It Takes Two
Planting varieties suited to your conditions is the best way to ensure that you'll get a healthy harvest each season. It's varieties because most pears are not self-pollinating; that is, they need at least two different trees to pollinate and produce well (more on this in a moment). This isn't a hardship. Who wouldn't want two kinds of pears?
Available varieties include Asian types, European types, and hybrids of the two. The classic European pear varieties—'Bartlett', 'Anjou', 'Bosc', 'Comice', and lately even 'Seckel'— have become highly susceptible to a widespread bacterial disease called fire blight. They're wonderful pears, suited to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 to 8, but not the best choices for large swaths of the East and other regions where warm, wet springs—prime fire blight conditions—are the norm.
The good news for organic gardeners is the availability of fire blight?resistant varieties (though resistance is just that, not immunity). 'Magness' is an excellent choice, says Richard Bell, research horticulturist at the USDA/ARS Appalachian Fruit Research Station in West Virginia. This variety resists fire blight and yields sweet, fragrant fruit in early autumn. Just bear in mind that 'Magness' can't be a pollinator and so needs to be planted with two other varieties, not just one other. Bell also likes 'Moonglow', 'Potomac', and 'Blake's Pride'.
Fire blight-resistant 'Warren' is the standard pear for the South, though it won't do well in the Deep South. For Zones 9 and 10, aptly named 'Flordahome' is often recommended. Travis Callahan, southern pear chairman for the North American Fruit Explorers, likes 'Louisiana Beauty' (a.k.a. 'Leona'), the best pear he grows in Abbeville, Louisiana. It's hard to find in nurseries, but you can get graft wood from the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (info at www.nafex.org). For Zones 3 and 4 up north, Bill MacKentley of St. Lawrence Nurseries, in Potsdam, New York, suggests the small, 'Seckel'-size 'Ure' or his own find, 'Nova', named for his daughter.
In the Northwest, where fire blight isn't a problem but pear scab can be, 'Rescue' is a fine choice.
You can try growing the old favorites if fire blight is not prevalent in your area. Stella Otto, an orchardist in Maple City, Michigan, and the author of The Backyard Orchardist (Ottographics, 1995), is fond of the large, yellow, red-cheeked 'Clapp's Favorite'. Or try 'Flemish Beauty' and find out why it used to be the nation's top commercial pear.