How to Grow Pears

We love pears. They’re a much maligned type of fruit, probably because it’s so hard to buy good, ripe pears, but we reckon they’re a top tree in the garden, and pretty easy to grow organically. Here’s our top 10 reasons why you need a pear tree in your garden:

Reason 1: There are at least 15 varieties of pears and nashis easily available, which ripen from mid January right through until early April. This means they can help to extend the fresh fruit season in your garden.

Reason 2: Pears don’t get too many bugs or diseases. The four most common problems experienced by pears are:

  • Black spot, a common fungal disease that is worse in wet years, but very preventable with organic fungicides applied at the right time
black spot pears
Black spot damage on pears
  • squashed-pear-slug-213x380
    squashing a Pear and cherry slug

    Pear and cherry slug can be a nuisance some years, and if left uncontrolled can severely damage or kill a young tree (but they’re also easy to control on young trees). On mature trees they can make the tree look ugly, but don’t affect the fruit and don’t do too much harm really. They have quite a few predators, and numbers tend to self-regulate as long as you’re not killing the good bugs with indiscriminate pesticide use.

  • pear leaf blister mite1
    Pear leaf blister mite damage

    Pear blister mite. Harder to control because the mites live inside the leaves, but again, they don’t really do too much damage, though they can make the tree look ugly if you’ve got a bad case. Doesn’t affect the fruit.

  • Birds! Like every other fruit tree you grow, if you want to pick fruit, you need to net them to prevent bird damage.

Reason 3: They’re easy to prune. Most pear varieties are ‘spur-bearers’, which means they produce fruit on 2 year old wood (and older), in the form of short fruit-bearing shoots known as spurs. Some varieties (e.g. Josephines) produce fruit on the end of longer shoots, and they are known as ‘tip-bearers’.  Once you’ve figured out which type you have, you’re half way to knowing how to prune them! The difference really is in how you treat the laterals – in spur-bearing varieties, they should be shortened back by about 1/3 to encourage the development of new side shoots and spurs. In tip-bearing varieties, it’s important not to shorten the laterals, because that’s where the fruit grows.

pear in hand
A perfect pear

Reason 4: Most pears don’t need to be ripened on the tree. In fact, unlike other deciduous fruit, most pear varieties (except some of the early season ones) won’t ripen properly on the tree, but need cold storage for 2–6 weeks, followed by a period of ripening out of the fridge. Pears ripen from the inside, and ripening them on the tree leads to both poor texture—either grainy or mushy—as well as poor keeping qualities. How long do you need to leave them in the fridge before you ripen them on the bench? It’s a bit different for each variety, but here’s some guidelines for the more common varieties:

  1. Beurre Bosc – don’t need cold storage
  2. Packham’s Triumph – need 1 month
  3. Winter Nelis – need 1 month
  4. D’Anjou – need 2 months

Reason 5: Pears can tolerate quite boggy ground, and in fact will often thrive in conditions that would make other fruit trees sulk (or worse – die!) This makes them a handy tree to pop in those difficult, hard-to-drain spots in the garden.

Reason 6: It’s easy to grow your own pear trees. Gather seed in autumn, store it in damp sand over winter and plant out in spring. Most of the seed will grow, so choose the biggest and strongest seedlings and discard the rest. Now you have your rootstocks. In late summer, you can graft a bud of your desired variety onto the rootstock (a technique called ‘budding’). In spring cut back to the bud, and over summer it should grow and form your new tree. Voila! The following winter you’ll have a brand new pear tree to plant in your garden – for free!

Reason 7: It’s easy to grow your own dwarf pear trees! Follow the same process as above, but use quince seed instead of pear to grow your rootstock. Then when you graft your pear variety onto the rootstock it will grow into a much smaller tree – very handy for short gardeners (or if you’re trying to squish a lot of fruit trees into a small space!).

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Frost ring on small pear.

Reason 8: Pears are relatively frost-hardy – not completely, but because they flower so late they are much less likely to succumb to the spring frosts that can be so devastating to apricots and stone fruit, which makes them the best choice for the frosty spots in your garden. Having said that if a really heavy frost is forecast while they’re flowering they may still benefit from throwing some frost cloth (or even an old sheet) over them to prevent this sort of damage.

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Pear trees have stunning white blossom

Reason 9: They are beautiful trees which look great all year, with their stunning white flowers in spring, their large, dark green glossy leaves in summer and a beautiful display of colour in autumn.

Reason 10: Pears are delicious, and once properly ripened are not only great to eat fresh, but lend themselves to a multitude of preserving techniques – bottled, spiced, chutney, dried and pickled, to name a few!

So, that’s we love pears: they’re beautiful, they’re delicious and they’re easy to grow!

growth-pear-tree

What should my fruit trees look like in spring?

As new fruit growers get to know their fruit trees, they’re often unsure what’s ‘normal’ in the different seasons – that was certainly the case for us as we learned our trade! Gradually we’ve learned by experience what to look for at different seasons to tell us what’s going on in the trees and the soil, so we know whether we’re on the right track. This year, it looks like we are!

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This heritage Goldmine nectarine is showing excellent growth in early spring.

We’re pretty happy with how all our orchards are looking at the moment. Our farm was pretty knocked about by the drought (like so many others) and the flood that followed, which led to a number of disease issues and even some tree deaths.

But this year the orchards are looking vital and healthy, and any trees that have experienced problems in the last couple of years are recovering well.

Most trees have a good crop, and even better, have put out good spring growth, which is one the main signs we look for to tell us that the tree is happy and the soil is doing its job.

What to look for

If you’re looking at your fruit tree and wondering if it’s looking the way it should, firstly look at the leaves – they should be big, a bright green colour (though the growing tips will often be orange, red or pink), and nice and shiny, like the healthy looking leaves on this plum tree.plum-leaves-healthy

This early in the season there shouldn’t been too many holes or blemishes on the leaves (though they often accumulate a lot of damage by the end of summer) and they should be looking pretty sparkly.

Depending on where you live, the flowering will have finished on most fruit trees, and you should be able to see small fruit forming, like this Bramley apple tree.

bramley-flower-apple

The other main thing to look for early in spring is whether any of the leaf buds are starting to extend into new shoots. The ability of the tree to grow this new wood each year is key to the ongoing health of the tree. Here’s a few examples of new shoots on different types of fruit trees:

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New shoot on peach tree
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The numerous orange growing tips on this healthy young plum tree show how healthy it is.
growth-pear-tree
A vigorous 30cm new shoot on a pear tree.

Crop load

Mid to late spring is also the time when you start to get an idea of how much fruit your trees will bear this year (we call this the ‘crop load’). Here’s how our trees are looking at the moment.

Apples

Most varieties have set a good crop, the only exception being Golden Delicious. Gala are quite light, but will still pick a lot more than last year. Gravensteins, Bramley, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Snow, Fuji, Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Jonathon all look good. Having lost most of the apples and pears to birds the last two years, the key to our success this year will be to get our newly acquired netting out over the trees and secured nice and early in the season.

Apricots

Most varieties have a medium to heavy crop, though Castlebrite were very light in one block (see below). In the house block where we have two rows of most vareities, our pruning strategy last year was to cut one row back hard to start bringing the height down. As we expected, the row that was pruned hard has much less fruit on it (through a combination of losing fruit buds to the hard pruning, and shocking the trees into growth as opposed to fruit production). However we’re happy to see that the heavily pruned trees are responding well with growth throughout the tree, not just at the tops of the trees.

Pears

Nearly every variety has set a good crop, though both Josephines and Nashi are on the light side. Trees have responded really well to the harsh pruning we gave them this winter, putting out a lot of their new growth nice and low in the tree where we want it, rather than up high where it prevents us netting the trees!

Peaches and nectarines

Our new orchard (planted in 2010) will pick a healthy crop this year, which means all of the 18 varieties of peaches, and 7 varieties of nectarines we grow should be well represented at markets. Several of these (for example Wiggins, Peacherine, Stark Earliglo and Redhaven)  haven’t yet yielded a marketable crop from these 3 or 4 year old trees, so we’re really looking forward to getting to know them.

Plums

Nearly every variety of plum has a good crop this year, the only exception being the European plums (President and Angelina) in the Plum Block. Luckily the Angelina trees in another orchard have set heavily, so we’ll still have plenty to sell over summer. We’re particularly happy to see most of the trees in the Plum Block, which are carrying phytophthora as well as other fungal diseases, are growing really well, and have large, shiny green leaves. Again, this is a really good indication to us that the soil is doing what it should, and has an active soil microbe network that is providing the right conditions for the tree to grow well. We’re also happy to see varieties like Amber Jewel, Satsuma and Ruby Blood all carrying strong crops, as each of these varieties has been a shy-bearer over the last couple of years.

Cherries

Our only disaster so far this year (we’d be completely shocked if there wasn’t one!) is the massive losses in the 90 cherry trees we planted in the new cherry block. We planted the bulk of the block last year, and most trees are growing well, but about two thirds of the the three new rows we planted this year have died. Having ruled out all the obvious things like the trees getting too dry, a problem in the soil, rootstocks, the trees drying out when planted etc etc, we’ve narrowed it down to a dodgy smelling fish emulsion we added to the dipping water we used to innoculate the roots of the trees when we planted them. It’s a pity we can’t prove this theory one way or the other, it’s much easier to learn from our mistakes when we can categorically establish what the mistake was!

Pests and diseases

Some of the main pests and diseases might already have made their presence felt. Here’s a few things we’ve noticed…

Aphids

We’ve seen a minor aphid outbreak in the peaches – really just a few odd limbs here and there, not enough to cause much damage, and just enough to attract the many predators that will clear this pest up for us.

aphids and predators
aphids and predators

Phytophthora

This root rot disease took hold in a lot of our peach and nectarine trees after the flood, and we lost many trees and a lot of limbs. This winter we pruned out all the dead wood, and we’re happy to see most trees that have shown sypmptoms in the past have started the season well and are putting on new growth – an excellent sign that the ‘good’ fungi in the soil are thriving and outcompeting the phytophthora.  We’ve still had a little dieback, and some trees are so badly damaged that even though they’re trying valiantly to recover, we may have to pull them out and start again in that spot with a different type of tree.

Earwigs

There’s already quite a bit of earwig damage in the nectarines, which led to a rapid change of plan to temporarily abandon the thinning and scramble to get all the banding of the trees finished to keep the earwigs out of the trees. They’re an easy pest to prevent, as long as the banding is done early enough before they’ve already taken up residence. Next year we’ll be changing our routine to get the banding done much earlier, before we even start thinning. We’ve also made a modification this year to do the banding much higher in the tree, of individual limbs rather than around the trunk. This will help to prevent earwigs getting at the fruit by using the grass to bypass the tape.

Blossom blight

The House block experienced moderate blossom blight in some varieties this year, despite looking early in the season as if there was none! Rainy conditions at the wrong time led to this minor outbreak, which reduced the size of the crop in the Castlebrite. Luckily our other main apricot orchard had almost no blossom blight (thank heavens yet again for microclimates!!), and between the two orchards we have a good crop of every variety including Castlebrite.

So there you have it, the 2014/15 season spring update! Hope your fruit trees are bringing you lots of joy.

Hands up – who loves Bramley apples?

Here’s a wild guess – if you’ve got your hand up because you love a Bramley, you’re either from the UK, or have close links to someone from the UK. Are we right?

Or maybe, you’re from somewhere else altogether, and you’ve learnt to love Bramleys for their own sake. Either way, Bramley apples have a large – and very dedicated – following!

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A Bramley tree in blossom

Properly called a Bramley’s Seedling, they are definitely one of the most popular apples with Brits – they just go mad for them! It’s the variety we get the most inquiries about, presumably because they’re been a relatively common apple in England for a very long time. (And yes, we do grow them, but if you want to buy the fruit, you need to get your order in very early, because every single apple is usually pre-ordered before we even pick them!)

Bramley apple big and green
Bramleys are very big, and very green!

But what makes the Bramley so special?

To Aussies like us, brought up thinking that Granny Smith was the ultimate cooking apple, it was hard to see what all the fuss is about.

But we have to admit, now that we’ve grown them for about 8 years, and have got into the habit of using them as a cooker, we can definitely see the attraction.

Bramleys have a most romantic history. The mother of all Bramley trees was planted as a seed by a woman called Mary Ann Brailsford in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, at the start of the nineteenth century – which gives these apples a fairly impressive pedigree, and the right to be called a ‘heritage’ apple (though they still don’t compete with Snow apples, which are known to have originated in France in the 1600’s).

Anyway, the name Bramley came from the man that inherited that first tree, which according to The Apple Source Book, is still alive today, and despite having fallen over numerous times in the last 200 years, can still pick up to a ton of fruit each year!

Due to the magic of grafting, all the Bramley trees in the world come from this original tree (or a graft from a graft from a graft…but that’s a story for another time. If you want to know more about grafting, have a look at our “Grow Your Own Fruit Trees” workshop).

Bramleys are as easy to grow as any other apple, one of their main features being that they are a triploid, which means they need to planted with two pollinators.

Bramley blossom
Bramley blossom at the ‘pink’ stage, about to burst into flower. Bramleys usually reach this stage at the beginning of October (this photo was taken on October 3).

Triploid varieties produce sterile pollen, which won’t pollinate other varieties. Triploids are therefore usually planted with two other varieties that flower at the same time, which then fertilise each other as well as the triploid.

Other triploid varieties include Mutsu, Gravenstein, Blenheim Orange, Jonagold, Ribston Pippin, Newtown Pippin, Roxbury Russet and Winesap.

Despite this disadvantage, triploids have several advantages over diploid (the more common type of apple), including producing large vigorous trees, large fruit, having good natural disease resistance, and being quite resilient in difficult conditions.

That’s why Bramley apples have adapted so well to Australian conditions (at least they have at our place!)

Because we’re certified organic and don’t use any pesticides or chemicals, we try to plant varieties that have higher natural resistance to pests and diseases, and the Bramley grows a strong healthy tree that’s quite resistant to black spot (apple scab).

If you’re planning to plant a Bramley, other varieties that flower at about the same time (and can therefore be used as a pollinator) include Gravenstein, Gala, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Golden Delicious, Fuji and Jonathon.

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Bramley apples have arguably the prettiest blossom out of all the apples, with bright pink buds and delicate pink tinted flowers.

The Bramley is a large irregular shaped apple. They start out sort of reddish, as you can see in the photo below.

You need to thin your crop every year (which means taking some of the fruit off when it’s tiny), because Bramleys really grow quite huge, and need a lot of room to grow. If you leave them to grow in bunches they can push each other off the branch, or end up smaller than they would otherwise. Pests also love to hide in the spaces between bunches of apples, so it’s much better to leave them hanging singly. We normally do our apple thinning in November, and try to get it all finished by the middle of December.

Thinned Bramley
A Bramley tree just after thinning, showing the remaining crop nicely spaced out, leaving enough room for them to grow to a decent size.

When ripe, Bramleys have a greenish yellow skin with a red flush and stripes. The flesh is firm and yellowish, and is very acid, one of the characteristics that makes it prized as a cooking apple. The other is the fact that when cooked, Bramleys collapse into a mush of delicious apple-ness, making them perfect for fluffy apple pies.

Like all fruit trees, it’s a good idea to protect the crop from the birds and any other predators that might like to have a munch on them (for us that’s kangaroos, but luckily they are easily deterred by nets). If you’re going to net your Bramley tree, put the nets on just after thinning, and leave them in place until you pick.

Bramley under net
It’s easy to protect your apples from birds with some drape netting.

Though Bramleys are famous for being a very tart apple, they will keep getting sweeter if you leave them on the tree after they’re ripe. They’ll gradually go a bit more yellow, and get a redder stripe on the skin, and can even end up ripe enough to eat raw – as long as you like your eating apples pretty sharp!

Bramley

At this time of year, we get a lot of inquiries about whether we sell Bramley trees. Yes you can buy fruit trees from us each year, but unfortunately there are no Bramley trees on the list this year. Sorry.

But the good news is we’re just about to start growing some in our tree nursery, so we’ll have them for sale…not next winter, it takes longer than that to grow them from scratch, but the winter after, definitely (well, as definite as anything ever is in farming!).

The easiest way to find out when we’ll have Bramley trees for sale is to subscribe to our free newsletter, and then you’ll find out when they’re ready – easy!