Guide to Growing Cherry Trees
Modern cherry trees are ideal for smaller gardens since many are self-pollinating, so you only need to grow one tree. Compact types are available and give a fine display of spring flowers, as well as delicious summer fruit.
How to Grow
There are two types of cherries: sweet and tart. They are grown in different ways, so be sure you know which you want. Sweet kinds are sensitive and need a sunny, sheltered site. In cooler areas they are best grown trained against warm walls. Tart cherries are less demanding and crop well even in cool, shaded locations. Bare root cherries should be planted in winter; those grown in containers can be planted at any time. All prefer rich, free-draining soil, so add plenty of well-rotted compost when planting. They can tolerate slightly alkaline or acidic conditions, but avoid heavy soils, or the shallow roots may rot. Cherries are prone to silver leaf disease, so prune well.
Many modern cherry varieties are self-pollinating and will pollinate their own flowers, which means you only need to plant one tree. Others require cross-pollination in order to fruit, so unless there are compatible varieties growing nearby, you’ll need to plant two or more cherries from the same pollination group. These are listed A to D (early to late), according to flowering time.
Cherries are naturally very large trees, too big for most gardens, and traditionally required long ladders to harvest the fruit. Modern trees are now supplied grafted onto rootstocks that restrict their size and make them more suited to domestic gardens.
The most common rootstocks are: Gisela 5 Dwarfing, suitable for trees in containers and wall-trained specimens. Requires good soil. Trees grow up to 6–10ft (2–3m). Colt Semi-dwarfing, suitable for trees in large containers or fan-trained specimens. Any soil. Trees reach 12–15ft (4–5m).
Types of Cherries Available
Most cherries are self-pollinating (SP) but some must be grown with other varieties from the same pollination group. Self-pollinating cherries will crop better if cross-pollinated.
- Tart cherries are too sour to eat directly from the tree but make great jam, sauces, or fillings for pies. They are the easiest to grow. Try ’Montmorency’ (SP), ‘North Star’ (SP) and ‘Sand’ (SP) varieties.
- Sweet cherries are delicious eaten fresh from the tree but can also be cooked. They require a warm, sheltered site to ripen fully. Try Sweet cherries ‘Black Tartarian’ (SP), ‘Bing’, ‘Kansas Sweet’, ‘Lapins’, ‘Mona’, ‘Ranier’ and ‘Stella’ (SP)
Pruning and Training
To avoid silver leaf, a disease that can be fatal to some fruit trees, cherries are pruned only when in active growth. Prune young cherries in the same way as plums; prune mature freestanding trees to create an open, balanced shape.
Established tart cherry trees crop on wood produced the previous year. After picking, prune out fruited stems, and thin congested growth. Sweet cherries need pruning in the spring to remove dead or diseased growth.
To prune established tart cherry fans, remove old growth in the spring to promote new stems, and remove any wayward shoots. After fruiting, cut back fruited stems, which will be replaced by the new growth.
Established sweet cherry fans are pruned by cutting sideshoots back to five to six leaves in the summer. New growth and uprights should be tied in horizontally. After fruiting, pruned sideshoots should be cut to three leaves.
Cherries flower in the early spring, which means the blooms can be damaged by hard frosts. Unless planted in a sheltered site, protect young trees with garden fabric. Trees should also be protected against birds, which will quickly strip a tree of fruit. Net trees before the fruit starts to ripen, making sure birds can’t sneak underneath.
Picking and Storing
Harvest cherries as soon as they are soft to the touch, picking them by the stalk to avoid damaging the skin. Use pruners or scissors to remove them from the tree. Sweet cherries last a week after picking and can be frozen. Tart cherries require cooking to make them palatable.
Watch Out for These Pests and Diseases
Cherry slugworms are slimy sawfly larvae that leave skeletal patches on leaves. Spray with insecticide to control them.
Cherry blackfly can also be problematic, sucking sap and causing leaf curling in early summer. Use an insecticide in spring when aphids first appear on the foliage.
Be sure to also protect cherry trees from frost, which can cause flowers to discolor and fall. Young foliage may also be damaged. Cover trees with fabric.