Days to germination: Not grown from seed
Days to harvest: 3 years
Light requirements: Full sun
Water requirements: Regular watering during dry weather
Soil: Well-drained and fertile
Container: Ideal for dwarf trees
There are basically two kinds of cherries: sour and sweet. Sour cherries are smaller than sweet, and are not usually eaten raw or fresh. They work better in cooked dishes like pies or jams. On the other hand, sweet cherries are excellent straight off the tree as well as cooked.
The two kinds of trees are slightly different, including growing requirements. You can grow sweet cherries up to zone 5, but sour cherries are sturdier and can be grown into zone 4. They do need a chilling in the winter, so you can’t keep them any place warmer than zone 9.
Cherries have a lot of vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants. They also have melatonin, which is why cherry juice is a good home remedy for insomnia or other sleeping problems.
Starting Your Tree
When selecting a seedling from the nursery, place close attention to the varieties so you don’t end up with an ornamental cherry. They will flower beautifully, and produce no fruit. They are very popular and there will likely be plenty of them around at the garden center.
You should know that not all cherry trees can self-pollinate, which means you may have to plant at least 2 trees if you want to actually get any fruit from them. Most sweet cherries will need to be planted in pairs but sour cherries are more often self-fertile.
If you are planting standard size cherry trees, keep them at least 20 feet apart. Dwarf or semi-dwarf cherries can be grown closer at 12 feet between them.
Do your cherry planting in the early spring, and plan your location for a sunny spot that can accommodate a tree growing to 15 feet or more in height. Dig the hole larger than the root ball on the seedling and mix in some rich compost. Keep the immediate area around the tree weed-free while the seedling is getting established. Mulch is the easiest way.
A little pruning can keep your cherry trees looking good, producing well and will make your harvesting easier. You don’t have to follow an elaborate pruning plan but a bit of trimming each early spring is a good idea.
Remove any dead or dying branches or ones that have gotten broken over the winter. If any branches are growing across one another, remove the smaller of the two. Give the main central branch a good trim to keep the tree short, and to encourage the tree to develop more side branches. Sweet cherries will need more pruning for height than sour cherries.
Your new cherry trees won’t need any additional fertilizer until they start to produce fruit each season. Then you will want to start feeding them with a standard fertilizer formula each year. Make sure your trees are watered regular for the first year, and after that you should only need to water them during dry periods.
There are some naturally dwarf sour cherry trees (such as Meteor), and you can also find some standard sweet varieties that have been grafted on to dwarf rootstock that will also produce a short tree ideal for container growing. You’ll need a very large container, 15 to 20 gallons in size or more.
You will need to keep your potted cherry trees a bit more heavily pruned than those planted in the garden, in order to keep their size from outgrowing their pot. Keeping the main central branch cut back is the best way to do that.
Pests and Diseases
Because of their small size, cherries are an ideal target for birds. Without some kind of protection for your trees, the birds will get your fruit instead of you.
There are a few insect pests to watch for as well, such as the cherry fruit fly. They look much like a housefly, but with stripes and banded wings. The flies are relatively harmless, but their larvae will eat your newly growing cherries. Sticky traps can be used in your trees to help eliminate the adult flies, and you should remove any fruit with worm-holes in them (both on the tree and on the ground). You can also spray insecticides to kill the adults, though most don’t target the worms themselves because they are protected within the cherry fruit.
A fungus infection can cause brown rot in cherries, usually attacking the flowers. In the spring, your cherry blossoms will wilt, turn brown and shrivel up. They don’t usually fall off the tree though. Eventually, they will show a grey coating of fungus growth over them. It can spread through your trees with rainfall. Any flowers that survive and produce cherries can still be effected. Cherries will develop soft brown patches.
Clean up all debris from around your tree in the fall, and cut out any twigs that are showing signs of the disease still on the tree. You can also treat with a fungicide spray. Use a low-nitrogen fertilizer blend with your trees if brown rot is a problem. Healthy trees can survive fine with a little brown rot but control is important to keep it from taking over.
Harvest and Storage
Your cherry trees will start to produce fruit approximately 3 to 5 years after you plant them. Grafted trees sometimes produce sooner than that. Typical harvest period is mid-summer.
Watch the color of your berries for ripeness. Cherries should be a deep red unless you are growing a lighter or yellow variety. The fruit does not ripen any further once you’ve picked them so there is no point harvesting cherries before their time.
Gently pull the cherry (with stem still attached) from the tree. Leave the stems on the cherries until you are going to use them so they store longer. Next year’s buds are hiding there at the base of each cherry cluster, so never snap off an entire grouping of fruit. Cherries bruise easily. Pick them in small batches or you will end up crushing the fruit at the bottom of your bucket.
Fresh cherries are very perishable and will only stay fresh for up to 4 days when stored in the refrigerator. You can free whole cherries as well. Just take off their stems and take out the pits. Whole pitted cherries can also be dried, just like grapes.