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 on a branch

Sweet cherries on a branch

Sweet cherries originated from Prunus avium, 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 Cherry

Sour cherry fruits on a tree branch

Sour cherry fruits on a tree branch

Sour or tart cherries originated from the Prunus cerasus, 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 Cherry

Nanking cherry bush in a field

Nanking cherry bush in a field

Nanking (Prunus tomentosa) 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.

Soil Requirements

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.

Spacing

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

Growing cherries with blossoms budding

Growing cherries with blossoms budding

Mulching

Cherry trees appreciate a natural mulch of straw or bark. Keep the mulch six inches away from the trunk.

Watering

Growing cherries need an inch of water per week, so water well if the weather is dry.

Fertilizing

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.

Pruning

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.

Cherry Pests and Diseases

The poor cherry tree is prone to several pests and diseases. Sweet cherry trees are particularly susceptible, while Nanking cherries are hardier than sweet or tart varieties. Don’t let this discourage you. Good management can go a long way to keeping your cherries in tip-top shape.

Aphids

Aphids attack cherry trees, and there is a specific variety – the black cherry aphid – that is particularly bothersome. Extreme infestations can stunt the growth in young trees. Encourage predators like lacewing larvae, lady beetles, and soldier beetles. Spray young trees with neem oil.

Peach Twig Borer

Peach twig borer moths attack stone fruits, disfiguring or ingesting fruit and killing twigs. Look out for wilting or stunted shoots in the springtime and larval damage in the fruits. The Pentalitomastix pyralis wasp is an effective predator. If you have a severe infestation, you may need to use an insecticide in the early summer when the first larvae generation emerges.

Western Cherry Fly

The cherry fruit fly starts life as a yellowish white grub which changes into a small fly that looks like a housefly. The fly makes a small hole in the fruit and lays its eggs, and the larvae hatch and make unsightly tunnel-like holes in the fruit. Traps are a good option for attracting and catching adults.

Spider Mites

Growing cherries are troubled by the European red mite and the two-spotted spider mite. These tiny arachnids feed on leaves, reducing photosynthesis. You'll notice red or yellowish dots and webbing on the leaves of your trees, particularly during the warm summer months. Spray mites off of trees with a strong blast of water and rake up the debris. Keep weeds away from your orchard.

Bacterial Canker

The bacterial canker virus attacks all stone fruit trees, causing cankers that can girdle a branch and destroy them. Look for spots of dark bark with a sunken center or gumming on the tree. It's particularly problematic in moist, cool areas. Make sure your tree has good drainage and sanitize your tools. Prune back diseased branches during the summer.

Brown Rot

Brown rot attacks stone fruit trees and can cause you to lose half of your fruit harvest. You'll first notice brown spots on your cherry blossoms, followed by fruits that shrivel up. Fruits will also be covered in a powdery, gray mold. Prune off diseased branches and destroy them. Make sure to sanitize tools to avoid spreading. Remove and dispose of any diseased fruits. Keep trees well pruned and spaced so that they get plenty of air circulation.

Cherry Leaf Spot

If you notice your growing cherry tree leaves have small purple and red spots all over them, you may have cherry leaf spot. This fungal disease primarily attacks trees in the midwest, eastern Canada and New England. Infestations can get so extreme that they will cause the trees to completely drop their leaves by mid-summer and kill off an entire tree.

If you have this fungus in your area, always rake up and destroy fallen leaves around your cherry trees. Add a layer of straw mulch after the raking is done. You may also need to apply a fungicide, though cherry leaf spot can develop resistance, so alternate between fungicide types. Apply fungicide in the two weeks after blossoming when cherry leaves open and repeat according to the manufacturer's recommendation.

Cherry Rust

Cherry rust is caused by a fungus that can cause leaves to drop prematurely, usually late in the season. For this reason, cherry rust isn't as big of a threat as some other diseases, because the harvest is generally completed by the time rust causes damage. You'll often first see cankers on growing cherry trees, followed by pale leaf spots. On the undersides of leaves, you'll see rust-like pustules. Control with a lime and sulfur fungicide.

Black Knot

Black knot on growing cherries

Black knot on growing cherries

Black knot is a widespread fungus that affects growing xfcherries and plums. It's easy to identify by its hard, uneven, black galls that wrap around the twigs and branches of the tree. Basically, it strangles the tree, stunting growth and stopping fruit production.

Controlling the disease begins with proper management like keeping the orchard area clean of fallen twigs and fruits. You can also use a dormant spray of neem oil. Neem can help inhibit the disease but won't kill it once it's established. Copper sprays will inhibit spore production.

If galls develop, remove them wearing gloves and being careful not to touch healthy parts of the tree. Burn the contaminated branches.

Powdery Mildew

Powdery mildew causes white spots on leaves and covers fruit in white mold. It starts in the spring with circular powdery spots on leaves. It's spread by moisture, so be sure to irrigate the soil, not the leaves of the tree. Keep trees well spaced and pruned to maintain good air circulation. Prune off root suckers, since powdery mildew favors suckers.

Verticillium Wilt

Verticillium wilt usually attacks 5-7 years after planting. In the early summer, young trees will have yellow leaves and withering growth. It can significantly reduce fruit yield. Luckily, healthy trees can generally fight off this disease, so fertilize plants, control weeds and keep them well watered. Remove any dead, dying or diseased branches to prevent vert from having a ready place to take hold.

Cherry Rasp Leaf

Cherry rasp leaf virus causes malformed leaves, usually on the lower half of the tree. Remove and destroy infected trees. Control weeds and purchase resistant varieties.

Sour Cherry Yellows

This virus spreads by pollen and grafting. It takes a few years after the tree is infected to see symptoms, though you will notice mottled yellow leaves in the first year. Eventually up to half of the leaves will drop from the trees and the tree will develop a willowy, thin growth habit. Yield will be reduced, though the fruits that do develop are usually healthy and edible. Buy from certified clean stock and avoid grafting or transferring pollen from infected trees. Thermotherapy has been effective in eliminating the virus.

Crown and Root Rot

This disease impacts the tree just below the soil surface or right above the surface. An infected tree will look generally unhealthy or a bit like it has fire blight. If you suspect you have it, dig from around the base of the tree to expose the root to look for rot. Avoid watering to the point where water pools around the tree. Make sure you have well-drained soil.

Birds

Bird sitting next to growing cherries on a branch

Bird sitting next to growing cherries on a branch

Birds are a major pest for cherries. You can deter them by planting mulberries and installing bird netting. Cover your trees as soon as the cherries begin to swell. Netting sometimes collapses in on the tree which allows the birds to pick at the cherries. Use bamboo or tall stakes to make a tent over the trees. Secure the tent to the ground so that the birds can't get underneath.

Another way to scare the birds away from growing cherries is by using a statue of an owl. You can even buy ones that make screeching noises. You will need to move this around the orchard periodically so that the birds don't realize it's fake.

Remember that birds are not all bad. Many species of birds are beneficial to have around the garden as they eat insects that devour our plants.

Companions for Cherries

When growing cherries, the following plants make good companions:

  • Allium
  • Marigold
  • Spinach
  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Tansy
  • Nasturtium
  • Clover

Worst Companions:

  • Potato
  • Grass

Harvesting and Storing Cherries

Cherries in a basket

Cherries in a basket

Cherries are ready for harvest after they turn dark red, yellow or black, depending on the variety. The sugar content increases dramatically in the last week, and they won't ripen further once off the tree like some fruits, so do some taste testing to be sure you're getting them at the right time. If you see a ton of birds visiting your tree, it might be time to get picking. Rain will make ripe cherries split, so get them off the tree before a heavy rain.

Leave the stem intact on the fruits because that will help them store a little longer. They can be stored in the refrigerator for about a week in perforated plastic bags. Don't wash them before storage.

Cherries drying on a sheet

Cherries drying on a sheet

If you have a standard cherry tree, you'll be getting a lot of fruit. That means it's time to start making the usual pies, preserves, bounce, and cake. You can also get creative and make cherry barbecue sauce, salsa and relish. If you can't use it all up, try canning your cherries. You can also freeze fresh cherries. Wash and pit the fruits and lay them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Freeze through. Transfer them to a freezer bag.

Now that you have the tools and know-how, it's time to get planting. Share your favorite cherry recipes in the comments.

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