A Guide to Planting Pears for Deer

              It doesn’t matter if you grew up chasing whitetails in the North or South, you likely have fond memories of hunting near a stand you called “the old home place.” What is it about long-abandoned home sites that make them so darn attractive to deer and nostalgic to us? In many cases the answer is the haggard-looking pear tree that survives in spite of untold years of neglect. Even with some dead limbs and crowding by other trees, it produces at least some fruit each year, and deer continue to visit. When considering pounds of fruit produced during a tree’s life, no orchard tree outperforms the pear. Under favorable growing conditions, a mature, full-sized pear tree produces three to 30 bushels of fruit each year. At 58 pounds per bushel, that’s a lot of deer food and nutrition. If you’ve never used a pear tree to draw deer to your stand site, what are you waiting for? If your region receives at least 35 inches of precipitation each year and 100 to 200 frost-free days, you can grow pears. Selecting appropriate trees for your location can be overwhelming, as there are more than 3,000 varieties of edible pears worldwide, so I’d like to offer this article to help QDMA members develop a short-list of varieties for further consideration. Let’s look at characteristics of pears that will help you identify the best varieties for your deer orchard. Europeans, Asians and Hybrids Today, three types of fruiting pear trees are sold and grown in the United States. These are European, Asian, and Eurasian hybrids. As a general rule, the hybrids work best for deer orchards because they are most forgiving of neglect, but there are other characteristics to consider. European pears, sometimes called “common pear” or “French pear,” were cultivated in Europe, mostly France and Belgium. The famous Bartlett pear was a seedling discovered in England and brought to the United States as a grafted tree in about 1797. Today, Bartlett and a few similar European pears like Anjou, Bosc, and Comice account for most U.S. pear production. If you plant these pears in the South or Midwest, they will be short-lived without an intensive monitoring and spraying program because of the bacterial disease called fireblight. To grow pears for deer, you need to become familiar with identifying and preventing fireblight. Asian pears were domesticated in China, Korea, and Japan. Improved varieties have been imported since the early 1900s. In general, areas of adaptation are similar for European and Asian pears. However, European pears are slightly more cold-hardy and sometimes survive winters in USDA plant hardiness zones 4 and 3 (see map).              Most Asian varieties are inadequately hardy north of zone 5. Also, some varieties of both groups have specific temperature requirements that make them more adaptable to some locations than others. For example, some Asian pears bloom too early in spring and rarely fruit where early spring freezes are common. Some European pears don’t receive adequate chilling in our southern-most zones to be healthy and fruitful. More on temperature requirements later. Eurasian hybrid pears naturally developed in the 1850s when fruit growers began planting European and Asian pears in the same orchards. The best hybrid seedlings were then genetically cloned through grafting. These new varieties became popular in many states where both European and Asian pears were ill-adapted because of warm, wet climates – conditions that are conducive to fireblight. Fruits from hybrids generally are inferior in eating quality to the soft, rich, melting Europeans and the sweet, juicy, crunchy Asians – but are still quite tasty to deer. Again, more varieties of hybrids are suited to deer orchards because of their tendency to be fireblight resistant. Still, some excellent fireblight resistant European pears were developed by pear breeding programs in the U.S. and Canada. Also, a few pure Asians are well suited for deer orchards. A Matter of Degrees: Chilling Hours Pears stop growing in late summer or fall as a response to shortened days and cooler nights. They drop their leaves in preparation for winter dormancy and don’t resume growth in the spring until their chilling-hour requirements have been met. Chilling hours are the accumulated number of hours a tree is exposed to air temperatures between 32 and 45°F. In general, pear trees require 800 to 1,500 chilling hours before they will begin growth in the spring. Pear species (and varieties derived from those species) from warm-winter areas require less chilling (maybe 200 to 800 hours) than those from cold-winter areas (maybe 1,500 to 2,000 hours). When a low-chill pear tree is planted where it meets its chilling requirement too early, it will begin growing and blooming in early spring. If temperatures below 28° return, 90 percent of the tree’s flowers might be killed. Therefore, in this situation don’t expect to get a good crop each year. It’s even more important to match pears with high chilling requirements with their growing environment. When a high-chill pear tree receives inadequate winter chilling, it will have delayed and weak leaf and flower growth, and produce few or no fruit during its short life.  Accumulated chilling hours for a particular location varies some among years, and determining the range of chilling hours where you live can sometimes be difficult. Therefore, to be safe, select a pear variety that’s well within the long-term average for your location. For guidance, consult with your nearest university extension service or speak with a nearby nursery owner. Dr. David Byrne at Texas A&M University developed a method to estimate chill hour accumulation for locations throughout the Southeast based on average January temperatures. If the average January temperature is 59-63°, you live in a low-chill region. If the average January temperature is 48-58°, you live in a medium-chill region. January temperatures averaging below 48° indicate a high-chill region. Rootstock Matters Like apples, most pear trees do not reproduce themselves true from seeds. Commercially grown pear trees are budded or grafted by attaching tissue from cloned trees onto appropriate rootstocks. By selecting the proper rootstocks, you greatly improve your odds of growing a long-lived and productive deer orchard. In fact, rootstock selection is as important as variety selection.  Rootstocks are grown from seeds, or they are genetic clones produced from stem cuttings or stump sprouts. Rootstocks are selected based on traits like tree size, anchorage and level of productivity, fruit quality, soil and climate adaptation, level of disease and parasite resistance, age at first fruiting, fruiting efficiency and tree longevity. A complete book could be written about selection of pear rootstocks, but I need to keep this simple. With deer orchards in mind, you should select rootstocks that produce large, productive, well-anchored, disease- and parasite-resistant trees. Noted advantages of dwarfing rootstocks for the commercial pear industry have little importance for deer orchards. In our opinion, for deer orchards in USDA zones 5-10 (the South, Mid-Atlantic, and warmer portions of the Midwest and Northeast) select Callery pear seedling rootstock or Old Home x Farmingdale 97 cloned rootstock. These rootstocks grow a tree of standard height (25 to 30 feet tall). Note: Callery pear trees are an invasive variety sold widely as an ornamental, most commonly as the “Bradford” cultivar. It is spreading from ornamental plantings, not from being used as rootstock. However, when using Callery as rootstock, if you do not maintain your trees by pruning sucker growth from the rootstock, the suckers could potentially produce Callery fruit. If it is available, opt for Old Home x Farmingdale 97 rootstock. In zones 4 and 3 (Upper Great Lakes, New England states and Canada), select birch-leaved pear seedlings or Old Home x Farmingdale 97. Birch-leaved pear seedlings produce the largest trees but are slightly less resistant to fireblight and produce more root-sprout suckers than Callery seedlings. For zone 3, Harbin or Ussurian pear is the most cold-hardy pear species, surviving -50°F during the long Siberian winters. For this reason, it sometimes is used as rootstock in very cold locations. However, Harbin pear has a moderate chilling hour requirement and is severely injured at less than 24° when it breaks dormancy during a warm spring. Remember that a fireblight-resistant rootstock does not directly give the variety on top more disease resistance; it does provide a more resistant trunk and roots for a healthier foundation. It’s more important to select a rootstock that’s adapted to your location than to select one based on its resistance to fireblight. Designing Your Orchard Pears do not require high soil fertility, they tolerate clay soils, and they survive some water logging. However, to be safe, don’t plant them in a location that’s prone to flooding during the growing season. Select a planting location in full sun that’s well drained and not likely to pool frost. In especially cold locations, plant along the middle of a gentle slope, not at the top or bottom where freeze damage is likely to occur. Because pears are sensitive to freeze damage when spring temperatures fluctuate drastically, it is best to prolong tree dormancy. You can achieve this by choosing orchard sites that are oriented to the north or east, and by white-washing tree trunks with an equal mix of latex paint and water. Protect newly planted trees from deer browsing with a cage made from about 17 linear feet of 4- to 6-foot tall woven wire. A second choice would be a light-colored tree tube (never use a black drain pipe). Maintain a grass- and weed-free area within 3 feet of the trunk for the first two to three years to minimize rodent chewing and to conserve soil moisture.  When planting pear trees, allow a spacing of 20 to 25 feet to maximize tree size and fruit production at maturity. To optimize pear flower pollination by bees, don’t go any wider. Pear nectar is low in sugar and less attractive to bees than other flowers. Therefore, planting trees relatively close makes it more convenient for bees to travel from tree to tree. Plant at least two varieties in each orchard to increase pollination and fruit set. Most varieties have enough overlap in timing of bloom to pollinate each other. However, remember Ayers (a hybrid) and Magness (European) and some Asian varieties have sterile pollen that will not fertilize other trees. Regardless of what you read elsewhere, European and Asian pears do pollinate each other as long as their timing of bloom overlaps. Pear trees prefer soil pH of 5.9 to 6.5, so adjust soil at your planting site based on a soil test before or at the time of planting. There are mixed opinions about supplemental fertilization of pear trees. In a commercial fruit orchard, fertilization is standard practice. In a deer orchard, low maintenance and sustained tree health are the primary concerns, with annual productivity of secondary importance. Excessive nitrogen promotes fast and succulent growth and sets the stage for fireblight infection, even in very resistant varieties. If you fertilize newly planted trees, don’t put fertilizer in the planting hole. Rather, spread it under the tree, at least 1 foot from the trunk. Apply about 1/3 cup of 10-10-10 the first year, increasing each subsequent year’s application rate by 1/3 cup. Mature trees should receive a maximum of eight cups each year. Applying half of the fertilizer in spring before growth starts and half after flowers drop will provide extra protection against fireblight. If you see symptoms of fireblight on flowers, leaves, or shoots, or if flowers aborted without forming fruit, don’t apply the remaining fertilizer. You can tell if your trees are receiving too much or too little nutrition by measuring their annual growth rate. It is normal for the ends of the permanent lateral limbs of young pear trees to grow 18 to 30 inches each year. Once trees reach 15 years of age and are fully productive, annual growth should not exceed 8 to 10 inches. Be especially vigilant with trees planted on the edges of food plots containing clovers or other legumes because nitrogen fixed by these plants can result in excessive growth in pears. Pruning and Training Train your trees to develop a strong central leader framework with evenly spaced “scaffolds,” or permanent lateral limbs. Favor limbs with crotches – where the limb meets trunk – with wide angles growing 45 to 60° from the trunk. This will allow sun and air to circulate within the tree’s interior, minimizing risk of diseases and encouraging the proper amount of vegetative growth, blooming and fruit development. Some nurseries leave multiple central leaders, so at least one will remain if others are killed by fireblight. Because sun and air circulation is lessened when a tree’s interior is crowded with too many upright limbs, I question this training practice, and believe diligent monitoring and corrective pruning is a better option for fireblight management in deer orchards.  It’s best to prune pear trees during winter when risk of spreading fireblight is lowest. However, do not prune the ends of lateral limbs – known as a heading cut. Heading of limbs encourages rapid and succulent growth the next spring and predisposes your trees to fireblight infections. Do prune aggressive upright limbs to increase sun and air circulation. Prune these limbs where they attach to the scaffolds – called a thinning cut. Thinning of limbs does not encourage rapid growth next spring. Prune away all dead and crossing limbs and growth below the graft union (where the variety is joined to the rootstock) because rootstock suckers compete with the grafted variety and might be more prone to fireblight infection, depending on rootstock. Varietal Selection In review, when talking to your local nursery about pear varieties, ask about the following characteristics of each variety: 

  • Type: European, Asian, or Eurasian hybrid
  • Fireblight resistance
  • Chilling-hours required to break dormancy
  • Adapted climate zone
  • Rootstock variety
  • Fruit ripening date

When selecting pears based on timing of fruit ripening, compare relative ripening dates among several varieties. Select some of the earlier varieties for summer, later varieties for fall, and the latest varieties for winter. In each orchard, plant a mix of summer, fall and winter ripening trees; so you can extend the period when deer are attracted to them.  I wish you, your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren many enjoyable years of hunting whitetails over your pear orchards! About the Author: David Osborn is the wildlife research coordinator at the Deer Lab at Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia.  Reprinted from QDMA  

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