Food News

How to grow pears (and how to tell when they're ripe)

All the quirks to eating and harvesting this autumn fruit.

By Simon Rickard
As autumn wears on in the colder parts of the country, one of my favourite fruits is ready for harvest: the pear.
As a boy I used to resent seeing pears in the bowls of chopped fruit given to us in school, as it seemed like we were being deprived of sweeter, sexier fruits such as bananas. Sure, the pears were sweet enough, but dull; crunchy, dry and flavourless. It turns out this was merely user error.
One quirk of pears which is routinely overlooked in this age of convenience, is that most varieties do not ripen on the tree. Regardless of whether you grow your own or buy them, pears need to be ripened off the tree before you eat them. Only then will their best features be revealed: their trademark perfume and melting, juicy texture. Indoor ripening usually takes five to seven days. The fruits may or may not change colour during this process. A good way to check for ripeness is to look at the stem – when it begins to shrivel, the pear should be ripe. It takes a little practice.
Pears began their culinary career as cooking fruits, just like their cousin, the quince. They have been grown in Europe since ancient times. They even rate a mention in Homer's Odyssey. But pears' heyday was the 19th century, when French and Belgian breeders developed the best varieties, many of which are still grown today. You are probably already familiar with 'Williams', originally 'Williams Bon Chrétien', and 'Beurré Bosc', with its russeted, cinnamon-brown skin. But other superlative varieties survive, too. 'Beurré Hardy' and 'Doyenné du Comice', redolent of pear drops and rosewater, are as smooth as silk when fully ripe.
Australia has also produced some excellent pears. 'Packham's Triumph' was bred in Molong, NSW in 1893. 'Mock's Red Williams' – sold as 'Sensation' – appeared in Burwood, now in suburban Melbourne, in the 1930s, as a natural mutation on a 'William's' pear tree.
Dense-fleshed pear varieties stew and bake beautifully, and of course we know they can be eaten fresh. However, not all pears are designed
to be eaten. There are special perry pear varieties, for making 'perry' (pear cider) and schnapps. These tend to be small and stubby, and have whimsical names such as 'Gin', 'Green Horse' and 'Yellow Huffcap'. Don't try to eat them, though – you'll break your teeth.

How to grow your own pears

"Pears for your heirs" goes the old adage, because pears grown on their own roots, or grafted onto seedling pear rootstocks, take many years before they begin producing fruit. Nowadays, most pears are grafted onto the roots of an ornamental pear, which results in a tree which crops quicker, but is still a little too vigorous for many backyards. In my opinion, the best choice of rootstock for backyard pear trees is actually a kind of quince.
Grafting pears onto quince rootstock is not straightforward. Only a handful of specialist nurseries in Australia and New Zealand still undertake this work. However, it gives the best results for home gardeners, as it produces a tree that begins bearing at a younger age (around three to four years instead of five to six), and only grows to half the height of a pear tree grafted onto a pear rootstock. Pears on quince rootstocks are very suitable for growing in space-saving two-dimensional forms, such as espaliers, fans, oblique cordons, or if you want to get really fancy, a Belgian fence.
You'll need to plant two different varieties to achieve good pollination. The trees require winter spraying against fungal diseases, even if you grow organically. Pear and cherry slug is a common pest which appears in late summer. It generally doesn't kill the trees, only disfigures them. However, if infestations become so dense that your tree is defoliated, you need to take action, either by throwing something dry and dusty like wood ash over your tree, or spraying with one of the new biologically-derived pesticides used for that purpose. Don't forget to protect your trees against possums, which love to eat the leaves, flowers and shoot tips, and against birds, which love the fruit.
This sounds a little onerous, but the rewards are great. Pears store well for months in the fridge, and are classic subjects for bottling. All in all, pears are a great backyard fruit for areas with frosty winters, and definitely worth bequeathing to your heirs.