Whether you like the deliciously sweet taste of cherries picked from the tree, or look forward to indulgent cherry pie, cherries are associated with the height of summer. There is good reason to make the effort to grow them. Cherries can be hard to find in the shops, are expensive to buy, and do not always taste as sweet as you may like.
Cherries are high in vitamin A, C, and antioxidants. Reputed health benefits of eating cherries include helping you sleep (melatonin content), helping your eyesight (high levels of beta-carotene), alleviating aching joints (antioxidants), helping guard your colon (due to quercetin), and helping lower cholesterol (owing to pectin).
- October – March
- Planting depth: Cover root ball
- Planting spacing: Depending on root stock
- June – August
- Eat fresh
Most cherry trees prefer a light well drained soil, based on gravel or chalk. The ideal time to plant is early winter when the trees are dormant. This is best done by digging a big hole and mixing the earth with rich compost (not well rotted manure) and extra gravel (if required for drainage). Acid trees are generally more tolerant of a wider range of soil conditions.
There are different pruning requirements for sweet and acid varieties of cherry trees. Sweet cherries fruit best on 2 – 3 year old wood, and acid cherries on one year old shoots. For sweet cherry trees you may decide not to prune at all, or only prune to prevent over crowding or shadowing of other plants in your garden. If this is a concern, it may be worth the extra effort of finding a supplier of dwarf cherry trees.
Root trimming is also required for larger root stocks. Dig a trench at a distance of 1m around the tree, then cut through the biggest roots.
Cherry trees are hungry and thirsty (but do not like to stand in wet soil). A good mulch in the spring will help feed a cherry tree and retain moisture in the soil.
From the time of blossom to the cherry harvest it is important not to allow the tree to dry out. Water regularly and generously, weekly or fortnightly, to encourage the roots to search deeply for moisture.
In my experience, the two biggest problems experienced by cherry trees are aphids and birds. Aphids are best tackled as soon as you see them on the tree. They can be rubbed off by hand, or blasted off by hose.
Aphids are often cultivated by ants that climb the trunk of the tree. The best way of stopping this is by using grease bands or tree grease.
Cherries are loved by birds. If you do net the tree you risk losing your entire crop. Buying a smaller cultivar and regular pruning will help keep your tree at a size that it is possible to throw a net over.
Cherries are best eaten fresh, but if you intend to store, keep them in the fridge. Acid cherries are best cooked.
Cherries can be divided into two main types:
- Eating cherries (sweet)
- Cooking cherries (acid)
Traditional cultivars of acid types of cherry are generally more self fertile and more hardy. Sweeter types (sometimes referred to as ‘mazzard cherries’) tend to be larger trees and may need a pollinator – although there are many exceptions. Advances in cultivation have helped create varieties which offer more choice to the gardener – ie small sweet cherry trees that are self pollinating.
Pollination requirements are worth checking with your shop before purchase. Some varieties are self fertile, others need a cherry tree in flower at the same time but of a different variety, and some cherry trees will pollinate all other cherry tree types.
In times passed, one of the major constraints of growing cherry trees at home – or on the allotment – were their large size. A guide to cherry root stocks:
- Tabel – 1.8m
- Gisela 5 – 3m
- Damil – 4.5m
- Colt – 4.8m
- Malling F12 – 6m
The larger root stocks are more commonly available, so beware, these grow into big trees unless you prune regularly! Cherry orchards sometimes plant trees between 6m – 15m apart, indicating how much room they need to grow. If you do not prune regularly you will not be able to use a net, which may mean you lose the crop to birds.