Cherry trees are gorgeous all-year long, from their spring blossoms to their luscious fruit in midsummer. Learn how to grow and harvest both sweet and tart cherries. Also, be sure to protect your cherries from bird damage!
Sweet cherries are the variety most often found in markets. They have a thick, rich, and almost plum-like texture. Sweet cherries grow in hardiness zones 5 to 7; they are self-sterile and best for an orchard or a large garden. You’ll need at least two or three trees, as they’ll need to pollinate each other. If space is limited, consider the dwarf, self-pollinating cultivar ‘Stella’.
Sour cherries are not usually eaten raw, but are widely used for preserves and other cooking uses. Sour cherries are much smaller than sweet cherries and all varieties are self-fertile. They grow in zones 4 to 6.
Cherry trees generally start bearing fruit in their fourth year; dwarf trees bear fruit a year earlier. One mature, standard-size tart or sweet cherry tree will produce 30 to 50 quarts of cherries each year; a dwarf tree, about 10 to 15 quarts.
Plant cherry trees in early spring or late fall (when the ground is soft and has a higher moisture content) in a sunny site with good air circulation and deep, well-drained soil. Apply mulch and water well. After flowering in a fruiting year, you’ll need to drape trees with wildlife-safe netting to protect the fruit from birds.
Plant cherry trees in a sunny site with good air circulation; avoid planting near larger trees or buildings that will shade the cherries. Ideally, cherry trees should get at least 6 hours of sunlight each day.
Cherry trees do best in deep, well-draining soil that has a pH of 6.0-7.0.
Space sweet cherries 35 to 40 feet apart; dwarfs, 5 to 10 feet apart. Space tart cherries 20 to 25 feet apart; dwarfs, 8 to 10 feet apart.
When to Plant Cherry Trees
Plant cherries in the late fall or early spring (when the ground is soft and has a higher moisture content).
When selecting sweet cherries, make sure the different varieties will pollinate each other.
How to Plant Cherry Trees
Trees on standard rootstock should be planted with the graft union a few inches below the soil level. Trees on dwarf rootstock should be planted with the graft union several inches above the soil level, which will prevent the graft from growing its own roots and bypassing the rootstock.
When planting fan-trained trees, construct the necessary supports before planting. Plant fans only 12 to 15 feet apart.
For bareroot trees, place the rootstock on a small mound of soil in the center of the planting hole, and spread the roots down and away, trying not to bend the roots. Backfill with soil.
For container-grown trees, first remove the rootball and set the tree on its side; cut through any pot-bound or encircled roots with shears. Don’t cover the top of the root-ball.
Check out this video to learn more about how to plant a bare–root fruit tree:
There is no difference in care between sour and sweet cherries.
Apply mulch around the tree to retain moisture, but leave several inches of bare earth around the trunk.
Drape netting over trees to protect the fruit from birds.
Water routinely in dry areas.
Thinning the fruit is not necessary for cherry trees, as they typically thin naturally in early summer.
Prune trees every year in late winter to encourage the growth of new fruiting wood. Don’t prune in the fall.
Fertilize early in spring with a low-nitrogen fertilizer (such as 5-10-10) a few weeks before trees start to flower, then fertilize as necessary (check soil fertility by testing the soil) until cherries are harvested. Do not fertilize after mid-summer, as new growth needs time to harden off before fall and winter.
Early - ‘Black Tartarian’
Midseason - ‘Bing’
Late - ‘Stella’
Early - ‘Early Richmond’
Midseason - ‘Montmorency’
Late - ‘Meteor’
Pick fruits only when FULLY ripe (dark red, black, yellow); the sugar content rises the few days before fully ripened.
Be ready to harvest within a week’s time. Eat or cook immediately.
Pick fruits when firm if they are to be frozen.
Be sure top pick with the cherry stem so you do not tear into the fruit, however, take care to lead the fruit spur to produce fruit next year.
Hand-picking may injure the shoots and cause infection; Cut the stalks with scissors.
Remember that cherry trees do not typically bear fruit until their fourth year. Thereafter, they should produce about 30 to 50 quarts of cherries each year.
Wit and Wisdom
A cherry year, a merry year.
There is a famous myth that President George Washington cut down a cherry tree and then admitted his wrongdoing to his father. This myth was invented by a biographer of President Washington, who hoped to display his honesty. We still think it’s a great idea to commemorate President’s Day with a delicious cherry pie recipe!
Birds are common pests, especially with sweet cherries (versus tarts). To avoid bird damage, you can drap nylon mesh netting over dwarf trees, but it’s difficult to cover the larger standard-size sweet cherry tree. Distracting objects such as pie pans can help but birds can used to them.
Another solution is to grow a fruit tree nearby that will ripen before and during the cherry season, such as mulberry trees. (Avoid planting ‘Illinois Everbearing’ mulberry which ripens too late.)
Other pests that attack cherries include fruit flies, apple maggots, peach tree borers, and caterpillars (specifically the larvae of the plum curculio). Ask your local garden center about approved sprays.
Brown rot and cherry leaf spot affect both tart and sweet cherries. Black knot and powdery mildew are potential problems for some areas.