Grow Your Own Magazine

Sign up to the Newsletter
  • Preview this issue
All you need to know

Pears

If you haven't yet planted your bare-root pears, there's still time to get them in the ground this month. Anthony Bennett describes the merits of growing these long-lived trees

Pears are the grandfather of the orchard or kitchen garden – although they take a few years to reach the fruiting stage, they can be expected to live for up to a century, or even two, while producing plenty of sweet and juicy crops. With careful site selection and preparation, these trees will repay your efforts handsomely for the rest of your life.

Pears are planted, trained and pruned in much the same way as apples, but there are some subtle differences. They are slightly less tolerant to very cold temperatures or wind. The trees flower two to three weeks earlier than apples, too, so place them in a sheltered, warm position on your plot that isn’t prone to late frosts or blustery weather. Most varieties require a pollinating partner, so you will need to plant more than one tree to ensure they successfully set fruit. Any nursery or garden centre will be able to advise you as to which cultivars should be grouped together. If you don’t have a large plot, you’ll be relieved to hear that the versatile plants may be grown as single-stemmed cordons or trained against a wall or fence to minimise their spread. Most are grafted onto a dwarfing quince rootstock to stop them from growing too large.

The fruits will need a sunny, sheltered position and soil that is well-drained but moisture retentive.

If your garden is in a breezy location, put up a windbreak to help shelter the plants. Use a hedge or porous netting stretched between posts to gently filter the gusts without causing turbulence. Alternatively, plant cordon or tiered espalier trees against a wall, where the microclimate will be slightly warmer and less affected by blustery weather. A south-facing spot will offer the best growing conditions, helping fruits ripen up in good time for harvesting.

Prepare your plot at least a month before planting. If a row of cordons is to be grown against a wall dig over a long trench running parallel to it – they’ll be set in place at regular intervals. Free-standing bush trees will benefit from individual planting holes. Prepare these by creating a pit that’s at least 90cm wide and 50cm deep. Add a couple of buckets of well-rotted organic matter, such as garden compost, to the excavated soil before feeding this back into the hole; the earth will settle over the next few weeks. Just before planting, add a couple of generous handfuls of slow-release general-purpose fertiliser to each position. Poultry manure pellets or Wormcast (available from Harrod Horticultural 0845 218 5301, harrodhorticultural.com) are ideal.

Young pears can be bought as bare root or containerised trees. The former are supplied dormant in winter and may be planted from November through to early March, when they are not in leaf.

Container-grown types can be set into place at any time of year, but are best put in the ground during their dormant period so that the soil can settle around the rootballs before they launch into growth in spring. Select two-year-old trees for planting.

To begin, dig a hole in your prepared growing area that is large enough to allow the roots to spread out evenly across the bottom without having to bend or push them in. The final ground level should be equal with the top of the compost or the soil mark on the stems of bare-root trees. The union where the pear tree joins onto the rootstock (shown by a bump on the trunk) should always be above ground level. Fill the soil back around the roots, pressing it in with your fists or gently with your foot so that there are no air pockets.

All trees will need some sort of support. Free-standing bush types should have a stake driven into the bottom of the hole before planting so that it sits at least 60cm into the ground once the pit is filled in. Set the stake on the windfacing side of the tree and attach it to the trunk using suitable plastic ties. Keep these loose until the soil has settled, then tighten them up to offer full support, adjusting the tie as the plant grows. Leave 4-6m between each bush tree.

Cordon trees can be planted closer together, with just 90cm left between each one, making them the natural choice when space is at a premium. Put a support network into place by stretching horizontal wires every 60cm between sturdy vertical posts. Push a long garden cane into the ground where each cultivar is to sit, tilting them at a 45° angle. Plant your trees and attach each one to its support using adjustable ties. Carefully secure the garden canes to the horizontal wires.

The first years after planting are important, as it is during this time that a tree’s shape and growing habit are determined by careful pruning.

Cordons and wall-hugging espaliers are trimmed back during the summer, in July in the warmer south and early August elsewhere. Train cordons by cutting off the tip of the single stem once it has reached the top of its cane support. Cut back to a bud and repeat this process every summer, leaving just 1cm of new growth each time. Keep the main stem tied to its cane support as it grows – this will hold the plant securely in place. Established cordons will require any side shoots to be pruned back to around three leaves beyond the basal cluster. The basal cluster is the group of leaves at the bottom of each of the side shoots that lie next to the tree’s main stem.

Bush specimens need to be pruned to encourage an open goblet shape. These are cut back in winter, usually around February, before the growing season begins. After planting, reduce all of the branches to half their length and remove any short, stubby ones entirely. Prune to outwardfacing buds. In subsequent years, cut away all dead and diseased wood, and any growth that is cluttering up the centre of the tree. New branches that are to be retained to form part of the tree’s shape should be cut back by half to an outward-facing bud; those that are not required can simply be pruned back to four buds.

Recently planted trees will need to be kept well-watered during their first summer to help them settle in and establish, but even mature pears may require watering during droughts.

Irrigate the base of trees so that at least 20 litres are applied to each one at a time. Do this every few weeks while the dry spell continues. You can help lock moisture into the soil each spring when you sprinkle a top-dressing of general-purpose organic fertiliser over the ground in February or March. Add a handful per tree and then apply a mulch of organic material. This will also help to feed the plant as it breaks down and enters the soil. Spread it at least 5cm thick, leaving a clear band 15cm from the base of the trunk so as not to cause rotting.

In about June, some of the excess fruit will naturally fall from the tree. A few weeks after this, when they begin to point downwards, you will need to intervene and thin them a little more. As painful as it may be to snip away some of your valuable crop, it will help those remaining to swell to a decent size. Cut away fruitlets to leave one at regular intervals along every 10cm of branch length.

Pears are ready for picking when the base of the fruit begins to change colour. They will finish ripening off the tree, so needs a few days at room temperature to soften up and become really juicy. Pick early varieties while they are still hard. Later types will be ready if they come away easily from the tree when cupped, lifted and gently twisted.

Pears do not store for as long as apples, but most late-season types should keep for at least a month and some will last until Christmas or New Year. Store only intact, unbruised fruit and do not wrap them individually in paper – instead lay them out onto wooden slats so that they are not touching. Keep the pears in a cool, frost-free place that is not subject to temperature fluctuations. Bring them indoors as needed to continue ripening, selecting those that are beginning to go soft where the stalk enters the top of the fruit.

Month-by-Month

  • January

    Tidy up trees by weeding around them and removing any old, mummified fruits. Prepare the ground for planting next month or in early spring.

  • February

    Apply a top-dressing of organic, slow-release fertiliser, then add a thick mulch of organic matter, keeping the central trunk clear.

  • March

    Get the last of your bare-root pears in the ground before the growing season commences. Mulch around newly planted trees but take care that the organic matter does not touch the stem.

  • April

    The trees will be flowering this month. Protect blossom from late frost by covering it over with a few layers of horticultural fleece. Remove this during the day to allow pollination.

  • May

    Water the plants in dry weather, especially new trees. Tie in the stems of cordon varieties as they grow using loose tree ties.

  • June

    Many of the developing fruitlets will naturally drop off this month. Keep the base of trees weed-free to avoid competition for moisture.

  • July

    Thin out developing fruits to leave one for every 10cm of branch. This will prevent overcrowding. Also prune cordon or espalier-trained wall pears.

  • August

    Finish pruning cordons and espaliers. Nip out the growing stem of the former once they reach the top of their canes.

  • September

    Begin enjoying early varieties of pear. To experience them at their best do not store these – instead bring the fruits inside to continue ripening under cover.

  • October

    Late-season cultivars may be kept in a cool, dry place that is around 2-6°C in temperature. A garden shed or garage is an ideal place to store them until needed.

  • November

    Begin planting bare-root trees this month. Autumn is a good time to do this, as the trees will have a chance to settle.

  • December

    Continue planting as the weather allows. Do not work the soil if it is wet or frozen – wait until the end of winter when conditions improve.

Next
Pollinating Partners

Pollinating Partners

Most pears are self-sterile, which means the flowers cannot be fertilised by others on the same tree. While a few cultivars such as ‘Conference’ are able to fertilise themselves, you will always achieve significantly better harvests with a pollinating partner. In some denser urban areas or where there are allotments nearby, you may well get away with relying on distant pear trees – bees travel surprisingly long distances in search of pollen and will buzz between the blooms. However, there is no guarantee, so it’s better to plant two or more suitable varieties.

Like apples, pears are divided into pollination groups, based on when they flower. The times usually overlap, but to guarantee successful fruit set you will need to grow two pears from a single category. Order online or ask an experienced nurseryman to guide you through the different groups.

Related Forum Topics

Pears: Varieties To Try

  • Beth

    This is a relatively new pear variety that has won an Award of Garden Merit thanks to its superb-tasting white flesh and the tree’s compact growing habit.

  • Concorde

    A cross of ‘Conference’ and ‘Doyenné Du Comice’, this cultivar crops from an early age to produce pleasantly sweet fruits. It is also partly self-fertile.

  • Conference

    This strain can set fruit without a pollinating partner and is a reliable and heavy-cropping choice. It is also one of the most popular varieties currently in cultivation.

  • Doyenne Du Comice

    Among the best-tasting and textured of all pears, this cultivar has won an RHS Award of Garden Merit. It flowers in late spring so is less susceptible to frost damage, which is a real bonus.

  • Fertility

    This hardy variety has good disease resistance, making it an easy-to-care-for choice. It yields a heavy crop of fruits.

  • Louise Bonne of Jersey

    A variety with sweet, juicy pears that have a yellow skin with a russet flush to them. They taste truly amazing and the blossom is exceptionally pretty, making an attractive feature of any plot.

  • Packham's Triumph

    This compact tree forms quality fruits in mid-October. Pick this variety if you want to store your pears; they can keep for up to two months if provided with suitable conditions.

  • William's Bon Chretien

    An early-to-ripen variety that is better at tolerating colder conditions than others, making it a good choice for chilly areas. The fruits have a delicious and distinctive flavour.

  • Winter Nelis

    This late-season pear stores well. The fruits are smaller than most and more rounded, so this cultivar is a complementary addition to other varieties.

  • Worcester Black

    Possibly the oldest pear in cultivation, dating back to Roman times. The fruits are large and green as they swell, but eventually take on a lovely purple flush. Perfect for cooking.

view all

Pear Revival

Recent interest in the heritage of older fruit and vegetable varieties arrived at just the right time for pears, which had seen the number of dedicated orchards almost halve since 1970. This has affected the number of varieties available for domestic growers, although it looks as if this decline has stopped thanks to an increase in the number of gardeners growing this long-living crop on their plots at home.

Rootstocks have helped seal the fruits’ popularity in gardens and on allotments. Most pears are grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks of Quince A or Quince C, which serves to keep the trees to a more manageable size. There’s little to distinguish between the two and the ultimate height, if left unpruned, is about 5-6m for both. You’ll need to be patient with your pears as they are unlikely to produce fruit until about four or five years after planting. Rest assured that once they start, they will continue for decades to come.

Pears

Registered in England and Wales No 04109672
Registered Office Address: 82c East Hill, Colchester, Essex, CO1 2QW