Cherry trees are hardy, deciduous plants. There are fruit-bearing cherry trees and ornamental flowering-only cherry trees. Fruit-bearing cherry trees bloom and set fruit in spring. The fruit is ready for harvest in early to early mid-summer.
There are three types of fruiting cherry trees, sweet cherries, sour cherries, and Duke hybrid cherries.
- Sweet cherries have a sweet, succulent fruit that can be eaten out of hand raw.
- Sour cherries stay tart until they are very ripe; they are generally too acidic to eat without cooking. Use sour cherries for pies, cobblers, and preserves.
- Duke cherries are a hybrid of sweet and sour cherries. They are sometimes referred to as an “all-purpose cherry.” Duke cherries can be red, bright pink, almost black, and pale yellow sometimes flecked with orange.
Here is your complete guide to growing cherry trees.
Best climate to grow cherry trees
- Cherries grow best where winters are just cold enough to freeze the top few inches of soil; this gives the trees the necessary dormancy to set fruit in spring.
- Sweet cherries grow best in cool, arid regions. Sweet cherries are hardy in Zones 5 to 9; they can withstand winter temperatures down to -16°F without damage to the flower buds. Sweet cherries will suffer in the heat; heat will reduce fruit size, especially when combined with humidity.
- Sour cherries grow in Zones 4 to 8. Sour cherries are more tolerant of summer heat and less likely to suffer from frost damage because they bloom later than sweet cherries.
- Duke cherries have growth and climate requirements similar to sweet cherries.
- USDA Zones where growing cherries can be difficult are Zones 4 and colder, the humid Southeast and South Central states, and the Southwest.
- Contact the nearby Cooperative Extension Service for cherry varieties that grow in your area.
Where to plant a cherry tree
- Plant cherries in a sunny spot. Cherries will tolerate partial shade but the yield will be limited.
- Grow cherries in a location sheltered from the wind; in a windy location grow a fan-trained cherry against a sheltered wall or fence or grow a dwarf variety in a container.
- Plant cherries in deep, well-drained soil that is moisture retentive. Prepare the planting site by working in plenty of aged compost or commercial organic planting mix before planting.
- Cherries prefer slightly acidic soil with a pH near 6.5.
- Do not plant cherries in waterlogged or sandy soil. Cherries do not like wet feet.
- Avoid planting cherries in low spots that can collect cold air or frost in spring. Blooms are vulnerable to frost and must be protected.
- A northern exposure stays cooler longer in spring and encourages late bloom.
- Avoid planting cherries near wild cherry and chokecherry trees which can harbor disease.
Choosing the right size cherry tree
- Standard sweet cherry trees can grow to 25 feet tall; smaller if grown on dwarfing rootstock.
- Standard sour cherry trees can grow to 15 feet tall; smaller if grown on dwarfing rootstock.
- Semi-dwarf cherry trees grow to about 12 feet tall. Dwarf cherries grow to about 10 feet tall.
- Cherry trees are sold as either bare-root, balled and burlapped, or container-grown trees. Bare-root and balled and burlapped trees are available in spring and are best planted in spring. Container-grown trees are available year-round and are best-planted from spring through late summer.
Cherry tree rootstock
- Cherry trees are commonly grafted, meaning their root system is different from the fruit-producing portion of the plant. Local nurseries commonly carry fruiting stems (called scions) grafted to a rootstock that grows best in the region. Rootstock will affect the size of the mature tree.
- ‘Mahaleb’ rootstock grows best in well-drained soil in dry climates; this rootstock grows slightly compacted trees.
- ‘Mazzard’ rootstock grows well in heavy, moist soil, and in Eastern states; this rootstock produces semi-dwarfing trees (12 to 15 feet tall).
- ‘Gisela 5’ rootstock grows dwarfing (6 to 10 feet), heavy-fruiting trees. ‘Gisela’ rootstock will reduce tree size by 40 to 50 percent. It is resistant to root-knot nematodes.
- ‘Colt’ is dwarfing rootstock hardy to -10°
- ‘Stockton Morello’ is a sour cherry rootstock for heavy soil.
Cherry tree pollination
- Most sweet cherries are self-unfruitful and need a compatible partner for cross-pollination. Pollen is carried from one tree to the other by bees or other insect pollinators. Another cherry suitable as a pollinator should be within 300 feet. Sweet cherries that are self-fertile are ‘Stella’, ‘Lapins’, ‘Starkcrimson’, and ‘Sunburst’.
- Sour cherries and Duke cherries are self-fertile; you need only one tree.
- Sweet cherries will not pollinate sour cherries, but sour cherries can pollinate sweet cherries although it is unlikely because sweet cherries and sour cherries do not bloom at the same time.
- Sweet cherries are grouped for pollination; grouped sweet cherries can pollinate cherries outside their group but not cherries in the same group; for example, ‘Bing’, ‘Lambert’, and ‘Napoleon’ are in the same group and so can not pollinate one another.
- Check the nursery tag or catalog for a list of pollinators for the tree you select.
- If you have room to grow just one cherry tree, select a tree with shoots from pollinators grafted to the tree.
Cherry tree pollination groups
Cherry trees that flower at the same time can cross-pollinate one another. Cherry varieties are grouped by flowering time. Two varieties in the same group are pollinators. Cherries in Group A flower first in spring; cherries in Group D flower last. Choose two trees in the same group or in an adjacent group to help ensure pollination; the flowering times of trees in adjacent groups will likely overlap.
- Pollination Group A: ‘Early Rivers’, ‘Mermat’, ‘Noir de Guberi’.
- Pollination Group B: ‘May Duke’, ‘Merchant’, ‘Merton Favorite’, ‘Napoleon’, ‘Rainier’, ‘Starkrimson’, ‘Vari’, ‘Vega’, ‘WhiteGold’.
- Pollination Group C: ‘Bing’, ‘Hertford’, ‘Hedelfingen’, ‘Lapins/Cherokee’, ‘Montmorency’, ‘Regina’, ‘Stella’, ‘Sunburst’.
- Pollination Group D: ‘Hudson’, ‘Morello’, ‘North Star’, ‘Surefire’, ‘Sweetheart’.
Cherry tree fruit yield
Mature cherry trees will produce the following yields each season:
- Standard sweet cherry: up to 300 pounds.
- Standard sour cherry: up to 100 pounds
- Dwarf sweet cherry: 50 to 100 pounds.
- Dwarf sour cherry: 25 to 30 pounds.
- Fan-trained cherry: 10 to 30 pounds.
Planting a cherry tree
- Plant bare-root trees in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked while the trees are still dormant.
- Plant container-grown or balled and burlapped trees in spring or early summer before hot, dry weather comes.
- Prepare a planting site in full sun that is sheltered from a prevailing breeze or wind.
- Work well-rotted compost or manure into the soil and add a cupful of all-purpose fertilizer to the bottom of the hole.
- Dig a hole half again as deep and twice as wide as the tree’s roots.
- Put a tree stake (or support wires for a fan) in place before planting. Drive the stake into the ground to the side of the hole to at least 2 feet deep.
- Set the plant in the hole so that the soil mark on the stem is at the surface level of the surrounding soil. Remove all twine and burlap from balled and burlapped trees. Spread the roots out in all directions.
- Re-fill the hole with half native soil and half aged compost or commercial organic planting mix; firm in the soil so that there are no air pockets among the roots. Water in the soil and create a modest soil basin around the trunk to hold water at watering time.
- Secure the tree to the stake with tree ties.
- After planting, water each tree thoroughly and fertilize with a high-phosphorus liquid starter fertilizer.
Spacing cherry trees
- Space standard sweet cherry trees 20 to 30 feet apart. A standard tree will grow 12 to 20 inches each year.
- Space standard sour cherry trees 20 feet apart.
- Space dwarf cherry trees 10 feet apart. A dwarf tree will grow 5 to 10 inches each year.
Container growing a cherry tree
- Dwarf cherry trees can be grown in containers.
- Choose a large pot or tub at least 18 inches wide and deep that is well-drained.
- Plant trees in a commercial organic potting mix.
- Keep the soil evenly moist but not wet.
- Feed cherries growing in containers with an all-purpose fertilizer that is slightly higher in potassium.
- Repot the tree after two years into a container that is 24 inches wide and deep.
Watering and feeding a cherry tree
- The first summer after planting, water a cherry tree weekly. Once the tree is established it will need only infrequent watering. Keep the soil evenly moist during the time fruits are swelling so that they reach full size. If the soil dries out and then water is added, cherry skins are likely to split.
- Test the water to make sure it is not high in salt, boron, or chlorine.
- Feed trees in early spring; spread several inches of aged compost or aged manure around each tree. Also, in spring, feed trees with an all-purpose (10-10-10) fertilizer before fruit sets. Do not fertilize cherry trees between fruit set and harvest.
- If tree growth is slow test the soil for nutrient deficiencies. If growth is vigorous and overly lush; plant a cover crop around trees to use up some of the extra nutrients.
- In early spring, protect trees that have leafed out or are budded or blooming from frost. When frost is predicted cover trees with a heavy-duty row cover or large sheet of plastic.
Training a cherry tree
- Sour cherries and naturally spreading; they can be trained to an open-center form
- Sweet cherries are upright growing; they are best trained to a central leader or modified central leader form.
- Sweet cherries do not produce side branches during early life; they are naturally tall growers. Head back (cut back) each branch significantly in the first 4 or 5 years to force framework branch development. Make cuts just above points where you want branch development. Thin out undesirable branches to encourage the tree to spread.
- If the cherry you plant is a straight whip with no lateral branches, cut the whip off about 25 inches above the ground. As new growth starts, select three shoots in the top 18 inches about 6 inches apart up and down the stem; rub off all other lateral shoot buds. These three shoots will develop into three framework branches.
- The following year cut back each of the three framework branches to one-half the season’s growth. Select two well-spaced shoots on each of these framework branches to further develop; rub off any other laterals. Repeats this process each year until the tree is 4 or 5 years old. This early training will produce a tree that will have a strong framework. A tree with a strong branching framework will take care of itself going forward with minimal yearly maintenance pruning.
- During the first two growing seasons do not let the tree produce fruit. Nip off flowers so the tree will put its energy into root growth.
- Dwarf trees can be trailed on a wire trellis; the scaffold branches can be trained to grow horizontally.
Pruning a cherry tree
- Light pruning can be done at any time, but heavy pruning should be done in the fall when the tree is dormant.
- Prune to remove all diseased, dead, and broken branches. Remove fast-growing vertical branches called water sprouts. Remove shoots that grow from the root below the soil, called suckers. Remove crossing and rubbing branches that can injure each other. Remove V-branching branches, called crotches; narrow crotch branches cannot support the weight of fruit.
- Do not prune more than one-third of the total tree each year.
- Prune to just above a growth bud or flush to a main branch or trunk.
- Sweet cherries fruit in clusters at the base of one-year-old stems and branches (last year’s new growth).
- Sour cherries fruit along the length of one-year-old stems and branches.
- After harvest, prune up to ¼ of the shoots that just fruited. Cut each shoot back to a new, lower-side shoot so that next year’s fruit is borne closer to the center of the tree.
- Thin out old lateral stems and branches and sub-laterals that no longer bear fruit. This will give fruit-bearing young branches and spurs plenty of sun and space for growth and fruiting.
Thinning a cherry trees
Cherries do not require thinning to produce good quality fruit.
Cherry tree propagation
- Propagate cherries by grafting. Graft fruiting stems (called scions) to the suitable rootstock. Contact the nearby Cooperative Extension Service for recommended scions and rootstock for your area.
Cherry tree diseases and other problems
- Brown rot is a fungal disease that causes soft, brown, fuzzy mold patches on fruit; spray trees with lime-sulfur when buds begin to turn green in spring; during bloom spray trees with sulfur if the weather is humid, rainy, or above 70° Brown rot can also cause leaves and blossoms to turn brown.
- Black knot a fungal disease can attack tree limbs. During the dormant season remove any dark, knobby growth or galls along with 12 inches of healthy wood. To prevent black knot, spray trees with lime sulfur when the beds swell and again a week later.
- Cherry leaf spot is a fungal disease that causes dark spots or shot holes on leaves and early leaf drop. Collect and dispose of diseased leaves. The next spring spray swelling buds with lime-sulfur every 1 to 3 weeks in wet or humid weather.
- Bacterial canker causes bark or stems to ooze orange resin or gum. Oozing gum may also indicate blunt injury to the wood. Prune away all infected wood and dispose of it in the trash.
- Powdery mildew fungal disease will leave a white coating on the leaves. Spray with a fungicide.
- Iron and manganese nutrient deficiency can cause yellow leaves with green veins.
- Fruit cracking can be caused by the uneven uptake of water. Keep the soil evenly moist do not let it go dry then overwater. Grow varieties that are less susceptible to cracking: ‘Seneca’, ‘Vista’, ‘Black Tartarian’, ‘Sam’, ‘Stella’, ‘Sweet Ann’, ‘Van’, ‘Viva’.
Cherry tree pests
- Birds will eat ripening cherries. Net trees to keep birds away. Small trees can be protected by a net cage. Birds are less attracted to light-skinned, yellow cherries.
- Cherry fruit flies lay eggs on developing fruit; the larvae tunnel into the fruit causing fruit to become malformed and to drop. Remove litter below trees to expose larvae that drop from the fruit and pupate in the soil. Monitor and control adult fruit flies with sticky red ball traps; set the traps out shortly after flowers fade.
- Moth caterpillars can feed on leaves; caterpillar webs can curl leaves. In winter, spray trees with dormant spray oil to smother overwintering eggs.
- Black cherry aphids that feed on leaves will cause leaves to curl and become distorted. Aphid excrement will cause leaves to be sticky and gray sooty mold can follow. Knock aphids from leaves with a strong stream of water.
- Peachtree borers bore into the wood causing limb dieback. Probe into holes with a wire to kill borers.
- Cherry fruit worm larvae leave webbing around fruits; they eat into fruits. Spray with Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki.
- Wasps and birds can eat ragged holes in ripe fruit. Cover trees with netting and set out wasp traps.
Fall and winter cherry tree care
- Treat trees with dormant oil spray in winter to kill overwintering aphids, winter moths, and other insect pests and fungal diseases.
- Prune out branches that show signs of black knot disease. (Prune to train trees in spring.)
- Be prepared to cover cherry trees with netting in late winter when buds begin to appear; netting will keep birds from eating the new buds.
- Cherries begin to bear fruit 3 to 7 years after planting.
- The cherry harvest lasts about six weeks.
- Let cherries ripen on the tree for the best flavor; a ripe cherry will be soft and sweet. Cherries do not continue to ripen off the tree.
- Rain and wet weather at harvest time will require fruit to be picked early to prevent fruits from splitting. Pick split fruits immediately and use them fresh.
- Cut fruits from the tree with a pruner leaving the stems attached to the fruit. Fruit with the stem attached stores better than fruit without the stem. Leaving the stem behind can leave the tree susceptible to disease.
- Freshly picked cherries will keep for a day or two if washed, dried, and stored in the refrigerator; yellow cherries may not keep their color.
- Cherries can be frozen, canned, or dried.
Using cherries in the kitchen
Wash, do not soak cherries. For compotes and fruit salads remove fresh cherry stems then remove the pits with a cherry pitter or cut the cherry in half with a paring knife and remove the stone or make an incision at the top of the cherry tip and remove the stone.
Sweet cherries will keep in the refrigerator in a perforated plastic bag for 2 to 3 days. Sour cherries will keep in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Keep cherries away from strong-smelling foods; they will absorb odor and lose flavor. Cherries stored at room temperature will spoil rapidly.
Cherries have a flavor affinity for almonds, chocolate, cinnamon, custard, duck, goose, kirsch, pork, poultry, red wine, sour cream, and yo
Cherry tree varieties to grow
- Sweet cherries to consider planting: ‘Bing’, ‘Black Tartarian’ (purple), ‘Golden Emperor Francis’ (yellow), ‘Hendelfingen’, ‘Lambert’, ‘Lyons’, ‘Napoleon’, ‘Rainier’ (yellow), ‘Royal Ann’, ‘Sam’ (black), ‘Windsor’, ‘Yellow Spanish’.
- Sour cherries to consider planting: ‘Early Richmond’, ‘English Morello’, ‘Montmorency’.
- Cherries recommended for USDA Zones 5 to 7: ‘Royal Ann’, ‘Hedelfingen’.
- Cherries recommend for USDA Zones 6 and 7: ‘Bing’, ‘Stella’.
- Cherries recommended for USDA Zones 8 and warmer: ‘Lapins’.
- Sour cherries that can withstand heat and cold: ‘North Star’, ‘Montmorency’.
- Brown rot-resistant cherries: ‘Windsor’, ‘North Star’.
- Leaf spot disease-resistant cherries: ‘Lambert’, ‘Hedelfingen’, ‘Valera’, ‘Viva’, ‘North Star’.
- Good pollinators: ‘Van’ is not self-fertile but it is a good pollenizer for other varieties; ‘Lapins’ is self-fertile and is a good pollenizer for other varieties; ‘Morello’ is self-fertile and a good pollenizer for other late-flowering varieties.
Sweet cherry varieties
Sweet cherries are great for eating out of hand and using in fruits salads, compotes, custards, sorbets, ice cream, and yogurt.
Fresh sweet cherries come to harvest from mid-spring to mid-summer, May through mid-July in the Northern Hemisphere. The sweet cherry harvest can be divided into early, mid-season, and late. That means you can enjoy some or all of these over the course of the cherry harvest.
Here are a few sweet cherry varieties to look for:
- Angela: medium to large cherry with firm flesh and good flavor. Late harvest.
- Bing: large, red-black cherry with dark flesh. This is a meaty, firm, intensely sweet, and juicy cherry that is also sweetly aromatic. Bing is the most common cherry in North America. Late harvest.
- Black Russian: black-red skinned cherry with dark firm flesh that is great eating fresh. Midseason harvest.
- Black Tartarian: very large, bright purplish to black-skinned cherry with dark, thick flesh that is sweet-tasting and great for desserts. This cherry softens after picking. Early harvest.
- Chapman: a large, round, red cherry.
- Chinook: a mahogany-skinned cherry very similar to the Bing.
- Compact Stella: a medium to large heart-shaped cherry with dark red fruit, firm flesh, and great flavor. Midseason harvest.
- Deacon: a medium to large black-skinned cherry with firm flesh and sweet flavor. Early harvest.
- Early Burlat: a large, moderately firm cherry. Early harvest.
- Emperor Francis: large, yellow-skinned cherry with pink blush, firm, light flesh, and very sweet. Midseason harvest.
- Giant: very large, black-red skinned cherry with firm dark flesh. Midseason harvest.
- Gold: medium-small yellow-skinned cherry with a firm, light flesh that is tangy-sweet and great for desserts. Late harvest.
- Hedelfingen: large, nearly black cherry with a firm, dark flesh and a sweet flavor great for fresh use. Late harvest.
- Jubilee: fruit is similar to Bing but larger with glossy, dark red skin and firm sweet flesh. Early harvest.
- Kansas Sweet: fruit similar to Bing but larger with a glossy dark red skin and sweet, juicy flavor. Late harvest.
- Lambert: large, purple-red cherry with firm, pale flesh; very sweet and juicy; considered a connoisseur’s cherry. Late harvest.
- Lapins Sweet Cherry: similar to Bing. Late midseason harvest.
- Larian: medium to large fruit with firm flesh. Early harvest.
- Napoleon: also known as Royal Ann is a large, yellow-skinned cherry with bright red blush. This is an old French variety with sweet, firm, juicy flesh and a sprightly flavor.
- Rainer: large, golden yellow skinned cherry with pink blush and firm, juicy flesh and a sweet delicate flavor. Early harvest.
- Republican: also called Black Republican and Black Oregon—a small, round fruit that is dark purple and firm, tender and tart. Late harvest.
- Royal Ann: see Napoleon.
- Sam: medium-large, black-skinned cherry that is firm and juicy. Midseason harvest.
- Schmidt: large, black, heart-shaped cherry with a sweet taste. Midseason harvest.
- Starking Hardy Giant: dark red fruit and good flavor. Early to midseason.
- Stella: large, dark red cherry with firm flesh and sweet flavor. Midseason harvest.
- Ulster: a large, dark-skinned cross between a Schmidt and a Lambert with excellent flavor. Midseason harvest.
- Van: dark red glossy cherry with firm, dark flesh; slightly smaller than the Bing. Late midseason harvest.
- Vista: large, dark red skin with firm, dark flesh. Early harvest.
- Windsor: dark red cherry with firm flesh great for eating fresh. Midseason harvest.
Rainer and Royal Ann sweet cherries
Not all cherries are created cherry red. Ranier is a yellow and red-skinned cherry that it is one of the sweetest cherries you will ever taste.
There are two cherry varieties with partially yellow or golden skins: Rainer and Royal Ann. Royal Ann–sometimes called Napoleon–is golden yellow blushed with red. Rainer is a bit more eye-popping, bi-colored bright yellow and cherry-red skinned.
Both Rainer and Royal Ann are sweet cherries, the type of cherries you can eat without cooking. Sweet cherries can be be added raw to fruits salads, ice cream sundaes, yogurts, sorbets, and custards, or cooked in compotes, tarts, pies, flans, soufflés, and clafoutis.
Rainer is unlikely to make it from the farm stand to the kitchen. This is a sweet cherry you will enjoy eating out of hand. You can use a paring knife to slit the Rainer from north to south then pull it apart, popping out the pit. The fastest way to enjoy the Rainier is to simply let your teeth and tongue do the work.
Rainer is a hybrid between the Bing and Van cherries, two of the sweetest sweet cherries out there. Rainer is sweeter than Bing, though considered a bit more fragile. Rainer has a creamy, yellow flesh that fades to a nearly white heart. Rainer is juicy and its sweetness is on the mild side.
Royal Ann has a sweet-tart flavor.
Sour cherry varieties
Sour cherries are great for cooking. They are richly flavored and firm of flesh so that they don’t go mushy during cooking. Use sour cherries for pies, cobblers, clafoutis, dessert sauces, preserves, and jams.
There are two types of sour cherries: amarelle-type cherries are yellow-fleshed with clear juice; morello-type cherries are red-fleshed with red juice.
Fresh sour cherries—there are more than 300 varieties–come to market from mid-June through mid-August.
Here are a few sour cherry varieties to consider:
- Early Richmond: a small, round, bright red cherry with a tart-acidy flavor. This is an amarelle-type cherry used for making jams, pies, jellies, and preserves. Early harvest.
- English Morello: a deep red-black skinned cherry that is large, tender, and juicy. This morello-type cherry is slightly tart. It freezes well and is an excellent choice for pie. Late harvest.
- Meteor: a large, pale red-skinned cherry with yellow flesh that is mildly acidic; amarelle type. Late harvest.
- Montmorency: considered the best pie cherry, this is a medium to large, round, bright red-skinned cherry with soft, yellow flesh and a mildly acidic, tart flavor. Montmorency (named after a valley in the Ile-de-France) can be canned. It is an amarelle-type cherry. Early harvest.
- North Star: similar to Montmorency with bright red to mahogany skin, tart-juicy red flesh. Morello-type cherry. Late harvest.
Also of interest:
Garden Planning Books at Amazon:
- Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner
- Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide Vegetable Encyclopedia
- Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide
- Tomato Grower’s Answer Book
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