Look no further for the pear necessities of life

Careful planning and plenty of sunshine will reward you with delicious pears – and maybe even some liqueur, writes FIONNUALA …

Careful planning and plenty of sunshine will reward you with delicious pears – and maybe even some liqueur, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

THERE’S always been something very intriguing about those gardeners who make a point of keeping careful records – those whose diaries are a detailed chronicle of every seed packet, every shrub or every tree they’ve ever purchased, including price, provenance and eventual planting position.

One example of such a gardener is Thomas Jefferson, the one-time president of the USA, whose historic garden at Monticello in Virginia (www.monticello.org) is now a Unesco World Heritage site and a place of pilgrimage for many.

An exemplary record-keeper, he kept a ‘Garden Book’, a journal of a garden lovingly tended over the space of 60 years, with copious notes by Jefferson on the hundreds (literally) of varieties of fruit and vegetables that he grew.


But it takes a vast amount of time, a sustained effort of will and a peculiarly well-organised mind to be your own garden historian, which is why most of us fall more than a little short when it comes to the task.

In the OPW’s walled kitchen garden, Meeda Downey and Brian Quinn are far better at record-keeping than most – they make a point of meticulously labelling each crop. But even so, they’ve sometimes found it hard to keep track of every single plant growing within the garden’s high brick walls.

A case in point is the selection of trained pear trees that presently grow along tensioned wires behind the double herbaceous border, and which were planted by the gardeners some years ago as temporary substitutes for apple trees.

Right now, the branches are heavy with fruit that needs to be brought indoors to fully ripen. Problem is, the gardeners have forgotten the exact varieties, and whether they’re dessert, culinary or dual-purpose types.

“The plan was always to move the pear trees to a warm wall once we’d sourced the apple trees. But the problem now is that the plastic labels that came with them have disappeared, and we’re not quite sure of the varieties anymore,” says Brian with a sigh.

“One of them had a French name,” remembers Meeda. “And I’m nearly sure that another one was ‘Conference’ , which is one of the really well-known pear varieties. But that’s about it.”

The French pear that Meeda speaks of could be any of a number of varieties. A lot of heritage pear varieties are of French origin, including the exquisitely-named Duchesse d’Angouleme (1853), Marguerite de Marillat, Bellisime d’Hiver (1600), and Bergamotte d’Autumne (grown as far back as Roman times).

Much of the reason for this is climate: pear trees traditionally flourish in warm French summers while both here in Ireland and in Britain, they need an especially sheltered, sunny spot to thrive.

One man who knows all about this is the gardener, Frenchman Tanguy de Toulgoët who, together with his wife Isabelle, has created a fascinating Aladdin’s cave of a kitchen garden at their home near Durrow in Co Laois (www.dunmorecountryschool.ie). Here the couple give courses on gardening and cookery. Here also, Tanguy successfully grows his own pears – a variety called Williams Bon-Chretien which, confusingly, given its name, is English-bred – by training the branches against a sunny wall.

“It’s an early pear that succeeds quite well in Ireland and is ripe by the end of August or the beginning of September,” he explains.

The de Toulgoëts also carry on another very French tradition: the technique of growing a pear within a bottle and then, once it’s ripe, filling the bottle with brandy or a similar drink to make a delicious pear liqueur.

“You have to put the pear inside the bottle in May, before they become too big,” says Tanguy.

“At the end of April, beginning of May, I keep two pears per spur and then I will keep only one. That one will be introduced into a clean clear bottle. The bottle will be tied to the tree at a 60 degree angle to make sure that there is no water inside.

“You might cover the bottle with straw or a piece of paper because it could work as a magnifier and burn the fruit inside. When the pears are ripe, you just pull the bottle.”

Tanguy then fills the pear-filled bottle with Williamine, which is a pear brandy.

“We usually drink it after the evening meal in small glasses, sometimes with coffee. You can also use that alcohol to give a nice perfume to Pear Charlotte and Poire belle Hélène.”

If you fancy the idea of growing your own pears or of making your own pear liqueur like the de Toulgoëts do, now is the time to consider ordering the trees so that they can be planted bare-rooted in November or December.

Try specialist nurseries such as Reads (readsnursery.co.uk) for many of the varieties previously mentioned. Irish Seed Savers (www.irishseedsavers.ie) also stock a handful of varieties including the Belgian Sugar Pear, the English Black Worcester and a dessert pear called John Wesley that was originally found growing in Co Limerick.

Before you order, there are several things to decide. As mentioned earlier, one is the type of pear, whether that’s dessert, culinary or what’s known as a ‘perry’ pear, a fruit used to make a cider-like drink (a few are also dual-purpose).

If there's one variety that really stands out, it's the French-bred, dessert variety, Doyenne du Comice (1849). In his just-published book, Tender- Volume 2,the English cook Nigel Slater sings its praises and what he describes as its "juicy, almost buttery flesh . . . Pears," he writes lovingly, "don't come much sexier than this".

As long, that is, as the pear tree doesn’t grow too large – because left to its own devices, and depending on the rootstock and the growing conditions, a pear tree can reach a height of anywhere between three and six metres tall. Where space is tight, consider the benefits of cordon, espalier or fan-trained tree, when the branches are trained tight to a sunny, west or south-facing wall or fence.

Also keep in mind the fact that, while a few varieties such as Conference are partially self-fertilising, the majority of pears need a nearby fellow pear tree in order to produce any fruit. Known as a pollination partner, this fellow tree must flower at roughly the same time. If you’re unsure, the better websites (particularly Keepers Nursery , keeper-nursery.co.uk) will do the hard work for you by offering a range of search options (rootstock, use, tree form), along with suggestions as to suitable pollinating partners.

Finally, when you actually get to plant your pear tree, don’t forget to give it a smart, long-lasting label. Some of the finest, including those made of copper, aluminium, wood or even stone, can be ordered from Alitags by Andrew Crace (alitags.com).

That way, just as in Thomas Jefferson’s garden, your pear tree’s name (fingers crossed) will never be forgotten.

  • The OPW's Victorian walled kitchen garden is in the grounds of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, beside the Phoenix Park Cafe and Ashtown Castle. The gardens are open daily from 10am to 4pm.
  • Next week Urban Farmer will examine how best to store a fruit and vegetable harvest.

WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now

Sow: Green manures, komatsuna, land cress, hardy types of lettuce, mibuna, mizuna, mustards, salad rocket, winter purslane

Plant: Autumn onions, shallots, garlic, hardy lettuce, kale, oriental leaves

Do: Continue harvesting, weed, clear and manure beds, prune summer raspberries, lift maincrop potatoes, cut away foliage from around pumpkins, order fruit trees.

Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer