Growing Cherries: The Complete Guide to Plant, Care, and Harvest Cherries
Who doesn’t love mom’s cherry pie? Or a cherry on top of a sundae? There are few things as enjoyable as having your own cherry tree, from the stunning spring blossoms to being able to pick the juicy fruits fresh of the tree. It’s no wonder that the cherry tree has been cultivated for thousands of years, originating in Europe and coming to North America in the 1600s.
I’m not going to lie, growing cherries has a few challenges. For instance, the trees have a chilling requirement, which is why they’re primarily grown north of the Mason Dixon line. You’ll also have to figure out how to battle the birds and other critters who love cherries as much as you do. Then there are the diseases and pollination challenges.
Don’t let these hurdles put you off. When it comes time to pluck basketfuls of ripe fruits off the tree, you’ll be glad you made the effort. Read on to get started.
Cherries Varieties Sweet Cherry
Sweet cherries originated from the wild cherry that is part of the rose family. They need to have a cherry friend to cross-pollinate with. Complicating things further, only certain cherries play nicely together.
Check out pollination charts or speak with a nursery expert to find out which trees will pollinate each other before purchasing. Sweet cherries can take 5-7 years before they start bearing fruit. When mature, sweet cherries produce about 15-20 quarts for dwarf trees and 40 quarts for semi-dwarf trees. Standard trees will give you up to 50 quarts.
- Bing – Bing is the classic commercial cherry with the traditional heart shape. It produces large, dark red fruits that are sweet and juicy. They are recommended for west cost growers and is a late season producer.
- Gold – These cherries are small and a pretty, deep yellow color. The flavor is tangy-sweet and ideal for eating fresh and processing. It’s a mid-season producer.
- Kristen – Kristen is a popular variety with market growers due to its sweet flavor. The purplish black fruit holds well, and the tree is cold hardy.
- Rainer Cherries – This is Washington’s famous cherry, named after Mt. Rainer. They’re yellow with a red blush and yellow flesh. Ripens mid-season. This is one of the hardiest of the sweet cherries.
- Stella – Stella is another old favorite. The dark red fruits are large and resistant to cracking. It can be cold sensitive.
Sour or tart cherries originated from the a close relative of the sweet cherry. It’s also part of the rose family. Sour cherries self-pollinate and can be planted as a single tree, although evidence suggests a friend may increase the fruit volume.
Tart cherries are more cold hardy and have a later bloom time. This means they’re not as compatible as pollinators for sweet cherries since they don’t bloom at the same time.
Sour cherry trees do best in zones 4-6 and begin bearing at 3-5 years. A mature tree will yield an average of 20 quarts for dwarf trees, and up to 30-40 for semi-dwarf, depending on the variety and if there are other pollinators around.
- Danube – The Danube is a favorite in the mid-Atlantic region and Michigan. It’s cold sensitive and likes to grow near bodies of water.
- Montmorency – This is my favorite cherry, primarily because I can get it to reliably fruit. It produces a dark red, juicy fruit. It is self-pollinating and perfect for pies and canning. We also eat them straight off the tree.
- North Star Pie Cherry – This is a prolific producer that grows tons of juicy, tart cherries. It is disease resistant and starts bearing a few years after planting.
Nanking (bush cherries are also known as Manchu cherry or mountain cherry and are closely related to plums. They originated in Asia and were introduced into America in the late 1800s. They were brought over by enterprising gardeners because they are more adaptable to different climates than sweet and tart varieties.
Nanking cherries are smaller than other cherries and grow in a bush-like shape. They’re an attractive plant in your landscaping and birds love them. Nanking cherries grow in zones 2-8 and can handle poor soil. They’ll produce lots of tart, tangy, pinkish fruits in the first or second year after planting. A mature plant will produce up to 8 quarts a year.
There are several unnamed cultivars of Nanking cherry. Often in nursery catalogs, you will see them listed simply as Nanking. However, named varieties are available which help you distinguish what you are getting.
Planting Cherry Trees Planting Zones
Growing cherries need a chilling period of 800-1,300 hours in temperatures between 32-55°F, so they don’t do well in many southern areas. On the flip side, cherries also can be cold sensitive and don’t do well in far northern regions with harsh winters.
In general, cherries grow in zones 5-8, with a few varieties bred to survive the cold of zone 4 and others to handle the heat of zone 9. It’s essential to pick a type that will grow in your area.
Where to Plant
Picking the right spot for your cherry trees is also critical. More so than for apples or pears. One technique is to plant your cherry trees in the middle of the orchard so that they get some protection from surrounding trees. Avoid planting your cherries in a frost pocket or low spot. Gentle slopes are ideal. Cherries like to be near bodies of water (think Washington DC and their famous cherry trees).
Cherries need full sun and good air flow.
Choosing Root Stock
Probably more important than selecting the variety is selecting the rootstock. A healthy stock is essential to get the tree off to a vigorous and productive start in life. Mazzard and Mahaleb rootstocks are considered by many to be the best.
When to Plant
Plant cherries in the fall or early spring when the soil is moist and soft.
Plant young cherry trees in a protected area. They need well-drained, loamy, sandy soil with a pH between 5.5-7.5. Cherries do not like wet feet so dig a deep hole and backfill with a well-draining soil mixture.
Here is my formula for planting healthy trees:
- Soil from the hole
- A gallon tub of peat moss
- A gallon tub of well-aged compost
- Two cups bonemeal
- Two cups fish meal in the spring only
The peat moss adds texture and helps regulate water in the soil. Your compost will provide micronutrients that will get your tree off to a great start. Bone meal is high in phosphorus and great for root growth. While this method takes more time than digging a hole and sticking in a tree, it pays off huge dividends in the long run.
Like most fruits, cherry trees come in standard, semi-dwarf and dwarf sizes. Standard sweet cherries need 35-40 feet between trees. Standard tart cherries need 20-25 feet of space between plants. Plant semi-dwarf trees 15 feet apart and dwarf trees 10 feet apart. Nanking cherries are bushes and can be planted 6-8 feet apart.
Caring for Growing Cherries
Cherry trees appreciate a natural mulch of straw or bark. Keep the mulch six inches away from the trunk.
Growing cherries need an inch of water per week, so water well if the weather is dry.
Fertilize growing cherries each spring as fruits start to develop. Fertilize once more after the harvest. It’s best to test the soil before adding fertilizer because too much can cause foliage growth at the expense of fruit.
Prune tart and Nanking cherries when they are dormant in the winter. Minimally prune sweet cherries in late summer. Pruning gives the tree plenty of access to sunlight and helps prevent disease.
Cut away any suckers and new vertical limbs using hand pruners on mature trees. Remove crossed branches.