There is an old saying that “you make your own luck,” which is a fine five-word summary of the art of growing cherries. From getting to know their strengths and weaknesses to protecting them from harm, cherries offer one opportunity after another to create more luck. If you’re up to the challenge, cherries will repay you with brimming buckets of beautiful fruits that taste great and are packed with antioxidants and other nutrients. Recent university studies suggest that cherries can reduce pain caused by arthritis or muscle strain, help prevent Type 2 diabetes and possibly slow the growth of cancerous tumors: all great reasons to eat more cherries and even plant a few trees yourself.
There are two types from which to choose. The fresh cherries sold in stores in summer are sweet cherries (Prunus avium). The dried cherries in snack foods and canned cherries for pie-making are tart, or sour, cherries (P. cerasus). Sour cherries often have sugar levels comparable to sweet cherries, but their sweetness is masked by the presence of citric acid. Both sweet and sour cherries share a preference for fertile, well-drained soil with a neutral or slightly acidic pH, and they can be attacked by the same pests (though some pests and diseases tend to favor one or the other). The types differ when it comes to cold hardiness, blooming behavior and size at maturity.
Sweet cherries are not reliably winter hardy beyond Zone 5, and they suffer from heat stress south of Zone 7. Only a few varieties are self-fertile (self-fertile trees produce fruit without the need for cross-pollination from several compatible trees), so multiple trees are often needed. Sweet cherries bloom early, putting them in danger of late spring frosts. Full-size sweet cherries can grow to 50 feet tall, though the use of dwarfing rootstocks can keep them in the 8- to 20-foot range for easier harvesting.
Sour cherries are more widely adapted, with some varieties hardy to Zone 3, and some capable of prospering in Zone 8. Almost all varieties are self-fertile, so only one tree is needed, and sour cherries’ extended bloom time gives them a better chance of producing well in years with late spring cold snaps. Standard trees grow only to about 25 feet, but can be kept to about 15 feet. The use of dwarfing rootstocks can keep them in the 8- to 12-foot range.
We’ll delve into specific varieties and rootstocks shortly, but it’s best to select your planting site first. The more you know about the location’s size, exposure and soil quality, the better job you can do matching it up with a capable cherry variety.
Providing the Perfect Place for Cherries to Grow
Cherries need plenty of sun and excellent air circulation. They also need to be within easy reach of your water hose. If possible, plant them close enough to your house to soak up the beauty and fragrance of cherry blossom time. Keeping cherries close makes monitoring easier, too, which is crucial during the trees’ first few years in the ground.
The best soils for cherries are fertile, sandy loams with a neutral or slightly acidic pH, but other soils can be customized for cherries. The biggest challenge comes from clay, since good drainage is imperative.
“A raised bed technique is the most helpful single practice a gardener can take on a clay soil,” says fruit expert James Cummins of Cummins Nursery in Ithaca, N.Y. “We normally suggest a raised bed 12 to 15 inches high and 4 feet wide. In this environment, the root system will forage mostly within that raised bed.”
This is a lot of work, but it’s the only way to get lucky with cherries in heavy clay. Cherries grown in soil that pleases them require little supplemental fertilizer beyond annual topdressing with compost and mulch.
Building a Bountiful Tree
Like most tree fruits, cherries are created by grafting a short twig of new growth (called a “scion”) from a named variety onto a small, fully rooted tree called the rootstock. ‘Crimson Passion’ and other new cold-hardy cherries developed at the University of Saskatchewan are not grafted (they are grown from tissue culture instead), but those of us who don’t reside in Canada or the northern part of the United States must choose both a variety and a rootstock when shopping for cherries. The scion will control the fruit’s flavor, color and form, while the rootstock will influence the tree’s size, hardiness, how quickly it reaches maturity, and in many cases, how long it survives.
The marriage of scion and rootstock gets technical fast, because some matches work much better than others. You can create a big load of luck by tapping into the expertise of regional fruit nurseries, which usually offer scion-rootstock combinations likely to work well in the local area (see “Cherry Cherry Tree Buyer’s Guide” at the end of this article). If you tell them what you want and provide a description of your site and soil, they will fix you up with a suitable variety grafted onto a compatible rootstock.
Don’t be surprised if the most familiar name in cherries, ‘Bing,’ never gets mentioned. While ‘Bing’ is a great guy, other varieties have more to offer home gardeners. Among sweet cherries, ‘Stella,’ ‘Black Gold,’ ‘White Gold’ and ‘Tehranivee’ are self-fertile and do well when grafted onto space-saving dwarfing rootstocks. Among sour cherries, ‘North Star’ grows in a wide range of climates, and it stays small even when grafted onto a vigorous standard rootstock. ‘Evans,’ also known as ‘Evans Bali’ and ‘Bali’ (hardy to Zone 3), and Hungarian-bred ‘Danube,’ ‘Balaton’ and ‘Jubileum’ (hardy to Zone 4 or 5) are often called sweet-tart cherries because the fruit tastes much less tart than other sour cherries.
What about yellow cherries? These sweet varieties, which include ‘Gold’ and ‘Royal Rainier,’ appear underripe and therefore unappetizing to birds. Unfortunately, the yellow varieties are less likely to be outstanding sources of healthful antioxidants, which are linked with dark red color.
Tending The Cherry Tree Trunk
Once you get a first-rate cherry tree situated in a first-rate site, you have three to five years to wait for your first harvest, but there’s plenty to do in the meantime. Provide water when needed to prevent drought stress, mulch to prevent weeds and do everything you can to protect the trunk from injury. Splits, cracks or holes bored by insects can kill young cherry trees, so protecting the trunk is important. Depending on where you live, you may need to implement some or all of the following safeguards:
- Surround the tree with a cylinder of wire fencing to protect it from deer.
- In spring, lightly wrap the trunk with mosquito netting (held in place with safety pins) to deter egg laying by insects that bore into the trunk.
- In early fall, whitewash the south side of the trunk with diluted white latex paint (nontoxic) to reflect strong winter sun, which can cause the bark to crack.
- In late fall, install a metal hardware cloth barrier to keep rabbits and voles from nibbling at the trunk during winter. Make sure it extends 2 inches into the soil, and reaches above the level that snow is likely to accumulate around the tree.
- At least once a month, check the trunk for signs of problems. If you see holes emitting either gummy ooze or sawdustlike frass, poke a needle in to kill the borer or beetle responsible for the damage.
- Never go anywhere near a cherry tree with a lawn mower or string trimmer.
Young cherries have modest pruning requirements. Most sour cherries naturally branch into a wide crown, so thinning occasional branches to keep the tree balanced on all sides is usually sufficient. Sweet cherries have a more upright growth habit, so it’s best to prune back the topmost branch (the central leader), which pushes the tree to develop stronger lateral branches. Once cherries begin to bear, pruning can be limited to removing dead or diseased wood and tipping back long branches to keep the tree from leaning. Prune cherries lightly and thoughtfully, keeping in mind that the best-quality fruit comes from trees that hold 80 leaves for every cherry produced. More leaves mean more quality fruit.
Reaping Red Cherry Rewards
If you’ve done everything right so far, you will have grown a good supply of luck, but keep an eye out for heavy rains that come just as the fruit is ripening; they can cause fruits to split. Some varieties, such as ‘Black Gold’ and ‘White Gold,’ resist rain-splitting better than others, and keeping the tree’s root zone consistently moist can reduce splitting as well. However, should you face a massive split-o-rama, get the damaged fruit off the tree and into the compost pile immediately (you can salvage split cherries by freezing them, but only if they’re fully ripe). Quick cleanup is important because split fruits are a dream come true to fruit flies and the fungus that causes brown rot, the most serious disease problem with cherries.
Finally, keep in mind that you are not the only one watching your cherry tree and tasting the fruits every few days to see if they’re ripe. Birds have well-earned reputations as cherry bandits, so taking the time to cover small trees with bird netting, or outfitting larger ones by hanging deterrents like aluminum pie pans, old CDs and rubber snakes on the outermost branches is the final step toward getting lucky with cherries.
Cherry Tree Buyer’s Guide
Adams County Nursery
Up-to-date selection of sweet and tart cherries for the mid-Atlantic region, including some on dwarfing rootstocks.
Numerous cold-climate varieties, including sweet and tart cherries bred at Cornell University.
Selection of non-grafted tree varieties recently released by the cherry breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan.
Varieties likely to succeed in the upper South, all grafted onto rugged standard rootstocks.
Extensive selection of varieties grafted onto ‘Gisela 5’ rootstock, which adjusts well to a wide variety of soils and helps trees start bearing at a young age.
Excellent selection of sweet and tart cherries for the West, many available on dwarf rootstocks.
St. Lawrence Nursery
Classic cold-tolerant tart cherries, including ‘Bali’ grown on its own roots.
Stark’s “house special” sweet cherries, plus a wide variety of standard, dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties.
Good selection of old and new varieties adapted in the Great Lakes region.