Grow pears for your heirs, the saying goes. Fionnula Fallon heeds some advice on speeding up the process
According to Edward Bunyard, the famous Edwardian horticulturist, gastronome and fruit connoisseur, it took humankind 2,000 years to breed the perfect pear, which in his view was the wonderfully flavoursome, juicy Victorian dessert variety known as “Doyenne du Comice”. Bred in France in the mid-19th century, it is still grown in gardens to this day. But before you put this famously tasty fruit on your list of must-haves, it might be worth heeding the advice of Andy Wilson, another pear-obsessed horticulturist (but this time the 21st century kind) and the owner of the small Westport-based specialist nursery Fruit & Nut (fruitandnut.ie).
Wilson’s love of this delicious autumn fruit is such that his nursery now stocks 23 varieties. “Pears have a reputation in this country – an unjustified one, in my opinion – for being difficult. In fact they’re quite easy to grow as long as you choose the most suitable varieties and give the trees the sort of growing conditions that they require, which is a well-drained soil in full sun with shelter from strong winds. ”
Wilson’s love of the pear has led him to research the history of its cultivation and brought him into contact with fellow nurserymen throughout Europe. “I’ve become fascinated by the subject, even down to experimenting with different methods of cultivation. For example, pear trees are traditionally available on either Quince or Pyrus rootstocks but I’ve discovered that they can also be grafted onto rootstock taken from mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), whitebeam (Sorbus aria) and even hawthorn (Crataegus), all of which confer an extra level of hardiness when it comes to the tree coping with less-than-ideal growing conditions. I’ll soon be offering pear trees grown this way for sale.”
His research has also given him a deep appreciation of the sometimes-considerable differences between individual varieties in terms of their ability to withstand disease and to tolerate a range of climatic conditions. The result is that, with the exception of a handful of varieties such as the perennial favourite “Conference” that are there by popular demand, almost all of the pear varieties on Fruit & Nut’s stock-list have been carefully selected on the basis of their high disease-resistance and particular suitability for Irish growing conditions. Sadly “Doyenne du Comice” isn’t among them for the reason that “although it’s greatly admired for its flavour and juiciness, it’s susceptible to certain common diseases such as scab and mildew”, and requires an especially protected spot in the garden.
Instead, another famous French 19-century variety known as “Précoce de Trévoux” comes top of Wilson’s must- grow list. Its golden-red, aromatic fruit is ready for harvesting in August-September and has, says Wilson, “quite the most amazing, unforgettable flavour. You’ll never taste anything like it.” Just as importantly, it copes well with our damp, cool Irish climate. Also in his top three is the Belgian heritage variety known as “Durondeau”, a large, golden “eating” pear (rather than a cooking variety), with sweet juicy fruit that’s ready for harvesting in October but will store well into the new year. Squeaking in at number three is “Black Worcester”, a very productive and disease-resistant English variety of cooking pear that’s been in cultivation since the 16th-century. Harvested in October, its large fruit will store well until the following spring. Wilson also particularly recommends the dual-purpose “Invincible Delwinor”, a variety especially suited to colder gardens as it often produces a second flush of blossom, thus dodging damaging late frosts.
Cooking and eating varieties aside, there’s an explosion of interest among Irish gardeners in cultivating pears to make “perry”, the alcoholic drink akin to a pear-based cider. Fruit & Nut stocks six varieties; among Wilson’s favourites are the famously disease-resistant “Gin” (medium acid, vintage quality fruit), “Yellow Huffcap” (medium-high acidity, low tannin, high-quality fruit) and “Winnal’s Longdon” (medium to high acidity, low tannin).
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the pear is a remarkably long-lived species, with individual trees sometimes surviving for several hundred years. Give careful thought to the most suitable variety, rootstock and growing conditions, and you should be the proud owner of a tree that will be there for generations to come. Useful tips on growing pear trees While pears are best planted as bare-root specimens in late February-March, order them now while stock is still high. Give trees a sunny, protected spot, out of the way of cold winds and far from established hedges, which not only compete for nutrients but can also foster disease. When planting, dig a deep hole in well-drained fertile soil enriched with garden compost. Where soils are poorly drained or annual rainfall amounts are high, plant young trees on wide, gently raised mounds. Harvest the fruit just before it has fully ripened, and then bring indoors. Early varieties will fully ripen within a week while later varieties can take a couple of months.
It’s all about the rootstock . . . Whichever variety of pear you choose to grow, it’s the rootstock that will determine the tree’s eventual size and spread. Quince A rootstock, for example, is termed semi-dwarfing and will typically produce a tree three to four metres in height and spread that will start bearing fruit after four to five years. Quince C (dwarfing) will give a smaller tree as low as 2.5 metres, but one less tolerant of poor soil. Both of these rootstocks are suitable for training as a bush-type, or against a wall/fence as an espalier or cordon. Pyro-dwarf is a newish type of dwarfing rootstock suitable for most soils and producing a tree of five to six metres in height, while trees grafted onto Pyrus rootstock are very vigorous in growth, tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions and can reach a height of up to eight metres.
When choosing a pear tree, bear in mind that most require at least one pollinating partner – a different variety but one which flowers around the same time. All good nurseries should be able to supply a list of suitable pollinating partners.