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Which Cherry Trees Are Best for Home Gardens?
There are over 1,000 different types of cherries, but only a handful of varieties are commonly cultivated. When deciding the type of cherry tree to plant at home, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.
- Sweet cherries, Prunus avium, are the most popular type of cherry. Sweet cherry varieties like Rainier, Montmorency, and Bing come from self-sterile trees, meaning they must be planted in groups of at least two to three for cross-pollination. They generally grow in USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9, but this changes by variety.
- Stella cherries are a relatively new self-pollinating dwarf cultivar. Stella cherry trees do not require a second compatible tree for cross-pollination, which makes the tree an optimal choice for smaller home gardens. Stella cherry trees generally grow in USDA 5 to 8, but each variety may be different.
- Sour cherries, Prunus cerasus, are more commonly harvested for preserving or making into jams. The trees that produce these tart cherries are self-fertile. Sour cherry trees grow in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 6, but this may change by variety.
How to Plant Cherries
Cherries need ample space, air circulation, and water maintenance to thrive. However, individual climate needs can vary within cherry varieties: Bing cherries are rated for USDA zones 5 through 9, but Black Tartarian cherries are restricted to USDA zones 5 through 7, as they require a longer winter to produce fruit. Ask your local garden center about the varieties that are best for your region.
- Pick the site. Cherry trees need full sun, good air circulation, and space—about 30 to 40 feet between individual trees. Most fruit trees are also available in “dwarf” form; typically reaching about six feet in size, these can also be grown in large planters with less space between them. “Semi-dwarf” fruit trees grow 10 to 15 feet tall, while full-size fruit trees (often referred to as “standards”) reach 20 feet or more.
- Prepare the site. Light, sandy soil types with good depth are best. Heavier soils with a tendency to become waterlogged put the cherry trees at risk for root and crown rot.
- Planting the tree. To plant a standard-sized cherry tree, dig a hole about the size of the root-ball. Set the rootstock with the graft union, which looks like a raised scar, a few inches below the soil surface. If the sapling is a bare root tree, spread the loose roots evenly down into the planting hole. Fill in the hole with soil and tamp down firmly, leaving a little of the root-ball showing above ground.
- Water is key. After planting your cherry tree, you’ll need to water it every other day for the first week, two to three times during the second week, then continue to water the tree on a weekly basis throughout the rest of its first growing season.
How to Use Cherry Pits to Grow a Cherry Tree
You can grow cherries at home using pits from locally grown cherries, but fruit production will take longer using this process. Use pits from cherries that are grown locally or purchased from the farmer’s market. Avoid using the pits from grocery stores as they may not be compatible with the climate in your area.
- Prepare the pits. Save a handful of pits from locally grown cherries. Soak in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes to loosen the remaining fruit. Remove, and clean. Set the pits out on paper towels for about a week, allowing them to dry out completely. Transfer to an air-tight container and store in the fridge for 10 weeks.
- Plant indoors. Remove the container from the fridge, and bring to room temperature before planting two to three pits in a pot with well-draining soil indoors. Water consistently to keep the soil moist.
- Time to transplant. When seedlings appear, remove all but the strongest of the group, and when the soil has warmed in early spring, it can be transplanted into its permanent spot outdoors.
- Be patient. Trees planted from cherry pits take about seven to 10 years to bear fruit.
How to Care for a Cherry Tree
- Water maintenance. Water consistently, watching for any dry spots. Keep the soil moist, but don’t overwater.
- Remove diseased branches. Any branches taken over by bacterial cankers (a rough black growth also known as “black knot”) or brown rot (a light brown fuzz that appears on the skin of cherries) should be pruned immediately to prevent spores from traveling further. Wash pruning shears thoroughly after use.
- Control weeds. Applying mulch around the base of the trees helps to control weeds and keep the soil moist.
- Practice companion planting. Companion planting can attract pollinators and deter pests like aphids.
- Prune and fertilize. Prune trees in late winter, and fertilize in the spring. Once the trees begin to bear fruit, shift to a light fertilization post-harvest.
- Deter birds. Cover trees with a light bird netting to protect the fruit.
How to Harvest Cherries
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Fruit crops and patience go hand-in-hand. Cherry trees take about three years to establish and can begin bearing fruit in the fourth year. Most fruit crops do not produce the same year you plant it, but once it begins fruiting, it can continue to do so for years—a mature cherry tree can produce about 30–50 quarts of fruit in a season.
Cherries are ready when they are deeply colorful—depending on the variety, that can mean dark red, golden yellow, or almost black—and firm, with a little give. To harvest, use pruning shears to clip fruit by the stems instead of pulling (and potentially damaging) the fruit.
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