Cherry trees are a magnificent sight every spring but once the beautiful white and pink flowers are spent, a delectable fruit follows. Along with the sweet or sour taste depending on the variety, this fruit is low in calories, full of vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, and offers tons of health benefits.
All About Cherries
The Prunus avium will generally need to mature at least four years before producing fruit. This plant is a member of the rose family botanically known as the Rosaceae. The cherry that we are most familiar with is the sweet variety. This is what is usually sold in your grocery store’s produce department. Sweet cherries can be cultivated in USDA hardiness zones 5 through 7. There are self-sterile and do require space, so larger-sized gardens and orchards are ideal. Cultivation requires several trees as they must pollinate each other. If you do not have a large property, consider a dwarf cultivar that is self-pollinating.
The sour cherry variety is used for cooking and preserves. It will usually not be consumed raw. Sour cherry fruits are smaller in size and all sour cherry cultivars are self-fertile. These cultivars are grown in USDA hardiness zones 4 through 6.
A standard cherry tree can produce anywhere from 30 to 50 quarts of cherries annually. Dwarf varieties will produce 10 to 15 quarts.
Selecting Your Cherry Tree
Commercially sold cherry trees are generally grafted. The upper tree will be formed by the named variety. The bottom of the tree with the root system known as the “rootstock” will be another variety chosen to control vigor and tree size. Cherry trees that are ungrafted can grow into huge trees that are usually unsuitable for normal-sized gardens.
One of the most common rootstock graftings used is the “Colt” which reduces the tree’s size to approximately 20 to 26 feet both in height and width. It can also be used as a fan when cultivated against a wall.
Sour cherry varieties when cultivated on Colt rootstock will reach 10 to 12 feet. Gisela5 and Tabel are semi-dwarfing rootstocks that maintain a tree’s size from 10 to 13 feet, so they can be cultivated in containers or as a dwarf bush tree.
Once a rootstock is selected, the upper variety must be selected and whether it is sweet or sour. Some varieties are self-fertile and will fruit at differing moments in the summer. Other varieties need a pollination partner that will flower at the same time.
All sour cherry varieties are self-fertile. Sweet cherry varieties can be self-fertile or not. Check with your nursery for a suitable partner if you have a variety that is not self-fertile. This is important to ensure cross-pollination.
Bare Root Cherry Trees
A cherry tree will be sold commercially either in a container or bare root meaning it has no soil around the roots. Bare root trees are only sold during their dormancy (late fall to early spring) and need to be planted immediately. Container cherry trees are sold year-round.
When to Plant
Because it’s better to plant these trees when the ground is somewhat soft and moist, the beginning of spring and the late fall offer ideal conditions. Early spring plantings will eventually harvest in July or August, while fall plantings will harvest the following June. When purchasing cherry trees for a nursery or garden center, make sure the varieties you select can pollinate each other.
Where to Plant a Cherry Tree
Cherry trees bloom early in the year. Look for a location that is sheltered and warm without the risk of a late frost. Shelter aids pollination as bugs will have an easier time reaching blooms. Plant your sweet cherry trees away from buildings or larger trees that create a shady environment. These plants require at least 6 hours daily of direct sunlight. Sour cherry varieties will manage with partial shade.
The soil bed should ideally have a pH measuring between 6.5 and 7.0. They prefer fertile deep soil and do not do well in shallow, sandy, or poorly draining soil. They can be trained against a fence or wall or in the middle of a lawn or open field.
Planting Cherry Trees
Cherry trees do well when planted at the beginning of spring or at the end of autumn because the earth will be softer and contain more moisture. Planting between November and March is best while trees are still dormant. These plants require a sunny location with excellent air circulation and a well-draining soil bed. Water well and apply mulch. Once trees have flowered, they should be draped with netting that is wildlife safe to protect your harvest from the birds.
Position your cherry trees 35 to 40 feet apart when planting. Dwarf trees will manage with a spacing of 5 to 10 feet. Trees grafted on standard rootstock should be planted with the graft positioned a few inches below the soil level. Trees with dwarf rootstock should have the graft union placed several inches higher than the soil level. This prevents the graft from producing a second set of roots.
Bare root cherry trees should have their rootstocks placed on a mound of dirt within the planting hole. Roots should be spread down and over the mound. Avoid bending roots and fill the hole with soil.
Sour cherry varieties can be spaced 20 to 25 feet while sour dwarf varieties will manage when distanced 8 to 10 feet. As sour cherry varieties are less vigorous, they do well in containers. Select a half-barrel or wide terracotta or clay pot with compost that is soil-based. You can mix in a third of perlite or grit for drainage and slow-release fertilizer pellets.
When using trees grown in containers, remove the root ball and position the tree on its side. Cutaway pot bound or circling roots and avoid covering the top of the root system.
Caring for Cherry Trees
Care is the same for sweet and sour varieties. Apply mulch around the tree to aid in moisture retention. Consider draping trees with wildlife-safe netting to protect the fruit from birds. Water regularly if your area has a dry climate.
Trees will thin naturally in the summer. Prune your tree or trees at the end of winter as this will stimulate new growth.
Use a low nitrogen 5-10-10 fertilizer for several weeks before trees begin to flower. Continue using it throughout the growing season to harvest if the soil warrants it. Do not feed after the middle of summer as growth should begin to harden off before dormancy.
Common Pests and Diseases
- Bacterial canker–branches showing symptoms need to be removed as soon as possible
- Birds – eat buds, seeds, leaves, and fruit
- Black knot
- Brown rot
- Cherry Blackfly – small sap suckers that distort leaves and shoots
- Japanese Beetles
- Spotted Wing Drosophila – a small fruit fly, maggots cause fruit to rot
Cherries ripen beginning with early summer depending on the variety you have selected. Harvest fully ripened fruits by picking during dry weather and make sure to hold the stalk during harvesting. Cut stalks using shears or scissors as hand picking can cause infections or harm shoots. Cherries bruise easily.
Sweet cherries can be eaten as harvested or they can be refrigerated in plastic bags for approximately a week. If you plan on freezing, pick fruits that are firm in texture.
Sour cherries are not eaten raw. They can be sweetened and cooked or baked and are used in pies, preserves, puddings, and even liqueurs.