After you've been growing cherries for awhile, a small bunch like this makes for a delicious snack.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/THOMAS TEUFEL
Cherries come in two types, sweet and sour. Sour cherries aren't often seen in the city, but they can't be beat for preserves, jam, pies, and the like. They are also hardier than the sweet varieties.
In general, the same climatic conditions that favor apples do well for growing cherries. They are not as frost-fussy as apricots or peaches . . . in fact, they are one of the easiest stone fruits to grow, particularly the sour cherries. The best way to find out how they will do in your region is to check with the county agent and local orchards. Sour cherries begin to bear in their fourth or fifth year, sweet cherries two years later.
Cherry Tree Stock
Not only should you get both sweet and sour cherries, where possible, but you will probably have to get several varieties of the sweet. The really tasty ones like Bing and Napoleon are self-sterile and inter-sterile as well. That is, not only can't these trees fertilize their own flowers, even a neighboring tree of the same variety can't do it. They need Black Tartarians or other fertilizers around. To boot, the two "mates" have to bloom at the same time. Consult with a local nurseryman. This is nothing to try to coordinate through a mail-order house. If there's no nurseryman handy, make sure the trees you choose are double-bearing. These bear two different kinds of cherries at the same time. They have had a branch from a different species grafted to their trunk as a pollinating pal while still young stock.
A cherry tree, double-bearing or otherwise, will come grafted to rootstock better adjusted to supporting a yield than its original roots were. The two common rootstocks for grafting are mazzard and mahaleb. They are both wild cherry stocks, hardier than the superbred domestic ones. Mazzard stock is particularly good if you can get it. It is also more expensive, but in a long-range project like an orchard a little more money is well invested. Mahaleb-grafted cherries bear a year earlier, which often makes them the more popular. But the overall yield will probably be less.
Two-year-old grafted trees—the age is measured from the time of grafting—with the beginning of a well-spaced lateral branch system are the ones to buy. Fall planting is best for them. Mulch well for winter protection.
Like all fruit trees, cherry trees are pruned with the long-range intent of shaping them for easier picking and bigger yields. This means a tree open enough to permit light penetration. But sweet cherry trees naturally grow tall and upright. And you're working with nature . . . you can't change her too much and still expect cooperation. Therefore your sweet cherries will have to be pruned into taller trees than your sour ones.
Prune so that four or five branches off the main trunk become the primary bearing limbs of a cherry tree. They should leave the tree at a wide angle. The single top growing straight up is your leader. Leave it alone. But trim all other branches so they are shorter than the leader.
In deciding which branches to prune off, look for ones that point sharply upward. Also, you won't want the remaining branches to be too close together or all on one side. Mentally blow the tree up to climbing size. Could you climb it comfortably? A tree pruned for good climbing is a tree that will bear well. A good treehouse-tree, on the other hand, one that has three or four branches all coming out at the same spot up the trunk, is less apt to be a high-yielding tree.
Major pruning for shape need be done only once. Usually it's done when the tree is first planted, since this forces good root development. Maintenance pruning after that consists only of trimming out cross-branches that rub together, dead or sickly branches, and those that make a tree lopsided, filling out too much in one direction. Overall, up to ten major branches may be allowed to develop over the years.
Problems, Pests and Solutions
Sour cherries are more disease-resistant than the sweet type . . . which is why you'll rarely find a sweet wild cherry. One pest to which they are both prey, however, is the tent caterpillar. If tent caterpillars strike, you have two alternatives. Let them be, and they'll eat every leaf in sight, multiply happily, kill the tree, and after several years decrease in numbers for lack of food. Or harvest the caterpillars as soon as you spot them. If you can manage to keep the population down, the cycle won't have a chance to start spiraling, and eventually they will disappear. If harvesting tent caterpillars is not your idea of how to spend a sunny Sunday, get some praying mantises to give you a hand.
You will occasionally find worms in your cherries. How you feel about the changing times and the "new squeamishness" will determine how you feel about the worms. My grandmother used to deal with worms in preserving cherries simply by going ahead and canning them. When you opened a jar of the incredibly tasty compote, you simply skimmed the worms off the top in the kitchen before ladling the plumblack cherries into the Limoges dishes for presentation in the dining room. The worms had been boiled out and were as neatly preserved as the cherries. Now I'd have to admit that finding worms in a can of commercial preserves these days would upset me a little, but not nearly as much as the DDT and additives in it that I don't see.
A final problem with cherry trees is birds. This one you're not going to avoid "noways, nohow". You'll begin to think you're running an aviary instead of an orchard. So you do one of two things. Either you generously plant enough extra trees to feed the birds too, including some mulberries, which they like best of all, or you cover the trees with bird netting. Myself, I prefer birds to ghostly draped trees that vaguely hint of nature gone away on vacation. Commercial orchards employ an automatic cannon that goes off with an explosive bang—but no ammunition—scaring the birds away. Again personally, I can think of better ways to spend my time in the country than being surrounded by cannon fire.
The biggest harvesting problem with cherries is avoiding a bellyache. If you work on the one-for-yourself, three-for-the-basket principle, you might survive. Pick fruit for eating without stems. They won't keep as long, but it's less of a strain on the tree. Fruit for storage or sale should be picked with the stems. Use a light, twisting, upward movement to separate the stem from the spur. Be careful not to injure or break the spur . . . it's the source of your future fruit.