How to Grow Cherries
Cherries are best suited to areas which experience a cold snap during winter. Cooler temperate regions and highlands which experience cold winters are ideal. But beware - they won't grow in hot and humid subtropical climates.
The cherry is the fruit of the sweet cherry (Prunus avium) and the subgenus called the acid cherry (P. cerasus). These are also sometimes known as sour or tart cherries. A further group, P. padus, produces few commonly grown cherry types.
The acid cherry has good flavour, forms a smaller tree and bears fruit at a younger age. They can easily be trained into bushes or fans, require just 3-5m of space, and do not need a particularly rich soil to grow well. These features make them well suited to the home garden, although they are less often seen. The fruits appear when trees are upwards of six years old and usually need cooking.
Sweet cherry types are more popular but they need more room to grow at about 5-9m per tree. They can reach 12m tall. Although they can be trained to fan or bush shapes they are vigorous plants and it is usually too difficult to maintain their shape.
Cherry fruits may dark almost blackish or bright red in colour depending on the cultivar. There are even white ones.
Whilst some acid cherries are self-fertile, all sweet cherry varieties are self-sterile. This means that you need more than one tree so that they can cross-pollinate each other.
Besides the requirement for a cool to cold winter, trees prefer climates without large seasonal variations in temperature. Almost all soils, except the heaviest clay loams, are suitable for cherries. Regardless of the soil type, cherries will not do well if the soil is at all saline or shallow - especially the larger sweet cherries. Protection from frost and strong wind is also important.
Sweet cherries need more space to grow than most other fruit trees. They also need plenty of water in spring and summer after fruit set to avoid fruit splitting. Sweet types can be grown as standards and half standards. These are best planted in position when they are two years old, and the same applies to bush types. Those trained as fans can be planted out at four years.
A deep well-drained soil is needed in an open sunny position. A sloping site is perfect as it minimises the risk of frost. In frost-prone areas deep layer of organic mulch will keep roots warm. It also helps to stop the soil warming too quickly during warm spells.
Most of the cultivars available have been grafted onto other rootstocks - typically derived from wild cherry. These grafted forms are can tolerate a wider range of conditions, have greater disease-resistance, and may bear fruit sooner.
Bush and fan trained trees will need regular pruning to contain growth. Apart from training in the early stages to create an open framework, sweet cherries require little or no pruning because they flower on old wood. Some summer pruning after harvest can, however, help reduce the amount of vigorous lateral growth. Acid cherries, on the other hand, are always summer pruned by reducing laterals by about half.
Pest & Disease Problems
Cherries may be prone to some pest and disease problems. Pests include root weevils, nematodes and aphids. The pear and cherry slug is also quite destructive on trees which are not growing vigorously. These are the larvae of black sawfly and may be hosed off or sprayed with insecticidal soaps. Birds are probably the greatest nuisance. Losses to birds can be devastating. Commercial growers often use noise from guns to scare birds away. The home gardener might use nets or hessian bags around fruits to protect them.
Of the diseases, bacterial canker can prevent buds from opening and cause yellowing and curling of leaves. There is usually a visible lesion on affected branches which oozes gum. Silver leaf can cause whole branches to turn white and die back. This is followed by purple fruiting bodies and can cause death of the tree. Diseased material should be removed and burnt.
Diseases may be avoided by selecting areas free of insect pests and maintaining good weed control. Where needed copper based fungicides may be applied. Trees may also sometimes be attacked by viruses and there is no treatment for these. Good care and proper plant hygiene may help since they are spread by aphids and nematodes.
Tip: Choose disease and virus-resistant cultivars.
Many sweet cherries need another plant for cross-pollination but be aware that some varieties will not cross-pollinate others. So, make sure you choose a compatible cultivar for cross-pollinating. Some cherries are multi-grafted so you have two compatible trees on one rootstock. Some are self-pollinating.
- 'Bing' - a late cropper with dark red fruits (cross-pollinates with Blackboy, Stella, William's Favourite, Ron's Seedling, Lewis, Van)
- 'Merchant' - an early cropper with large sweet bright red fruit (cross-pollinates with Stella, Bing, Adriana, Sweetheart, Van)
- 'Stella' - produces large dark blackish red fruits in December, great for small gardens (self-pollinating)
- 'Sir Don' - large purplish red fruits, prolific bearer (self-pollinating)
- 'Sir Tom' - a late cropper with good resistance to rain splitting (self-pollinating)
- 'Ron's Seedling' - with lovely firm fruits ideal for cooking (cross-pollinates with Lapins, Celeste, Biggarreau Reverchon, Valera, Vista, Nalina)
- 'Napoleon' - medium to large pinkish yellow fruits (cross pollinates with Blackboy, Van, William's Favourite, St Margaret)
- 'Sir Douglas' - an early cropper with medium to large dark fruits (self-pollinating)
- 'Dame Roma' - very large fruits, a late cropper (self-pollinating)
- 'Morello' - a self-fertile acid cherry type with dark red fruits which taste great in deserts and preserves
Tip: Sweet and acid types will not cross-pollinate.
To grow sweet types you need two different trees without one nearby (or it is self-pollinating).
Ways to Eat Cherries
There are so many ways to enjoy cherries:
- Eat them fresh chilled in the fridge
- As a snack - dried and chopped with nuts
- As a cereal ingredient
- Serve a small bowl or two with cold spreads
- Use them to garnish seafood dishes
- Use as an ingredient in Christmas cakes, cheesecakes, biscuits, fruit loafs and scones
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