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Growing Pears in the Southeast

History, Types, and Disease

Most gardeners think pears are an easy-to-grow fruit that are not worth investing much effort. No doubt the hard-sand pear varieties most often grown in the South have encouraged this attitude.

Pears were first introduced into the US around 1630. The European pear is noted for its quality but is also known for its susceptibility to fire blight (a disease that damages the tree). Asian varieties introduced later, like the sand pear (Pyrus pyrifolia), enjoy increased resistance to fire blight, but is much harder than the European pear. Asian pears, erroneously first called “pear apples,” are increasingly in demand. The fruit is mostly round like an apple, but that’s where the similarities end. The flavor is very mild—some might say bland—and the fruit is very juicy. In fact, you need a bib to eat one.

Fire blight isn’t the only ailment that damages pears. Pears in the South suffer from fungal leaf spot diseases that often defoliate trees by mid-summer, causing them to set a new crop of leaves and often causing them to bloom in the fall. Eventually, this begins to reduce tree vigor and hurt spring production. Appropriately timed applications of fungicide will limit this disease.


Soils and Fertility

Pears are very tolerant of both soil condition and moisture problems. They grow and produce best in well-drained sandy loam soil. Pears will grow in clay soil, light sandy soil, dry soil with a little additional irrigation, and wet soil if mounded slightly. Fertilizing is easy when it comes to pears. Basically, the best fertilization program is no program. On very poor soil, one pound of 13-13-13, or a similar complete fertilizer, can be applied to young trees in February or March. Mature trees, even in poor soil, should not be fertilized.

Pruning and Training

Young pear trees should be trained using the modified central leader system (here). Pears have an upright columnar growth habit. It is critical that you prop the branches at an angle between 45° and 60° as you train the young trees. This will encourage early production, strong branch angles, and better open-growth habits.

Summer pruning can be used to direct growth and increase the development of fruiting spurs and branches. Vigorous shoots can be tipped to slow growth and stimulate the development of side branches. Removal of water sprouts and suckers should be done as soon as they are noticed. You’ll have less regrowth of these sprouts if you break them off as soon as they appear, so check your trees often.

Mature trees should be pruned as little as possible. Annual thinning of internal shoots, water sprouts, and an occasional older branch is recommended instead of heavy top pruning.

A mature pear tree with ripe fruit.

A mature pear tree with ripe fruit.

Flowering, Pollination, and Fruit Thinning

Fruit buds or spur development on pears is similar to that on apples. A spur is a short, leafy shoot that terminates in a cluster of 5 to 7 flowers. Any given spur will generally fruit every other year for 7 or 8 years. This means that about half of the spurs are producing each year.

Also, pears need two or more varieties that bloom at the same time to promote good fruit development.

Pears have a tendency to overproduce. Heavy fruit loads can reduce vigor and either bend or break limbs. Before this happens, some fruit should be removed (i.e. thinned). This will help increase fruit size and quality of the remaining crop.

Check out your local nursery for the best pear varieties in your area!

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