Ripe pears growing on a pear tree

A man watches his pear-tree day after day, impatient for the ripening of the fruit. Let him attempt to force the process and he may spoil both fruit and tree. But let him patiently wait, and the ripe pear at the length falls into his lap. – Abraham Lincoln


Autumn, in my opinion, reigns supreme in the realm of fruitfulness. Not only do apples and pears reappear and peak, but we also have available to us the late peaches and plums, table grapes and the first of the feijoas. Riches indeed.

I beg to differ with the opinion of Ralph Waldo Emerson on pears (“There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat”). Quite to the contrary; as I find a firm, crisp pear straight from the tree just as enjoyable in its own right as a soft, melting, juicy one. I think pears sometimes get a bad rap, when compared with their rotund apple cousins – yes, the skin can be rough and tough and some dislike the woody stone cells (sclerenchyma) present in the flesh that can cause a gritty texture, but pears are just as productive and useful, warranting a place in the home garden.

I have just spent the best part of eight years living on a property with 100 pear trees at my disposal – this is the first autumn I haven’t had the liberty of going for a stroll to fill a bucket, and do feel somewhat bereft. A flying visit back last weekend allowed me a to gather a few, so I will make sure none of this short supply goes to waste.

New Zealand has an enduring connection with the European pear - the first resident clergyman in New Zealand, John Gare Butler, planted the first recorded orchard in Kerikeri on 5 October 1819. Fast forward over 200 years and one very large, hollow-trunked pear tree remains standing to this day - a Williams Bon Chrétien (which translates as ‘good Christian’), a popular European pear, and no doubt a conscious choice for a mission community.

Pears: a short family history

Pears, along with their close pome fruit relatives the quinces, apples and medlars are yet another member of the fruitful Rosaceae family and hail from the temperate and coastal regions of Europe, North Asia and Africa.

Commercially, we are familiar with two distinct families – the classic European pears (Pyrus communis), domesticated and continuously improved since at least 1000 BC, and the Asian pears (Pyrus pyrifolia or P. serotina), which have been cultivated in China for the last 3000 years. These and a third species, the Chinese white pear, Pyrus x bretschneideri, have given rise to approximately 3000 known pear cultivars which are now grown worldwide.

Pears are climacteric fruits, meaning that they will continue to ripen following their harvest or removal from the parent tree, and are usually at their best when picked and deliberately ripened to perfection off the tree in controlled conditions. China, Italy and the USA are the top producers of commercial pears internationally, followed by Argentina, which produces almost half of the Southern Hemisphere’s crop.

Apart from being a valuable fruit crop for fresh consumption and the production of juice, pear cider (perry) and processed fruit products, odourless, colourless, strong and stable pear wood has held a firm place in history as a highly-regarded choice for the manufacture of furniture, musical instruments, kitchen utensils and interestingly, architects’ rulers – it does not warp or splinter, even when exposed to repeated cycles of immersion in liquid and drying again.

Long-lived pears find kin with walnuts (and not just in a culinary sense), being stately trees of similar stature. The 17th century English proverb ‘Walnuts and pears, you plant for your heirs’ gives an idea of how long they can take to fruit, and also the respect held for them by civilisations past. Pear and walnut trees were revered by the Vainakh peoples of the Northern Caucasus region in Eastern Europe, as they were thought to be the homes of benevolent spirits and as such, felling them was forbidden.

Suitable climates and growing conditions

Pears can be grown throughout New Zealand, but as they flower quite early (before apples), the blooms may suffer from frost damage in southern climes. They require 600 – 1500 hours of winter chill to set fruit, depending on cultivar. They will thrive in regions with cool to cold winters and mild summers. The harvest window across cultivars is a good length, spanning January to May. Mature trees have average yields of 45-90 kg at around six to eight years, again depending on cultivar.

Traditionally large to very large, long-lived trees, easily reaching ten metres tall. Small columnar varieties on dwarfing rootstocks growing to about three metres in height are now available, so those with smaller gardens shouldn’t be discouraged. For traditional varieties, allow three to four metres between trees. As mentioned previously, pears will grow happily for a couple of hundred years, albeit slowly losing vigour with age.

Most pear cultivars require cross-pollination and so do best with a polliniser friend nearby. Those on small sections can get away with having a single tree with two or more varieties grafted on to it. Pear flowers don’t produce a lot of nectar, which unfortunately leaves them low on the hit list for bees. They also smell unattractively rather like fish…

Expect crops two to five years after planting, depending on cultivar and rootstock type – those on dwarf rootstocks are likely to crop earlier than those on standard rootstocks. Thinning may be necessary if crops are particularly heavy, this requirement is more noticeable with Asian pear cultivars – European types tend to self-thin.

It’s really not worth growing pear trees from seed – genetic variation makes the likelihood of getting something decent very hit and miss and it’s a long time from seed to fruit. Grafted trees are the way to go. Rootstock choice is really important when it comes to pears. Pear trees grafted onto seedling pear rootstocks are vigorous and prone to suckering. European pears are often grafted onto quince rootstocks for a semi dwarfing to dwarfing effect, ease of tree control and earlier fruit production. Downsides of quince rootstocks include increased susceptibility to fireblight, and a lower tolerance of wet feet and alkaline soils. Some cultivars require an interstock, an extra graft, (usually the cultivar Beurre Hardy) between the quince rootstock and the desired pear cultivar to ensure compatibility.

Site selection and planting

Plant pear trees in autumn or winter, it is not necessary to apply fertiliser at planting. Over-fertilising can make pear trees more susceptible to fireblight. Choose a site in full sun, with protection from strong wind. Pears will tolerate a wider range of conditions than their cousins the apples, and will tolerate getting their feet a bit wetter, although long periods of waterlogging aren’t advisable and fruit production will suffer. Saying that, a pear tree will be happier in poorly drained areas and heavy clay soils than most other fruit trees.

Culture and care

Pears are a great option if you’re after a long-lived, relatively hassle-free crop. Plan to make an application of balanced general fertiliser once a year in spring, starting with 250-500 g per year of tree age for young trees, up to a total application of 5 kg for a mature tree age. Apply evenly to the dripline, spreading at a rate of a cupful per square metre, directly before forecast rainfall, or otherwise water in well after applying. Pear trees are particularly susceptible to manganese, boron and copper deficiencies, especially if your soil pH is overly alkaline.

Give your young, newly-planted pear trees enough water to soak the ground all around the roots once every 10 days or so. From then on, as long as our normal summer rainfall allows for a couple of centimetres of rain every fortnight or so, your trees should be able to cope. In particularly dry, drought-prone climates, soaker-hose irrigation to provide a similar amount of water is advisable.

Pruning

Pear tree pruning can be carried out on a similar basis to central leader apple trees, bearing in mind pear growth is somewhat more vigorous and upright. They fruit on short spurs composed of two-year old wood. Keep the fruiting arm-to-leader angles wide to maintain branch strength, and those particularly laden with fruit may need props as extra support. Summer pruning and tipping of branches can be utilised to help keep overall tree height and vigour in check.

If you’re starting with a young, single stemmed (unbranched) tree, here’s how to proceed:

At winter planting, cut the single stem back to approximately one metre above the ground. This will encourage it to produce a number of upright-growing side branches during the growing season. In the winter following, choose five of these branches at right angles to each other to form the first scaffold, which will be roughly at hip height. Choose one to be the central leader – the tree will grow upwards from here. Train the remaining four to be at approximately 30 degrees from horizontal using string and additional braces (some people utilise bricks or stones to help) but don’t yank them downwards below horizontal as this halts fruit production. Pears need a firmer hand than apples, but their branches tend to be more brittle, so don’t force them too far as they will snap with little warning. Remove all the extra branches. Trim the leader (chosen central growing stem) height to a metre above the first scaffold, or if it is already naturally this height, leave it be.

The next scaffold of branches (at around shoulder height) will be produced the following spring/summer growing season. At winter pruning, again select four fruiting arms to retain and remove the rest – train down again with string if necessary. Aim for evenly-distributed placement around the trunk, paying attention to upper branches that might shade lower branches and ladder access for harvest later. Trim the leader back if required.

Repeat this process for another year to produce one final scaffold – likely at head height or a little higher by now. Remove any obviously strong, upright growth at the top of the tree which may compete with the leader and unbalance the tree. To a degree, the weight of developing fruit helps to bring the branches down. Short twiggy spurs (consisting of wood two years or older) will develop over time and these will produce fruit for several subsequent years. Thin them out when they cease to be productive and encourage new growth to spur up.

Ongoing maintenance pruning consists of removing branches crossing over each other, excessive twiggy growth, dead, diseased or otherwise damaged wood, growth from the rootstock below the graft union (suckers), and water shoots. Water shoots are thick, vigorous shoots that grow straight up. Excessive production of these may signify a too harshly-pruned or over-watered tree. Their only productive use is for branch replacement, if left unchecked they are likely to grow like crazy and suck the lifeblood out of your nicely-balanced tree. If there are a handful, it’s safe to remove them all. If you have a tree that has produced a profusion of water shoots, remove about a third of them, aiming for the largest, then trim the length of the remaining ones back by a third and keep your fingers crossed they produce some fruit. Balance is key!

Pears are also great candidates for espalier training along a wire trellis or on a wall or similar, both methods offering a degree of tree support and wind protection.

Make sure any cuts you make while pruning are immediately sealed with a pruning paint containing a fungicide, e.g. Yates PruneTec® and burn or dispose of diseased wood in your household refuse – don’t mulch or compost it.

Pests, diseases and what to do about them

Fireblight - Erwinia amylovora

This bacterial disease causes oozy cankers on trunks and branches in early spring and distinctive ‘shepherd’s crook’ black, burnt-looking droopy shoot tips and fruit throughout the growing season. It spreads, well, like wildfire when conditions are hot and humid at flowering. Remove all diseased limbs, cutting back to clean, healthy tissue and seal with pruning paint. Remove and destroy debris from the orchard understorey. Do you ever see out-of-season flowers (late blooms) on your pear trees? They may look pretty, but get rid of them, as they are a prime entry point for fireblight – it never sleeps. A copper-based spray pre-bloom may be of assistance – commercial growers use the antibiotic streptomycin at bloom, but this is not advisable for home growers as if used incorrectly, can lead to antibiotic resistance. There are certified organic options available for commercial growers (e.g., Serenade® Optimum) which utilise the bacterium Bacillus subtilis.

Pear or cherry slug - Caliroa cerasi

Tatty looking leaves covered in shot-holes are a giveaway sign of this small beast – look closer and you’ll probably see small slug-like globs clinging to both leaf surfaces. These are actually the larvae of a type of sawfly – misleading in name and nature, as they are not true slugs just as much as the adult insects are not true flies, instead belonging to the Hymenoptera, the order that also includes wasps, bees and ants. Confused yet?! C. cerasi are common pests on many fruit crops within the Rosaceae, also found on cherries, apples, plums and quinces. I’ve seen them reach plague proportions and they are capable of eventually skeletonising leaves so you may need to take action with an insecticide application. Softer options for the home garden include neem oil, pyrethrum-based sprays or Yates Success Ultra, active ingredient spinetoram, which is derived from a soil bacterium. Follow the label directions – this will also deal to any leafroller caterpillars present on the foliage.

Codling moth - Cydia pomonella

The bane of every pipfruit grower’s existence. There’s nothing worse than to bite into an apple or pear and find the flesh infested with a sleepy grub and a pile of crumbly brown frass – even more exasperating to see the giveaway entry and exit holes and damage on your half-ripe apple crop. Interestingly, some years seem distinctly better or worse than others in terms of this beast. Adult moths lay eggs in spring, depositing them on leaves conveniently near developing fruit. The larvae hatch and tunnel into the fruit, where they spend the next three to five weeks feeding in the core seed cavity in blissful oblivion. After this, they exit the fruit (yay, another hole!) and drop onto the ground, where they complete their life cycle, pupating in the leaf litter, soil or a hospitable bark crevice before emerging as a havoc-wreaking adult moth two or three weeks later.

You can spray Yates Success® Ultra from petal fall at 14-day intervals, or use pheromone traps or ties to disrupt the activity of male codling moths. Another cultural control is to secure cuffs of corrugated cardboard around the trunks of your trees, in the hope that grubs migrating soil-wards can be encouraged to take up residence, a cushy cardboard hotel as opposed to a bark motel. The cuff is then removed and burned, along with its residents, in late winter, hopefully resulting in reduction of the resident adult population. As an aside, carnivorous earwigs like to live in corrugated cardboard and may consequently snack on a few larvae over the winter. Madex®2, an organic product based on the codling moth granulosis virus (CpGV), a naturally occurring pathogen of the codling moth is now available in a formulation and pack size suitable for home orchards. It controls codling moth larvae in the juvenile stages before they begin to burrow into the fruit, and being highly specific in this respect, does not impact bees. Alternatively, you can watch this video and formulate your own plan…

Varieties: My top picks

Beurre Bosc – mid-season large, brown, russet-skinned classic pear that’s fantastically crisp straight from the tree and matures to buttery sweet perfection after a few weeks in the fridge. Good polliniser for Doyenne du Comice and Taylor’s Gold.

Doyenne du Comice – traditional dumpy pear shape, russet-spotted green skin flushed with red. Juicy, melting flesh when ripe and great flavour. Taylor’s Gold is its Kiwi-raised russet sport, a late ripening variant with a brown jacket and the same excellent flavour. Pollinisers are Williams Bon Chrétien, Beurre Bosc and Winter Nelis.

Williams Bon Chrétien (Bartlett) – England, 1770. Early season (Jan-Feb) dessert and bottling fruit. The poster child of the canned pear industry, large, thin-skinned green fruit with a pronounced neck. Falls naturally when ripe and a good keeper. Pollinisers include Buerre Bosc and Winter Nelis.

Conference – England, 1885. Long, narrow self-fertile pear, in some cases almost tubular and with small cores. Semi-russeted fruit with good flavour. Ripens mid-season.

Clapp’s Favourite – Massachusetts, 1800s. Old American dessert variety that’s a bit harder to find, but an early (February) variety reminiscent of Bartlett flavour wise, but ready a couple of weeks earlier. Doesn’t store well so not commercially viable. Clapp’s Favourite gave rise to the red sport ‘Starkrimson’ (1956). Round-bottomed fruit with a small neck. Delicious. Pollinisers include Beurre Bosc and Williams Bon Chrétien.

Garden Belle® – dwarf variety available from Waimea Nurseries. Grows to three metres, its green-skinned fruit are ready midsummer and have smooth, soft-textured flesh. Needs to be planted near another pear (Asian or European) for pollination.

What to do with your crop

Pears store relatively well if picked firm and kept under refrigeration – bring them out to ripen fully at room temperature for a week or so prior to consumption. They are one of the best fruits for bottling and mix well with other fruits, such as peaches, for this purpose. For fruit leathers, they are best mixed with other fruit as pear leather alone tends to be a bit gritty.

Core whole, semi-ripe thin-skinned pears and slice into rings, dip into citrus juice and dehydrate for 10-12 hours on medium heat to produce dried pears for shelf-stable storage. Peel tougher russet-skinned varieties first unless you like a good chew.

Pears don’t spring to mind as a popular fruit for making jam, but they are actually a great candidate and the flavour comes through well. If you use thin-skinned pears such as Bartlett or Williams Bon Chrétien, you can even leave the skins on. Here are a couple of options to try if you have a pear glut. They can be used at most stages of ripeness, but are difficult to prepare if super-mushy.

General method for jams

Some recipes will require you to prepare the fruit, mix it with the sugar and let it sit overnight. Others will require you to cook the fruit down, with or without additional water, depending on the moisture content of your fruit, before adding the sugar. If you are cooking the fruit down initially, do it slowly, as this allows the pectin to be extracted from the skins and for the skins to break down, and to retain a good colour. If using frozen fruit, don’t thaw it first – cook it down from frozen.

Now is a good time to place some saucers in the freezer. Add the required amount of sugar, and bring to a rolling boil to dissolve, stirring until there are no more crystals when you tap the bottom of the pan with your spoon. I then reduce the heat before cooking the mixture to the set point. The amount of time taken to reach gel will depend on the recipe and fruit used, but start checking after about 10 minutes of cooking. Place a teaspoon of jam on a cold saucer and let it sit for a few minutes. Push your finger through the jam, if it leaves a clear path, you can fill your jars.

If there is a lot of froth and scum on the surface of your jam, scoop it off the top. If you aren’t fussy about a few bubbles and want to obtain maximum yield, let the pan sit for five minutes then stir it all back in. Mixtures with a lot of whole fruit pieces will benefit from standing for five minutes and then a stir to redistribute the pieces before filling the jars.

A wide-mouth jar funnel is a worthwhile asset if you are going to make a lot of jam. Otherwise, be prepared to wipe up spills with a cloth dipped in boiling water. Fill jars to within 1 cm of the rim – leave a small an air gap as possible to discourage spoilage organisms from taking hold and remember the jam level will shrink slightly as it cools.

Make sure jar rims are clear of drips before screwing on the hot lids. Let the jars cool on the board or tea towel, I like to leave 24 hours between filling and wiping down the jars ready for storage.

To sterilise jars and lids:

Rinse well in hot soapy water, drain, lay them on their sides on the oven racks and heat at 120°C for 30 minutes. I put my stainless steel jar funnel in the oven at the same time as the jars. Remove with sterilised tongs and place on a wooden board or tea towel on the bench, not a cold/bare work surface as the jars may crack. Aim to fill the jars within five minutes of removing them from the oven – hot jars, hot jam, hot seals (see below).

Boil sound metal lids in a saucepan of water on the stovetop for 10 minutes along with your ladle, tongs and any other utensils you plan to use in the jar-filling process. A good source of new jars and lids (no minimum order) is https://arthurholmes.co.nz/

Pear, ginger & lime conserve

Adapted from ‘Pear Ginger’
Ladies, a Plate: Jams & Preserves – Alexa Johnston, Penguin Books NZ, August 2013.

Yield: 6-8 jars of around 250 – 300 g

  • 3-6 limes, depending on size
  • Approximately 2 kg pears of your choice, to give 1.5 kg prepared weight
  • 900 g granulated white sugar
  • 1 (70 g) packet Hansells jam setting mix
  • 1 tbsp finely grated fresh ginger (or to taste)
  • 100 g crystallised ginger

Zest and juice the limes into a large bowl.

Peel the pears, core and quarter, then cut into ½ cm slices.

Place pear slices in the bowl with the zest and juice, toss to coat the slices thoroughly.

Then add sugar, pectin and grated ginger, stir gently to combine.

Cover the bowl with a cloth and stand at room temperature for a minimum of 12 hours.

Cut crystallised ginger into thin slices.

Put pear mixture in a preserving pan and heat slowly to dissolve the sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes until the pears are translucent. Add preserved ginger and simmer until the set point is reached (use cold saucer method to test). Bottle in hot sterilised jars and seal with boiled lids.

Pear & Vanilla Jam

Adapted from a recipe by Marisa McClelland, ‘Food in Jars’ blog.

  • Approximately 2 kg pears of your choice, to give 1.5 kg prepared weight. Peel if necessary, core and chop into approximately two centimetre dice or cut into wedges and thinly slice into one centimetre strips.
  • 900 g granulated white sugar
  • 1 (70 g) packet Hansells jam setting mix
  • 2-3 vanilla pods, depending how flush you are! Two is a good starting point. Split lengthwise with a sharp knife, scrape out the seeds and add to the pot, then slice each pod into four slivers – I place one piece in each jar when filling them up.
  • Lemon juice to taste – about 2-3 lemons.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, combine chopped pears, sugar and vanilla pods. Cook over medium heat, stirring well, until the fruit can be easily mashed with the back of a wooden spoon. You can use a potato masher to break the fruit down a bit if necessary.

Add the jam setting mix and bring to a rolling boil. Let boil for a full five minutes in order to activate the pectin and ensure a good set. Add some strained lemon juice to taste in the last five minutes of cooking – the whole process will take 30-40 minutes. Use the cold saucer method to test and bottle as for the pear lime and ginger recipe above.


Disclaimer: The information supplied above is general and provided as reference material only. In regards to pest and disease control, please consult your agrichemical consultant for suitable products, application rates, and further region-specific information.

Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association which endeavors to grow and preserve as much of her fresh produce as possible.  When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.     

The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organization promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage, and other productive crops.  Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/

Image credits

Pear tree with fruit – Image by Kerstin Riemera from pixabay.com
Pear Blossom - ralphs_fotos-pixabay.com
Pears - Image by Rajesh Balouriaa from pixabay.com
Pear tree in blossom - Image by Hansa from pixabay.com