If you’re just planting fruit trees for the first time, also look at the Learn to Grow Fruit Trees page.
Both European and Asian pears are easy to grow in our climate, if you choose disease resistant varieties and carefully match pollination. What do you need to know to get started growing pears?
- The easiest pears to grow are Asian pears; pests and disease pressures are low in our climate, allowing minimal spraying.
- Also easy are European pears; these do need a little more disease and pest management but are still easy in most planting sites.
- The difference between Asian pears and European pears in terms of eating, processing, and storage can help you decide which direction to go. Sometimes the preference for Asian or European pears is personal preference – crispy, juicy Asian pears or buttery sweet European pears. The round, crispy Asian pears ripen on the tree, so it’s easy to tell when they are ripe. European pears must be picked before ripe, so are trickier to harvest. If you like both, careful pollination matching can let you grow trees of both kinds.
Do you have a suitable site for pear trees? Some things to check out before buying trees:
- Drainage – Dig a 16″-deep hole where you want to plant, preferably in winter. If water fills the hole and stands in the hole more than 36 hours, you will need to mound up the planting site. You want to build a 3′-5′ wide mound with 12″-16″ to the water level. Pears are more tolerant of winter wet than many types of fruit trees, but do not like standing water.
- Sunlight – pear trees need a minimum of ¾ of a day (6-8 hours) of good sunlight. If your site is shady before 4pm in mid-summer, it is probably too shady to produce good fruit.
Pear trees are grafted fruit trees. That means a select variety of pear is grafted onto a selected rootstock. The rootstock we use is OHF-87, a selected form of seedling pear that is particularly good for a wide variety of pear cultivars. It is a semi-dwarf rootstock that can be managed as a 8′-12′ freestanding tree and also lends itself to high density or trellis growing and training. This rootstock is more productive that some other pear rootstocks commonly used. Currently, there are no truly dwarfing pear rootstocks available that are both winter hardy and compatible with a wide range of pear varieties.
Tree Spacing – pears on OHF-87 can be as close as 7′-9”, but if you have room to space the trees 10′-15′ apart, you will have more room to work around the trees as they mature.
Pollination – All fruit trees need to have pollen moved to the anthers of their flowers by a pollinating insect for that flower to become a fruit. Most pear trees are self-sterile, and need a second variety nearby to provide pollen to set fruit.
Side note: There is one reliably self fertile European pear, Bartlett. Why don’t we carry Bartlett? Because it is so disease prone that it is difficult to grow well without a good spray program.
Below is a chart of pear pollination compatibility. Choose varieties in the same column or adjacent columns for bloom time overlap. For instance, if you want both Asian pears (AP) and European pears (EP), the Asian pears in the Very Early column will overlap in bloom with Doyenne de Juliette. Kosui Asian Pear will overlap with Armida, Conference and Hortensia.
Doyenne de Juliette EP
Abbe Fetel EP
|Buerre Bosc EP|
What to look for in purchasing a tree?
- Bud union of the graft where the variety of pear is joined to the rootstock should be firm and clean. This is usually noticeable as a bump or crook near the base of the trunk. Below the crook is rootstock and above the crook is the wood of the pear variety.
- The tree is tagged with variety and rootstock.
Planting Requirements: Are you ready to take care of your trees? If you’re bringing home bare-root trees, you want to be able to plant right away.
- You can plant if your soil isn’t too wet to work and you can dig holes directly.
- Mound the soil if needed to keep roots above the winter high water table.
- For bare-root trees:
- When planting, be sure to keep the graft union 2″-4″ above the soil line.
- Prune off broken roots, spread out over soil mound built in the bottom of the hole.
- For potted trees:
- Water the pot so the soil in the pot is moist.
- Remove the pot and use your fingers or a garden claw to rough up the roots. During the dormant season, you can wash some of the potting soil off the roots before planting.
- Plant the tree the same depth it was in the pot. Be sure not to bury the graft!
- For either bare-root or potted trees:
- Water trees in to settle the soil after planting.
- Have a plan for watering during the summer:
- Young trees need consistent soil moisture during their establishment.
- During the summer, check the soil often to make sure it is moist to a depth of 6”-8”. How do you check? 24 hours after watering, dig a 6″-8″ deep hole near the tree and check for dampness. If the soil is not moist to that depth, your tree needs more water.
- Plan to stake your trees at planting – even semi-dwarf trees need staking the first year. We live in a windy area. New trees do not yet have big enough root systems to stand up to strong winds. Dwarf and mini-dwarf trees should be planted with a permanent stake or trellis support. Use a round stake and stretchable material for tying to minimize bark damage.
Year 1 Post Planting
- Keep soil moist and keep a weed-free area 3’-4’ in diameter. Weeds compete for moisture and provide cover for field mice, which can stunt or potentially kill young trees by nibbling bark and roots.
- Insects and disease – watch for scab, leaf rollers, aphids, pear slug. Most diseases aren’t hard to manage in the first 2 years (see Disease and Pest Management section below).
- If new growth shoots (terminal shoots) stop growing by early summer, it is usually one of two things: not enough water or deficient nutrients. Lime and compost additions in years 1 and 2 can help.
- Remove all but 2-4 fruits the first year. This helps put the tree’s energy into growing wood and roots.
- Prune pears (section below) in the dormant season (best timing is late January to early April before leaves come out).
- New growth – if shoots grow less than ~18” average per year, the tree might be lacking water and/or nutrients.
- Keep 3′-4′ area weed-free around trees first 7-8 years.
- Water – trees will need 1” of water per week in the growing season in average soil, either from rainfall or irrigation. Heavier soils may need less water, sandy soils more water.
- Check the soil moisture level to make sure you are watering enough: 24 hours after watering, dig 6”-8” down and make sure soil is moist.
- Train new shoots in late summer (details in the pruning principles section).
- Fruit – leave up to 6 fruit close to the trunk, remove all at ends of branches. How do you know if you’ve left too much fruit?
- Tree does not grow 12”-18” per shoot;
- Fruit stays small;
- Branches bend or break under fruit weight.
To understand the needs of fruit trees, it is necessary to understand our climate patterns and our soils in Western Washington. The maritime Pacific Northwest is known for being rainy, but most of our rain falls between October and June. Our summers are typically dry. Our soils also tend to be high in organic matter. High organic matter combined with a rainy environment can cause our local soils to be acidic, with pH ranges below 6.0. Have your soil tested to determine both pH and nutrient availability. If you are planting your trees into imported (manufactured) soil, ask the company if they have a soil test that will provide you information on pH and nutrient values of the mix.
Ideally, a range of 6.0 to 7.5 is optimal for orchards. In general, the availability of micronutrients is lower in alkaline (high pH) soils. Nutrients such as iron and zinc may not be in a form available to plants. In contrast, phosphorus may become limiting in acid soils. Also, in acid soils, aluminum can become available, which is not a nutrient and is toxic to plants in high concentrations. At pH 6 and higher, very little aluminum is in solution.
Additionally, soil pH affects the abundance of microorganisms. Bacteria are generally more prevalent in alkaline soils and fungi dominate in acidic soils. This is important because microbes are responsible for the cycling of nutrients. The most diverse and numerous populations are found in near-neutral soils. Furthermore, soil pH influences pathogenic microbes, and growers can adjust pH to manage some plant diseases.
Low pH soils (5 and lower) can result in:
- calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) deficiencies;
- restricted root growth or regeneration due to aluminum (Al) toxicity;
- reduced availability of Phosphorus (P);
- reduced efficiency of Nitrogen (N) and Potassium (K) use and poor response to N and K fertilizers.
Acidic soils may be neutralized over time with the application of lime. The amount of lime needed to bring the pH to nearly neutral is dependent upon the buffering capacity of the soil and how much the pH needs to be adjusted. The higher the amount of clay and organic matter, the higher the buffering capacity and more lime needed. There are many sources of lime available. Dolomite lime also contains magnesium as well as calcium but is slower acting than agricultural lime (calcium carbonate). This all sounds complicated, but the takeaway message is that applying lime annually to your orchard in the fall will help your fruit trees thrive.
Young trees (first 3 years) can benefit from added fertilizers (unless your soil tests high in nutrients). Nitrogen (N) stimulates vegetative growth, but too much can lead to excessive, weak growth. Phosphorus (P) encourages root growth. Potassium (K) helps flower buds form, and in bearing trees can help produce higher quality fruit.
Use a fertilizer formulated for woody plants or fruit trees. Conventional fertilizers for fruit trees usually have a formulation with lower nitrogen and higher phosphorus and potassium ratios. For many years, we have had a local farm company blend a conventional fertilizer formulated for local soils, with NPK values of 8-18-18. This fertilizer also has micronutrients incorporated (zinc, boron, manganese). There are other good fertilizers out there, including organic fertilizers. There is a chicken manure fertilizer, Nutri-rich 4-3-2, that has added calcium, and has proven to be locally a good all-purpose fertilizer for both young fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
Apply conventional fertilizers in spring just as new growth starts, usually mid-March. A second application can happen in late May, and a third in early July (the ‘holiday’ method of remembering: fertilize on St. Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, and 4th of July). Organic fertilizers break down more slowly than conventional ones, so one application in early March followed by one in early June is usually adequate. Follow the directions on the package to calculate how much to apply. When in doubt, always apply less than you think you need rather than more – you can damage your tree by applying too much!
Young fruit trees cannot tolerate drought. Even established trees need summer moisture to produce quality fruit. Because we cannot count on summer rain, growing fruit trees means watering. How much should you water? There is no easy answer, as it will depend on your soil. Sandy soil will hold less water than silt or clay-rich soils, so may need more frequent watering. Moisture retentive soils high in clay will need less frequent watering in general.
Technical Alert! An interesting tool to explore is the Web Soil Survey. This online tool maps soils and provides data about those soils. You can enter your address and find out about your native soils, including the water storage capacity of the soil (in the top 60 inches of soil). This is a measurement of how much plant-available water the soil can store between soaking rainfalls. For instance, just north of Bellingham is an area of silt loams, including the Whatcom-LaBounty silt loams and Yelm silt loams. These soils have a water storage capacity of 12.7-16 inches (when the soil depth is 60 inches or more). These soils theoretically can provide plants with up to 16 inches of water during dry periods (in reality, not all of that water is available). If you use the ‘plants need 1 inch of water per week’ rule of thumb, the Yelm silt loam theoretically has a potential of unirrigated plant support for 12-16 weeks. In contrast, part of the main Cloud Mountain Farm is made up of Kline sandy-gravelly loam, with a water storage capacity of 3.4 inches. Fruit trees planted here need irrigation in summer to thrive.
So, how can you tell if your soil has enough moisture beyond the theoretical? If it has been rainless for a week or more, dig a hole to check soil moisture. The soil around your fruit trees should be damp to a depth of 6”-8”. If you’ve recently watered, wait 24 hours, then dig the test hole. If your soil is not damp, your tree needs more water. After a few times, you should begin to get a sense of how much you need to water to get the soil damp to that dept.
Pruning and Training Pears
Unlike apples, which can be very productive and easy to manage as a central leader tree, pears are better grown as an open center or vase shaped tree. For pears, semi-dwarf rootstocks result in a tree that can grow into a size and form of 15′ or more if grown as a central leader, which is too tall and difficult for most people to manage. An open center tree form can keep your trees under 12′ in height, and is very productive. Open center training enables you to develop 3 to 4 leaders that will spread all the vigor out over numerous primary branches verses one central leader. The growth habit of pear trees lends itself to this system because their growth is so upright.
If you are planting an unbranched whip the first year, make a pruning cut about 4″ above where you want the branches to begin. The lower you make this cut, the shorter your tree will be. Don’t forget you have to manage the area under the tree. Keeping that area weed-free for the first 4-5 years will maximize the tree’s development.
If you start with a branched tree, choose 3-4 branches, and cut off these shoots to no more than 12″ above the point of origin, keeping the branch tips close to the same height. The objective in this first year is to stiffen up the part of this branch you are keeping. These 3 or 4 branches now become your principal leaders. Spread these branches apart slightly if they are not growing out away from each other. These multiple leaders will grow straight and tall if your trees have good vigor. Have a bamboo pole 1″ x 9′ or 2″x 2″ stake pushed into the ground and use one pole per leader for the first few years to train them straight. Tie the poles together and then tie the new growth from the respective leaders to these poles. Use a stretchy material for tying. Train the growing branches up and keep the new shoots tied to these stakes. Have your training poles all leaning 5-10% off the vertical and this will safely open up the canopy for proper development in future years. Pears have a very upright form; do not try to spread the branches too wide, but keep working with that upright nature.
Don’t prune those leaders back! Keep them tied up and straight because they will become your main permanent leaders. By the end of this second year all of those main leaders will have developed several weak wide angled feathers (small branches) up the trunk and very little of the chaotic upright suckers that are created by pruning into one-year-old wood. Leave these weak lateral branches unpruned going into the second year. You will also see your main scaffold branches full of flower buds.
If the tree has any strong uprights cut them out at their base in the dormant season. If you leave the one-year old wood unpruned (like with apples) you will end up with a good crop of pears 1 year earlier with less work. Manage your crop on those upright leaders carefully. Don’t leave any fruit in the tops of those leaders. You don’t want to break your main upright leaders.
You will sometimes cut into 1st-year wood on European pears. Weaker shoots should be left uncut if at all possible. Stronger shoots often need to be pruned to keep the branch growing at the correct angle. This cut is a trade-off because it delays fruiting a year. However, getting the branch angle right makes a huge difference.
Saving the weaker shoots and bending them away from the vertical will give you lots of spurs. Leave erect shoots missed from the year before if they have formed fruiting spurs at dormant pruning.
Pears have strong apical dominance. You must leave a small number of upright shoots to absorb this upright tendency. Don’t leave the largest and most vigorous shoots. Leave moderate to weak upright shoots.
The more vigor the tree has, the more shoots you should leave. General recommendation is at least 1 shoot per branch. The bigger the branch, the more shoots. One shoot every 3′-4′ is usually enough.
Pears are heavier than apples. Varieties like Orcas and Comice can and will produce 2 lb. fruits that can break branches and spurs off the trees. Prop the branches to keep them from breaking.
Asian pears are managed very much like European pears. They can bloom on one-year wood as well as older wood. They can bear profuse crops of fruit every year. Because you can cut into one-year wood on Asian pears, you can thin by pruning to some degree.
The wood of Asian pears is typically brittle and thin, so you have to be careful as you train your tree. The four pruning concepts apply here: caliper, angle of branch, height of branch, and thickness of branch. These trees have very upright shoots like their European cousins and need to be dealt with every year. Because they fruit on new wood they have to be tipped to strengthen the shoot. Make sure you keep the side shoots short and balanced on both sides of the main shoot/branch. Asian pears are famous for pushing all their shoot growth to one side of the branch. This is a problem because the fruit weight will twist the branch to one side and put those side branches at the bottom of the branch where they won’t get any sun and need to be cut off.
Stubbing your main lower sets of branches every year will help reduce this twisting problem. Also if you want the leader of any branch to continue growing out from the trunk you must keep the fruit off all of the one-year wood and maybe even thin back to the two-year-old wood.
Like apples, pears can have too many fruits set during bloom. If you leave all of that fruit to grow, at harvest those fruits will be small and poor quality. Too big of a crop one year can also mean a very light crop the following year. To avoid this, thin the fruit as it starts to grow. Leave the 1-2 biggest and best pears in the cluster, removing all the rest of the fruit. Take all the fruit off the ends of the branches or near the tips where the weight could bend or break the branch.
Some varieties tend to have small fruit. Nijiseiki and Shinseiki Asian pears need to have their fruit clusters thinned to one fruit per cluster and the remaining fruit spaced along the branch so they are 4″-6″ apart. By thinning this much, the remaining fruit will grow to a good size. Without thinning, these fruits would be quite small.
Conversely, Orcas and Comice European pear and Misharasu Asian pear tend to have very large fruit. For these varieties, leaving more than one fruit per cluster can be fine, keeping the fruit size to large rather than enormous.
Visit our Disease and Pest Management for the Home Orchard page for tips on managing all fruit tree varieties.
Pest and Disease Management
Fruit trees need some management for pests and diseases to thrive. To minimize what you will need to do to keep your pear trees healthy:
- Choose disease-resistant pear varieties when possible.
- Monitoring your orchard for bud and blossom stages is the key to good dormant spray (proactive) timing.
- Monitoring your orchard for problems as they arise is key to good pest management.
- Know why you are spraying! Some sprays recommended here are proactive – working to prevent common problems through maintenance. Beyond general maintenance (dormant) spraying, never spray without identifying the problem.
- When mixing spray solutions, always mix less than you think you will need, as disposal of the leftovers is difficult. Try first spraying water only on your orchard to see how much will give you good coverage.
- Always follow the directions on the container. If the label is missing or unreadable, contact the company for directions (most pesticide labels are available online).
- Many insect pests have natural controls in the form of beneficial insects. Avoid using broad-spectrum insecticides if possible. If they are necessary, spray at dawn or dusk to limit the impact on bees and other beneficial insects.
Using bud stages to time sprays
Observing the bud development stages of fruit trees from dormant to full bloom is the key to proactive disease and pest management. Timing your sprays to bud stage allows you to spray less and get better control. Following the bud stage chart, we have suggestions for specific timings of disease controls. Most organic disease control sprays are prophylactic (the spray must be on the tree before the fungal or bacterial infections occur).
First 2 years after planting: When first green shows in buds, (stage 2-3) apply copper sulfate or fixed copper, or copper soap to prevent pseudomonas (bacterial dieback) infection. Asian pears are most susceptible.
Between stages 4-6 apply a delayed dormant spray of micronized sulfur and horticultural oil. This spray helps the trees by smothering eggs and crawlers of aphids, mites, leafrollers, and scale insects. It can also help control pear leaf blister mite.
Between stages 6-7 apply a spray of micronized sulfur (no oil) to prevent pear scab. This spray is not necessary for varieties resistant to these diseases. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt.) can be added to this spray to help control leafroller. Bt. can also be applied separately or mixed with insecticidal soap to control leafrollers and cutworm at this time.
At petal fall, apply a second scab spray, using micronized sulfur (no oil). Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt.) can be added to this spray to help control leafroller. Bt. can also be applied separately or mixed with insecticidal soap to control leafrollers and cutworms at this time. If the weather remains warm and wet after petal fall, you may need to apply a 3rd spray if your varieties are very susceptible to pear scab.
Monitor for pear slug (actually a sawfly larvae). Handpick small numbers. Spray larger infestations with insecticidal soap, neem oil, or dust with diatomaceous earth. Monitor for pear trellis rust on pear trees – pick and destroy leaves with orange spotting. If possible remove junipers from area (alternate host for pear trellis rust).
If blister mite has been observed, spray lime-sulfur, micronized sulfur, or sulfur-plus horticultural oil just after leaf drop, thoroughly covering all buds and bark. Spray again in spring at bud break. Rake up and destroy fallen leaves and fruit. If codling moth or apple maggot has been a problem (rare but possible in pears), do not compost but discard the fruit. Fruit trees prefer a soil pH of 6.8-7. At this pH, the trees can make use of the nutrients available in the soil. Our native soils are typically acidic at 5.5 or below. If a pH test of your soil shows acid conditions, apply lime in the fall. In addition to raising the soil pH, lime will supply calcium to the trees, important for good fruit quality, and also help fallen foliage decay. Some studies show liming in the fall can lessen scab spores the following spring.
Harvesting European Pears at the right time can be tricky. So many people tell us, “Our pears always rot at the core, it must be a poor variety.” More likely, they are picking their pears too late. European Pears ripen from the inside out. If the flesh under the skin is ripe, the flesh near the core will be very overripe. Left too long on the tree, they will begin to rot at the core. Picked too green and they don’t develop their full flavor. There is an easy way to tell when they are ripe: when they
pick easily! By that, we mean that when you lift a pear, and it breaks cleanly at the stem, it is ripe, and the whole tree should be picked. If you find a fallen pear, that is a good signal to check for ripeness. Even though the pear is hard, if you taste it, it will be sweet.
Unlike European Pears, Asian Pears are ripened on the tree. They will not continue to ripen off the tree! Pick your Asian Pears when the taste and texture are what you like. The most important issue with Asian Pears is that they have thin, tender skins, and any bruising will shorten their storage capability. Handle the ones you want to store very carefully. This is why you see them in the markets in little foam nets.
You should choose your best fruit for storage. A damaged pear could rot in storage and spoil the whole box. Pears like it a little warmer than apples, and store best at 38°-40°F. Late ripening European pears such as Bosc and Comice will ripen only slowly in cold storage and should be brought to room temperature a few days or even a week ahead of use. Asian pears that have no nicks or bruising can be stored in refrigeration for up to 6 weeks. Check them frequently for spoilage.