By: Russell Stafford
Nothing tastes better than firm, succulent cherries right off the tree – especially if they come from your own back yard! Thanks to a new generation of hybrid and dwarf cherry trees, home-grown cherries are literally within the reach of more gardeners – in more climatic zones – than ever before.
As with everything gardening, choosing the right varieties and giving them the right conditions and care are the keys to getting your backyard cherry orchard off to a good start.
What Cherries Want
All cherries thrive in full sun and fertile, well-drained, slightly acid soil. They also favor mild, relatively dry summers and chilly winters (most cherries won’t bear fruit unless they receive several hundred hours of sub-45-degree temperatures). If you can offer these conditions, as well as a planting site that’s not overly prone to late, bud-damaging frosts, you’re likely to have good luck with all kinds of cherries.
Start With the Soil
Nutrient-rich loam is ideal. If you garden in sand, apply 2 or 3 inches of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost, and till it in before planting. If heavy clay soil predominates, consider planting your cherries on foot-tall mounds or berms of topsoil amended with compost. Higher berms (at least 3 feet tall) will also help protect flower buds from spring frost damage.
Avoid siting cherries in warm microsites (such as the south side of a building) that encourage premature, frost-susceptible bud development. In areas where heat and humidity are a challenge, maximize air circulation through proper pruning (see below) and generous spacing.
Pick the Right Cherry
As fate would have it, the most popular cherries are also the most persnickety (of course!). Sweet cherries (Prunus avium) such as the supermarket standbys ‘Bing’ and ‘Rainier’ are good bets only where temperatures stay mainly between 90 and minus 20 degrees F (sorry, Southern gardeners!). Because of their chilling requirements, they also do poorly in regions with mild year-round climates. The few sweet cherry varieties (including ‘Minnie Royal’ and ‘Royal Lee’) with relatively low chilling needs are worth a try in marginal mild-winter areas. Wherever they’re grown, most sweet cherry varieties require another compatible variety nearby to set fruit (only ‘Stella’ and a few others are self-fruitful). For a list of varieties that “pollenize” each other, click here.
Sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) tolerate somewhat more heat, humidity, and cold, making them a safer bet than sweet cherries for regions such as the southern Plains, lower Mid-Atlantic, and upper Midwest and Northeast. Their self-fruitfulness and relatively compact size also make them a better fit for smaller gardens. The tart fruits are excellent in pies and preserves, or for eating out of hand. By far the most popular variety is ‘Montmorency’, but many others are available.
Even icebox climates such as northern Maine and the upper Great Plains now offer the possibility of fresh-off-the-tree cherries. Recently introduced hybrids between Prunus cerasus and its shrubby cousin Prunus fruticosa produce flavorful cherries on 6- to 10-foot plants that are hardy to minus 50 degrees F. Cultivars include ‘Crimson Passion’, ‘Carmine Jewel’, ‘Romeo’, and ‘Juliet’. All are self-fruitful.
Choose the Right Sized Tree
At 20 to 40 feet tall, full-sized sweet- and sour-cherry trees are too large for many home gardens. They are considerably shorter, however, when grafted on dwarfing “Giselsa” rootstocks recently developed in Germany. For example, sweet cherry cultivars grown on Gisela 6 understock mature at 60 to 90 percent of the height of full-size trees, and begin fruiting within 3 years of planting. Gisela-grafted trees also show good hardiness and disease resistance. Most mail-order suppliers of cherry trees offer a smorgasbord of cultivar/rootstock combinations.
Caring For Your Cherries
Whatever the best cherry trees for your place and purposes, they’ll need constant care to thrive. Apply organic fertilizer and a layer of compost in spring, followed by 1 or 2 inches of bark mulch to keep the soil moist and cool and to inhibit weeds. Prune out spindly twigs, unproductive branches, water sprouts, and other superfluous growth in midsummer (avoid pruning during rainy or humid spells). Harvest ripe cherries and collect and discard dropped fruits several times a week, to keep spotted wing fruit flies and other pests at bay. Rake and remove fallen cherry leaves, which may host disease-causing spores. Make your yard a haven for beneficial insects by planting species that host them (such as members of the parsley and daisy families). These and other measures can help keep your cherry trees happy, and your table brimming with fresh cherries.