Cherries Nature’s Way

A healthy, holistic approach to growing this sweet summer fruit

By Michael Phillips


cherry treesCherry trees, with their clouds of spring blossoms and handsome bark, would be worth planting even if they never bore fruit. But they do, and the fruit is a delicious treasure. The cherry harvest begins in early summer—a time when most other tree fruits are still developing. Sweet cherries are wonderful for eating fresh, while sour cherries quickly find their way into preserves and pies.

Home gardeners are often intimidated by the prospect of caring for tree fruits, which come with a long list of potential insect and disease problems. Growing healthy cherries holistically, however, allows the gardener to avoid using synthetic chemicals. It begins with understanding the ways of trees.

The holistic approach to growing fruit involves enhancing the tree’s immune response and surrounding it in a competitive microbial environment—one in which beneficial species of bacteria and other microbes outcompete the pathogenic, or disease-causing, microbes. Holistic actions integrate plant and soil health into a self-sustaining system; plants stay naturally healthy and are better able to ward off pests and diseases. The undesirable alternative to holistic methods is to use harsher medicines—fungicides and pesticides—to counteract biological and nutritional deficiencies whose symptoms show up as insect pests and assorted diseases. Everything in nature is interdependent...including robust cherry health!

bowl of cherriesClimate Considerations

Few of us live where both sweet and sour cherries thrive, to be honest. Sweet cherries love an extended growing season on the dry side, and their blossoms are more vulnerable to late spring frosts. They are best suited to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6 to 8.

Sour cherries, on the other hand, prefer cool summers and cold winters. They have innate hardiness down to –40°F—thus giving northern growers a legitimate shot at a piece of the pie. The hardiest varieties of sour cherry will crop in Zone 3, with all varieties suited for Zones 4 to 6.

The challenges stack up when you push either type further. The coldest winter temperature that sweet cherry blossoms might survive is –20°F, which sets a nonnegotiable limit on sweet cherry production as you head north. Sour cherries will be of respectable quality farther south if they are grown at higher elevations where spring weather is cooler. Your county Cooperative Extension office can recommend the types of cherries that are best suited to your region.

All cherries thrive in soils that are well drained, yet retain moisture. Cherries do not adapt well to heavy clay. Plant them on higher ground (locally speaking) wherever possible.

Sweet and Sour Varieties

Sweet cherries are firm, dark, and luscious. Soft-fleshed ones often come in paler shades. Sweet cherries are generally not self-fertile, so cross-pollination dynamics come into play. Select two varieties with compatible bloom times to ensure a bountiful harvest. ‘Black Gold’, ‘Hedelfingen’, ‘Kristin’, ‘Rainier’, and ‘Stella’ are good choices.

Don’t be fooled by the word sour in considering pie cherries. Tree-ripened sweetness backed with puckery attitude doesn’t mean these are any less delectable for eating fresh off the tree. And then there are those latticed pies and crumbly crisps in which the fruit’s bright tang is tamed with sugar. Sour cherries also make the best dried cherries. One tree alone will make a crop, as all varieties are self-fertile. Consider ‘Danube’, ‘Evans’, ‘Meteor’, and ‘Surefire’ for starters.

Click for larger cherry images
English Morello Hedelfingen Lambert Napoleon North Star Rainier Stella
'English Morello'* 'Hedelfingen' 'Lambert' 'Napoleon' 'North Star'* 'Rainier' 'Stella'
* indicated a sour cherry

Photography by Mathew Benson; Roger Stowell; Andrea Jones; Garden World Images; Age Fotostock; Photocuisine; Rob Cardillo Photography; Agstock Images Inc.; John Glover.