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How to Plant, Grow, Prune, and Harvest Cherries

How to grow cherriesCherries can be red, bright pink, almost black, and pale yellow sometimes flecked with orange. 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 hybrids between sweet and sour cherries.

Cherries are hardy, deciduous trees. Most are grafted, meaning their root system is different from the fruit-producing portion of the plant. Cherries bloom and set fruit in spring. The fruit is ready for harvest in early to early mid-summer.

Best Climate and Site for Growing Cherries

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Regions 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.
  • 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.

Cherry treesChoosing the Right Size Cherry Tree

  • Standard sweet cherries can grow to 25 feet tall; smaller if grown on dwarfing rootstock.
  • Standard sour cherries can grow to 15 feet tall; smaller if grown on dwarfing rootstock.
  • Semi-dwarf cherries grow to about 12 feet tall. Dwarf cherries grow to about 10 feet tall.
  • Cherries 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 spring through late summer.

Cherry Tree Rootstock

  • Cherries 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.

 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.
Cherry tree planted
Standard size sweet cherry tree

Planting Cherry Trees

  • 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.

Container Growing Cherries

  • 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.

Cherry Tree Care, Nutrients, and Water

  • 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.

Grow cherry treeTraining Cherry Trees

  • 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 Cherry Trees

  • Light pruning can be done at any time, but heavy pruning should be done in fall when the tree is dormant.
  • Prune to remove all diseased, dead, and broken branches. Remove fast-growing vertical branches called watersprouts. 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 Cherry Trees

  • Cherries do not require thinning to produce good quality fruit.

Propagating Cherries

  • 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 harvestHarvest and Storing Cherries

  • Cherries begin to bear fruit 3 to 7 years after planting.
  • Cherry harvest lasts about six weeks.
  • Let cherries ripen on the tree for 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.

cherry leaf spotCherry Tree Problems and Control

  • 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.
  • 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 limb. 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 leaves. Spray with a fungicide.
  • Iron and manganese nutrient deficiency can cause yellow leaves with green veins.
  • Peachtree borers bore into the wood causing limb dieback. Probe into holes with a wire to kill borers.
  • Cherry fruitworm 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 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.

Cherry 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.

Also of interest:

Sweet Cherry Varieties

Sour Cherry Varieties

Rainer Sweet Cherry

Cherry: Kitchen Basics


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