How to Choose a Pear Tree for Planting

Pear treePears will grow almost everywhere apples grow and are nearly as cold tolerant. A standard pear tree requires about the same space as an apple tree and can be pruned to about 20 feet tall. Semi-dwarf pear trees grow to about 12 feet tall.

There are two types of pears: European pears–with their classic pear shape–are harvested before they are ripe and held in storage until they ripen and are ready for eating; Asian pears–which are rounded and crisp much like an apple–are harvested ripe from the tree.

Before you buy and plant a pear tree consider the following:

Space to grow and form of tree. How much space do you have? This will determine the form of the tree you choose–freestanding or wire-trained.

Size of tree and type of rootstock. What size tree will fit the space? The ultimate size of a pear tree is determined by its rootstock.

Flowering time and harvest. When will the tree flower? This will determine pollination–pears require a second cultivar or variety to cross-pollinate. Flowering time–early, mid, or late season–will determine, in turn, harvest time.

Use of fruit: fresh eating or cooking. What kind of pear do you want? Like apples, there are pears for fresh eating–dessert pears–and pears for cooking–culinary pears. Consider the cultivars and variety of pear you’d like to grow and how it will be eaten.

Here is a review of each of these considerations:

■ Space to grow pears

The space you have to grow a pear tree will determine the form of the tree. Pears can be trained in many of the ways as apples. European pears are commonly trained to a central leader (shaped like a Christmas tree) or modified central leader form. Asian pears are usually trained to an open center (shaped like a vase). Here are pear tree forms and the space they require:

Standard-size pear tree can grow to 40 feet tall if not pruned and have a spread of 30 to 40 feet. Standard pears are commonly pruned from 15 to 25 feet tall with an equal spread. Plant standard pear trees 18 to 25 feet apart. Standard pears fruit in 4 to 8 years and can live for 75 years. Standard-size pear trees are not commonly planted in home gardens. Mostly they are planted in commercial orchards.

Semi-Dwarf pear tree will grow to 25 feet tall if not pruned and will grow as wide. Semi-dwarf pears are commonly pruned from 12 to 15 feet tall with equal spread. Semi-dwarf pears bear fruit in 3 to 5 years and can live to 60 years old. These trees can be pruned to a central leader (a single main shoot rising from the trunk) or several leaders–sometimes pruned to a cup shape. Semi-dwarf trees are usually grafted trees; a shoot (called scion) taken from a pear variety (which transmits the fruiting qualities of the variety) is grafted on to a particular rootstock (to provide vigor to the grafted scion) which determines the size of the tree.

Cordon pear tree are pruned to about 30 inches tall. A cordon is commonly a dwarf pear tree whose growth is trained to a single main stem or leader (called cordon) or multiple leaders (called double “U” cordon with two vertical leaders, or multiple cordons with three or four vertical leaders); the leaders are trained upright or oblique. Cordons are suited for small spaces as the tree is trained to a horizontal plane rather than allowed to form a bush or tree.

Cordons produce fruit on short sideshoots. Cordons must be pruned regularly during the growing season to keep their shape and size. The leaders on these trees are commonly trained at an angle of 45 degrees by being tied to two wires stretched at heights of abut 2½ and 5 feet between posts rising 7 feet out of the ground and placed at 10 foot intervals. Cordon pear trees should be planted at a distance 1½ to 3 feet apart in rows 6 to 10 feet apart. Cordon trees are usually planted at about one year old.

Espalier pear trees. Standard and dwarf pear tree varieties can be grown as espaliers–usually kept to 8 or 9 feet tall by pruning. An espalier pear is trained with a central vertical trunk or leader and two or three tiers of horizontal branches or arms trained to radiate to the left and right of the central leader. Espaliers are commonly trained to horizontal wires stretched 24 inches apart. Espaliers, like cordons, are good for small spaces. Plant pear trees for espalier 12 to 15 feet apart. Espalier pear trees are usually planted when three to four years old.

Fans or palmettes are pear trees trained to a small height on wires. These trees can be shaped as a pyramid or triangle, a fan–usually with two main leaders or ribs radiating from a short trunk with sublaterals forming a fan shape, or palmettes, a cross between an espalier and a fan with a central leader and arms radiating at angles rather than horizontally–shaped similar to an open palm. Similar to cordons or espaliers but smaller, these trees require less maintenance. Pyramids, fans, and palmettes commonly grow to about 5 feet tall on horizontal wires 18 inches and 3 feet above the ground. These forms can be planted 3 ½ to 5 feet apart in rows 7 to 10 feet apart. The plants are usually planted when 3 to 4 years old.

Stepovers are knee-high, single, horizontal cordons bent at right angles close to the ground. These low horizontal trees can be used in small gardens as decorative borders. Stepovers are trained just as cordons only lower.

Size of a pear tree

The size of a pear tree is determined by its rootstock. Pear trees are commonly grafted onto quince or specially developed rootstock. A grafted tree combines a rootstock and a shoot (called scion) taken from a fruiting pear variety. The scion transmits the fruiting qualities of the variety and the rootstock provides vigor and determines the size of the tree. Unlike apple trees, no fully dwarfing rootstocks are available for pears. Pear trees are either standard size (about 20 to 40 feet tall) or semi-dwarf (about 12 to 20 feet tall).

Here are pear rootstocks commonly used:

• Betulaefolia: Rootstock well suited for Asian pears. It can produce large trees in poor soil and is tolerant of both wet and dry conditions.

• Calleryana: Produces a large tree; it is tolerant of wet conditions.

• French Seedling: Rootstock commonly used for Bartlett and Winter Nellis pears. A good general use rootstock.

• Old Home x Farmingdale: Somewhat dwarfing rootstock.

• OHxF Series: Several semi-dwarfing rootstock strains were developed at Oregon State University from Old Home and Farmingdale parents. These strains are disease resistant. The series includes: OHxF40, OHxF513, OHxF87, and OHxF97.

• OHxF333: A semi-dwarfing rootstock; trees will grow from 12 to 20 feet tall or about half to two-thirds normal size. Trees growing on this rootstock may be slightly smaller than other fruits but the yield will be high. Trees growing on this rootstock are resistant to fire blight and other diseases. Stake trees for the first 2 years.

• Quince: There are several strains of this semi-dwarfing quince rootstock used for pears. On this rootstock tree grows to about half of standard size and are very productive. Quince rootstocks begin fruiting earlier than other rootstocks. Not all quince rootstock strains are compatible with all pear scion or fruiting parts.

• Quince A: Trees growing on this rootstock will row 15 to 20 feet tall and can grow in poor soil. Stake these trees for the first 2 years.

Types of pears

European: European pears are commonly sold and eaten during winter time. They come to harvest in late summer and fall and ripen off of the tree after harvest. European pear varieties require at least 600 hours of winter chill (temperatures of 45F/7C or lower) to be productive; the optimal chill time for European pears is 900 hours. Pears are hardy to -20°F/ -29°C. European pears include Anjou, Bartlett, Bosc, Colette, Comice, Flemish Beauty, Magness, Max-Red Bartlett, Moonglow, Seckel, Sure Crop, Winter Bartlett, and Winter Nellis.

Asian: These are round, crisp, and sweet pears that ripen on the tree. They are also called apple pears or salad pears. Asian pear varieties require as few as 400 hours of winter chill. They are a very good choice for warm winter regions, USDA Zones 9 and 10; they do not grow as well in very cold winter regions. Asian pears include Chojuro, Hosui, Korean Giant, Nijisseiki, Seigyoku, Shinseiki, Tsu Li, Ya Li.

Hybrid: Hybrid pears are a cross between European and Asian pears. They have a lower chilling requirement than European varieties. Hybrids are more similar in appearance to European varieties than Asian varieties. Hybrid pears include: Fan Still, Kieffer, Maxine (Starking Delicious), Monterrey, Orient, Pineapple.

Use of pear fruit

How you will use the fruit you harvest is an important question when choosing a pear tree. There are pears for eating fresh out of hand or slicing for salads (dessert pears) and pears for cooking and baking (culinary pears). Asian pears are best eaten within a few days of picking. European pears are commonly stored for a month or two or more before eating. European pears ripen while in storage.

Here are pears that are excellent in their categories:

Eating Fresh and Salad Pears: Bosc, Colette, Comice, Magness, Max-Red Bartlett, Seckel, Seigyoku, Shinseiki, Ya Li.

Cooking Pears: Kieffer, Seckel, and Winter Nellis.

Canning Pears: Colette, Maxine (Starking Delicious).

■Pear flowering and harvest time

Nearly all pears require cross-pollination from a second cultivar or variety that flowers at the same time. The exceptions are Bartlett, Red Bartlett–in dry western regions–and Kieffer and Turnbull. Choose varieties that overlap their flowering time. That means early and late varieties are not likely cross-pollinate. Plant at least two and even three pear trees to ensure pollination.

Early Season Varieties: Aurora, Clapp’s Favorite, Max Red Bartlett, Moonglow, Orient, Packham’s Triumph, Red Clapp (Starkrimson), Tyson.

Early to Midseason Varieties: Bartlett, Flemish Beauty, Moonglow

Midseason Varieties: Bartlett, Conference, Devoe, Douglas, Duchess, Fan Stil, Lincoln, Magness, Max-Red Bartlett, Maxine (Starking Delicious), Monterey, Parker, Pineapple, Seckel, Sensation Red Bartlett (Sensation).

Midseason to Late Season Varieties: Anjou (Beurre d’Anjou), Colette, Seckel, Warren.

Late Varieties: Anjou, Bosc (Beurre Bosc, Golden Russet), Comice (Doyenne du Comice, Royal Riviera), Duchess, Dumont, Gorham, Kieffer, Le Conte, Magness, Maxine (Starking Delicious), Mericourt, Orient, Patten, Seckel, Winter Nellis.

Asian Pear (Apple Pears) Varieties: Asian pears bloom earlier than European pears. They are usually finished flowering before European pears start, however, late blooming Asian pears will pollinate European pears. Asian pears include: Chojuro, Hosui, Kikusui, Korean Giant, Nijisseiki (Twentieth Century), Seigyoku, Shinko, Shinseiki, Sure Crop, Tsu Li, Ya Li (pear shaped).

Northern Hemisphere harvest times

• July harvest: Clapp’s Favorite, Bartlett, Max Red, Shinseiki.

• August harvest: Shenseiki, Ya Li, Moonglow, Seigyoku, Chojuro, Nijisseiki, Fan Stil, Pineapple, Kikusui, Anjou, Seckel, Monterrey.

• September harvest: Anjou, Seckel, Monterrey, Sure Crop, Maxine, Kieffer, Bosc, Winter Nellis, Comice.

• October harvest: Kieffer, Bosc, Winter Nellis, Comice.

Planting and Pruning Pears

Pears grow best in heavy loam soil. Pears will tolerate poor soils and even clay soils but are less productive in very heavy soils. Set trees at the same depth that they grew in nursery or nursery container with the graft above ground level. Prune back the top growth so that it equals the amount of root growth.

If pears are left unpruned they will take longer to bear fruit. Pears send up tall, vertical shoots. They are best pruned to form a tree with 4 to 5 scaffolds around a central or main stem. Scaffold or horizontal branches will produce more fruit and should be encouraged. Remove the tips of scaffold branches to encourage the growth of lateral fruiting branches. Pears produce fruit on short, stubby lateral branches called spurs.