I don’t have a great track record with pears. Part of the trouble is I want pears to be more like my beloved apples. Pears are not apples; accepting this is the first step on the road to growing good pears.
First, do not expect pears to slum it. They like to bask in sun, and in good soil; put them in the corner with any sort of shade, and they will sulk. Second, pears like pears, not apples. That is to say, very few are self-fertile – they need a pollinator partner, and it must be something from their group: in other words, another pear variety that flowers at the same time. Finally, pear trees bloom early, which is both lovely and problematic: April often has late frosts, so make sure your pear does not sit in a frost pocket.
Get these things right, however, and you are on the road to eating a perfect pear, the sort that, when you bite into it, you can barely sup fast enough for all the juices, yet there’s still a hint of crispness. It’s a rare treat if you buy such a pear from a shop, but if you grow them at home, you can have plenty. A happy tree will produce anywhere between 15-45kg of pears each season. An unhappy tree will do nothing.
Nearly all pears are picked when they are slightly underripe, when the fruit has swollen and coloured a little, but is still hard. Then, depending on the variety, some will take a few days to ripen, while other storage types won’t ripen until after Christmas. Gently squeeze the fruit, and those that yield are ready.
If you don’t have room for two pears for pollination, scout around your neighbourhood for someone else who’s growing them. There are two common rootstocks: Quince A, which is vigorous and suited to most soil types; and Quince C, which is semi-dwarf and needs fertile soil. The most popular variety is ‘Conference’ (pollination group 3), which crops heavily, can be self-fertile, and ripens around October/November. Likewise, ‘Concorde’ (pollination group 3) is another lovely dessert pear that is readily available. I’d also hunt out ‘Onward’ (pollination group 4), which ripens in early autumn, and ‘Beth’ (pollination group 3), which is reliable, hardy and fruits early. If you like to cook with pears, then ‘Catillac’ (pollination group 4) and ‘Kieffer’ are both great. The former turns pink if cooked slowly, and is wonderful for poaching. It’s a very late cropper – you can still be eating it in April – and is a triploid variety, meaning it needs two other pears to pollinate it.
If space is limited, grow your pears as cordon, espalier or fan on a sunny wall, or as bush tree. A half-standard tree is large enough to graze under, so it tends to be too big for most small gardens. If you need to plant two trees in limited space, try growing them as cordons. You can also grow pears well in large pots: 95 litres or so is ideal.
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