Pears: A Beautiful Choice For Your Garden November 26, 2015

your-gardenWhile gardening is generally considered a peaceful pursuit, I can attest with certainty this is not always the case. One day not too long ago, I was out in the orchard innocently mowing the lawn when suddenly from above there occurred a flash of movement and a wild rush of air, immediately followed by a loud thwack and an excruciating pain on the top of my head. The blow dropped me to my knees, stars swimming before my eyes. I felt my scalp: no blood, but a large lump was already forming. What had caused this malicious misadventure? Had a rock flown up from under the
mower? Was some wicked child playing with a slingshot? Dazed and puzzled, I looked around. Then I spied the culprit: There, sitting innocuously on the grass as though attending a picnic, rested one of the fattest, heaviest pears I had ever laid eyes on, now bearing a rather large indentation that marked the inception of our mutual acquaintance. After five years of waiting, here was my very first pear– and even if it had arrived in a spectacula rly painful fashion, it was worth every ounce of discomfort.

Now, if you wonder why I would be willing to wait five years only to be grateful for being grazed by an autumn fruit, you obviously have not discovered the utter delight of growing your own pears. And that’s really not surprising, given the appeal (or lack thereof) of the stone-like objects that generally masquerade under the name “pears” in the supermarket. There you will find rows of rock-hard green and brown blobs that slowly ripen into mealy, mediocre mouthfuls. How this juicy, fragrant fruit came to be so abused and neglected is a fascinating story.

Cultivated since before the time of the Greeks, the common pear, Pyrus communis, was carried into Northern Europe by the Romans. Pears crossbreed quite easily, and two groups were already known and named by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder: the “proud” pears, so called because they ripened early and wouldn’t deign to be kept; and the “winter” pears, which were used for cooking and baking.

It was nor until the 18th century that the tender, luscious pear familiar to today’s home gardeners was developed. For that delicacy, and many others, we owe the French and the Belgians, who were (and still are), quite simply, crazy about pears. At the time, pears were considered the quintessential dessert for the autumn and early-winter table. The names of some of these exquisite varieties still bear witness to this flurry of Gallic breeding: ‘Beurre Bosc’, ‘Doyenne du Comice’, ‘Rousselette de Rhiems’, and ‘Belle Angevine’. Hundreds of new varieties were produced, and the pear seemed poised to finally overtake its age-old rival, the apple, as the king of fruits.

Pears arrived on American shores with the Colonists and, with the discovery of each new European variety,
were more and more enthusiastically received. As large orchards were established in areas congenial to its habit, especially in New England, the pear’s future seemed bright in the New World. Then disaster struck: Indigenous to North American forests was an until-then-unknown bacterium nowadays commonly called fire-blight (Erwinia amylovora), which proved deadly to this defenseless European import. Fire blight didn’t just weaken or maim the
pear: It attacked and killed entire trees- roots, trunk, limbs, flowers, fruit, and leaves were left a blackened mass of withered foliage. Sometimes it took only a matter of weeks to destroy an established specimen. To make matters worse, the occurrence of fire blight was also erratic, lulling growers into a disastrous sense of false security: Decades would pass without a major outbreak, and then rapid and total obliteration. There was, and still is, no known cure: The best that could be hoped for was that in cutting off the infected branch or portion of the tree early enough, the rest could be spared. While this treatment might be successful on a limited domestic scale, for commercial orchards it proved nigh on impossible, and entire stands of pears were often wiped out in a single season, especially east of the Mississippi, where the disease was most rampant. For a time it looked as though the fruit would be relegated to the marginalia of North American gardening history.

But to the rescue came the pear’s Far Eastern cousin, P. serotina (a k a P. pyrzfolia), which was imported into North America early in the 19th century. Commonly called the sand pear because the flesh contained numerous “sandy” or “gritty” cells, which gave the fruit a grainy taste when compared to the buttery-smooth European pears, this Asian native did prove to have one shining characteristic: It was more or less resistant to fire blight. The sand pear was soon interbred with its European cousins and produced a number of good-tasting, disease-resistant varieties; these in turn gave rise to a host of even-better-tasting hardy cultivars. It was the introduction of this disease resistance, and the realization that fire blight was less of a concern in the dry valleys of the West and the Pacific Northwest than back East, that allowed the recovery of commercial pear production in North America, albeit limited to a handful of varieties selected more for shipping and shelf life than for taste.

Fortunately the home gardener isn’t limited by these same concerns, and it’s high time that some of the wonderful varieties of pears not found in the market were restored to their rightful place in the garden. Blight-resistant cultivars, even of older, more susceptible vaneties, may now be grown successfully in many parts of the country.

Pears are remarkably obliging. If it weren’t for fire blight, they would be almost obscenely so. Pears generally are free of the host of problems that beset apples, especially in the East, and need little, if any, spraying, only occasional watering, and minimal fertilization. All that’s required is a sunny site with moderate, well-drained soil. Pears are usually available as one- or two-year-old “whips” (four- to five-foot-long unbranched sticks), both in standard and dwarf form, in the spring. To plant, simply dig a hole about two feet deep and wide, amend the soil with rotted manure and compost, and plant the tree with the graft (that large bump on the stem) several inches above the level of the soil. The whip should also be topped about 36 inches above the ground to encourage branching. All that’s required the first season is regular watering–once every two weeks if no rainfall occurs.

The second and third years will also necessitate some minor pruning to form and shape the tree, as well as light fertilization and the occasional hose in a drought; directions for pear culture vary slightly by variety and it’s best to consult a good guide, such as my favorite, Stella Otto’s The Backyard Orchardist, for specific recommendations. And be sure to plant your trees where you can get a chance to see them. In spring their flowers form a cloud of white for days over the still-reawakening landscape; there is nothing more enchanting than to sit beneath a pear tree on a warm April day as the bees buzz gently overhead and petals fall slowly to form a white blanket on the ground.

Autumn is equally beautiful: Many varieties have brilliant fall foliage as well as colorful maturing fruit, though you may wish to exercise a bit more caution when under the tree at that season. Take it from me: Pears can fall far faster, and with much greater force, than any gardener could reasonably expect.

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