grafted onto Quince A rootstock; these trees grow to about 8 feet (2.4m) tall. Quince roots are shallow and pears on quince rootstock can not tolerate drought or very cold soil (hardy only to 0°F or greater). OHxF rootstock grows taller trees—from 10 to 15 feet tall—and is hardier than quince, withstanding colder winters. Choose a rootstock recommended for your region; check at a local tree nursery for advice.
Best time to plant: Plant bare-root pear trees in spring or fall when trees are dormant. If you live in a cold winter region, it’s best to plant bare-root pears in spring. Container grown pears can be planted any time of the year that the soil is workable, but it’s best not to plant them during the hot, dry months of summer. Bare-root pears are usually one or two years old; container grown trees may be older
Climate: Pears need at least 600 hours of winter chill, that is 45°F (7°C) or lower each year to produce a crop; 900 hours of chill is even better. While pears need a chill to produce a crop, they are also early spring bloomers and frost during bloom time will cause blossoms to drop and the crop to fail. In cold winter regions, pears must be protected from frost at bloom time; situate trees south facing or on a slope where they get early morning sun and warmth and are protected from lingering frost.
Site: Plant pears in well-drained loam or compost-rich soil. Pears can tolerate damp, heavy clay soil though it’s not optimal. Plant pears in a sheltered, out of the wind, sunny place; near a sunny wall is a good location to plant a pear.
Planting: For best fruit set, pears need cross-pollination. Plant two or more varieties; in some regions such as California the varieties Bartlett and Comice are self-fertile. When planting, set the graft union 2 to 3 inches above the soil surface. Set a tree stake in place at planting time and tie tree in with elastic horticultural tape.
Training, Pruning and Thinning: Pears should be trained early to a good framework. A pear can be trained to a single leader (main trunk) or you can train the tree to two or three leaders. Training to two or more leaders is insurance against leader damage later (such as wind damage or fireblight damage to a leader). In the first couple of years after planting, spread the branches each spring so that they do not shoot straight up; spread branches so that they grow 60 degrees from vertical; use a stick notched at each end to spread apart two branches or hand a weight near the ends of branches to hold them down and train them down; begin this training each spring after blossoms fall. After the framework is established in a couple of years, prune in early spring or fall to eliminate diseased branches or branches that cross one another or are crowded. Keep the tree branching open for good air circulation. Generally, pears do not need thinning mid-season like apples, however if the crop is very heavy thin crowded fruit clusters to just one fruit; if the crop is thin leave two pears per cluster.
Water: Don’t let pear trees go completely dry. Mulch around young trees to stem soil moisture evaporation.
Cold Protection: Protect young trees from frost by covering them with a floating row cover when frost threatens.
Feeding: Feed pears after new growth starts in spring; use a complete fertilizer that is lower in nitrogen than phosphorus and potassium. Too much nitrogen can spur leafy branch growth and leave pears vulnerable to fireblight disease.
Pests and Diseases: Pear trees are susceptible to a bacterial disease called fireblight, especially when grown in warm, humid regions—generally east of the Rockies. If you live where summer temperatures are regularly greater than 65°F and humidity is regularly greater than 65 percent, fireblight is a very real threat. The bacteria will enter the plant through blossoms or breaks in the tree skin. Fireblight bacteria will cause branches to blacken and die. As soon as you see fireblight damage cut back the stem or branch to green, healthy growth. Disinfect pruning tools with bleach between pruning cuts. Plant fireblight resistant varieties if you live where summers are warm and humid.
Pear psylla—a small sucking insect–and coddling moths also attack pear trees. Spray pears with a dormant spray or all-season horticultural oil to control overwintering pests such as psylla. Pheromone traps can control coddling moths; however, a very good defense against coddling moths is to pick off and dispose of damaged fruit regularly; when you do this, you will be disposing of the coddling moth larvae and will interrupt the pest’s life cycle. Kaolin clay in the form of an organic spray can be used as a protective barrier against psylla; spray the whole tree.
Harvest: Pears come to harvest from midsummer to mid-autumn, July to October, depending on the variety. Pick fruit full size but unripe—that is green and firm. A pear is ready to pick if you lift the fruit horizontally and the stem snaps free; if the stem does not snap on its own wait a couple of days and try again. Set picked fruit in a cool, dark place to ripen.
Popular Pear Varieties for Backyard Growing (all are European pears unless noted):
- Anjou (d’ Anjou, Beurré d’Anjou): medium to large fruit; round with short neck; yellow or russeted yellow; ripens late; moderately susceptible to fireblight.
- Bartlett: medium to large fruit; short neck; thin skin; yellow to slightly blushed; sweet and tender; ripens midseason; susceptible to fireblight; often self-fruitful.
- Blake’s Pride: medium size fruit, yellow to gold skin with light russeting; very good flavor; ripens midseason; highly resistant to fireblight.
- Bosc (Beurré Bosc, Golden Russet): medium to large fruit; long neck; heavy russet on green or yellow skin; firm, juicy, flavorful; ripens late; very susceptible to fireblight.
- Chojuro: Asian pear; large fruit; russeted brown to orange skin; crisp, juicy, light spice flavor; ripens midseason.
- Clapp’s Favorite: resembles Bartlett but more heavily blushed; soft, sweet flesh; ripens early; very susceptible to fireblight.
- Comice: large fruit; round to pear shaped; thick greenish yellow skin russeted or blushed; ripens late; susceptible to fireblight; usually self-fertile.
- Concorde: tear-drop shape with long neck; russeted green-brown skin; excellent flavor; ripens late.
- Conference: large, elongated fruit; yellow skin; very juicy and sweet, buttery; ripens late; good resistance to fireblight.
- Flemish Beauty: old commercial favorite; great flavor; ripens midseason; very susceptible to fireblight.
- Flordahome: small to medium size fruit; light green skin; juicy; ripens early; needs little winter chill—good choice for warm-winter regions; fireblight resistant.
- Gorham: heirloom American variety; oblong to slightly tear-drop shaped; green-brown russeted skin; sweet, musky flavor; ripens late midseason.
- Harrow’s Delight: resembles Bartlett but smaller; smooth texture, good flavor; ripens early; excellent choice for cold winter regions; very resistant to fireblight.
- Hessle: heirloom English variety; small to medium fruit with conical shape; yellow skin; white flesh sweet and mild; for cooking; ripens late.
- Hosui: Asian pear; large fruit; bronzy orange, russeted skin; very good flavor; ripens early; self-fruitful or match with any other pear in the same bloom time; susceptible to fireblight.
- Kieffer: Asian pear hybrid; medium to large oval fruit; yellowish skin blushed dark red; fair flavor, gritty texture; good choice for baking; ripens late; fireblight resistant.
- Korean Giant: Asian pear; extra-large fruit; russeted olive green; ripens late.
- Magness: medium size, oval fruit; greenish-yellow tough skin with dark spots; soft, juicy flesh; resistant to fireblight.
- Max-Red Bartlett: resembles Bartlett but has bright red skin; sweet flavor; ripens midseason; susceptible to fireblight.
- Moonglow: resembles Bartlett; juicy and soft with good flavor; ripens early; very resistant to fireblight.
- Nijisseiki (also called Twentieth Century): Asian pear; small, round fruit; yellow with white skin; juicy, sweet, crisp flesh; ripens midseason; self-fertile.
- Nova: large round fruit; juicy flesh; ripens midseason; very hardy; recommended for cold winter regions.
- Packham’s Triumph: originally from Australia; green skin; very good flavor; flowers very early so must be protected from frost; ripens late.
- Potomac: medium size fruit; light green skin with red blush; very good flavor; ripens midseason; fireblight resistant.
- Rescue: large fruit—pear shaped; yellow skin blushed red-orange; sweet and juicy, smooth texture; ripens midseason.
- Seckel: small, round to pear-shaped; yellow-brown skin; granular texture, sweet and aromatic; ripens early midseason; fairly resistant to fireblight; self-fertile.
- Shinseike: Asian pear; medium to large fruit; smooth, greenish yellow skin, white crisp flesh; sweet flavor; ripens early; self-fertile; disease resistant.
- Tsu Li: Asian pear; elongated fruit; yellow-green skin; aromatic flesh with good flavor; ripens late; some resistance to fireblight.
- Ure: small, round fruit; greenish yellow skin; sweet and juicy; ripens midseason; cold-hardy hybrid—excellent choice for very cold winter regions; fireblight resistant.
- Warren: medium to large fruit with teardrop shape; pale green skin with red blush; juicy with excellent flavor; ripens late; good choice for cold winter regions; resistant to fireblight.
- Winter Nelis: small to medium roundish fruit; rough, dull green or yellowish skin; very good flavor; good for baking; ripens late; moderately susceptible to fireblight.