How to Grow Cherry Trees

Every fruit has its peak season, but there are a few, such as cherries, that are truly only good for a month or two each year. A juicy red cherry is a treasure that we gardeners can spend a whole afternoon fantasizing about growing but most of us have to limit ourselves to the daydream. Disease, poor pollination and birds are just a few of the obstacles that stand in the way of a good harvest.

If you considered planting a cherry tree but thought better of it because of the aforementioned drawbacks I suggest you give the idea a second look. Unlike the varieties of yore, modern cherries boast disease resistance, heat and humidity tolerance, compact form and self-pollination. All of these characteristics make successfully growing a cherry tree a realistic venture.

There are actually two types of cherries – sweet (Prunus avium) and tart or sour (Prunus cerasus). Sweet cherries are the type that you will find in the grocery store that you can eat fresh. P. cerasus bears firm, sour cherries that are used for cooking, baking and preserving. Sweet cherries are best suited for areas where temperatures are mild and humidity is low while tart cherries will grow in cooler climates and need about 2 months of winter temperatures below 45° F. Washington, Oregon and California produce more than 97 percent of the sweet cherries in the U.S. and the top tart cherry producing state is Michigan. That should give you some indication of their climate preferences.

Of the two sweet cherries are the more difficult to grow, but if you are willing to commit to some hand holding there are modern varieties that are easier than old-fashioned types like ‘Bing’. Tart cherries are more disease resistant, cold tolerant, accepting of poor soil and reliably self-fertile.

Both types of cherry trees need similar care. Plant them in a spot with full sun, good air circulation and well-drained soil. Self-fertile cherries will produce fruit without another variety present for cross-pollination. If you select a variety that’s not self-fertile check the tag for a list of cultivars you can plant together for the best pollination. Standard cherries that grow large should be planted 35 to 40 feet apart. You can space dwarf trees 8 to 10 feet apart.

Once you plant your tree keep it consistently watered, but not soaked, for the first year. Deep soak established trees when the top few inches of the soil is dry. A layer of mulch will go a long way toward keeping the soil around the roots moist and cool. And don’t forget to give your cherries and all your trees and shrubs extra moisture going into winter, especially after a dry fall.

When it comes to fertilizer, feed the soil rather than the tree. If the tree appears happy an application of compost in early spring will be sufficient. If you think the tree needs more of a boast do a soil test first to determine what type and how much nutrient should be added. If the growth rate seemed slow the previous year an application of nitrogen may be called for. Apply it at a rate of 1/8 of a pound per inch of the diameter of the trunk. Fruit bearing sweet cherries will grow about 10 to 15 inches every year; sour cherries grow at a rate of 8 to 10 inches every year.

Pruning cherry trees is important for tree strength and fruit production. This task should be done every year. How and when you prune depends on the type of cherry, variety and your climate. For instance, the dwarf sweet cherry ‘Compact Stella’ growing in an arid climate can be pruned in late winter while the same tree growing in a humid region would be better served with a late spring pruning after the blooms fade. My best advice is to research the variety you select and check with your cooperative extension about timing. Oh, and don’t over think the task. You’ll be surprised how easy it is once you are armed with the right information.

My final thought on growing cherries is about birds. They love these treasured fruits as much as we do. You can cut down on the amount you share by covering the tree with bird netting. This is much easier to accomplish if you choose a dwarf variety. Look for sweet cherries grafted onto rootstocks named Gisela, Krymsk or Colt. In addition to the more manageable size these rootstocks offer other advantages such as disease resistance and tolerance of poor soils. Sour cherries are naturally smaller than sweet cherries and there is a selection of varieties that are genetically dwarf.