Try Your Luck With Growing Cherries

This guide to growing cherries will ensure sweet (and sour) success.

| February/March 2007

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.

Picking Cherries

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.

3/13/2007 10:59:32 PM

In your article on cherries you say, "Sweet cherries are not reliably winter hardy beyond Zone 5..." My husband and I own an Organic Cherry Orchard in Northwest Montana... zone 2-3... on the east shore of Flathead Lake. Approximately 4 million pounds of cherries are harvested here each year. Sweet cherries have been grown here since at least the 1930's. Bings were king until the Lambert starting replacing them. After a major freeze in Feb. 1989, when the temperature dropped from 50ºF to -40ºF in a matter of hours (and stayed there for a week)Lapins replaced the lost Lamberts and Bings. Lapins are a self-fertile variety that grow quite well on Gisela-6 dwarfing rootstock... and don't seem to mind the harsh winters. Sincerely... Heidi Johnson, The Orchard at Flathead Lake

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