Do you crave the taste of sweet cherries despite their steep price? Do you love hot cherry pie or the sight of a cherry tree in full bloom? If so, grow your own sweet and tart cherries, and you'll enjoy a hearty harvest that is sure to satisfy your cherry craze.
Tart cherries (Prunus cerasus), also called sour or pie cherries, are easy to grow. Use the tangy fruit for baking, or let it overripen on the tree for fresh eating. Sour cherries are self-fertile and will set fruit alone. They grow only 20 feet tall and bear fruit at an earlier age than sweet cherries. Sour cherries are hardy in Zones 4–6.
Sweet cherries (P. avium) do best in mild, dry climates, but some cultivars will do well in other climates with a little special care. Most sweet cherries need a second compatible cultivar for pollination. Certain sweet cherries can't pollinate other specific cultivars, so check before you plant. If you can only plant one tree
, buy one grafted with two cultivars, or try a self-fertile cultivar such as 'Compact Stella' or 'Starkcrimson'. Sweet cherries can grow into trees 35 feet or taller, but they're also available on dwarfing rootstocks that will keep the trees as small as 10 feet. They are hardy in Zones 5–7 and also thrive in Zones 8 and 9 in the Pacific Northwest.
Sweet cherries come in purple, red, and yellow. There are firm-fleshed types and soft-fleshed types. Soft-fleshed types tend to be less prone to cracking.
Duke cherries are hybrids between sweet and tart cherries, and tend to be sweet/tart.
Bush cherries (P. besseyi, P. tomentosa, and Prunus spp.) bear small cherrylike fruit and grow well in areas with harsh winters where cherry trees will not.
Tart cherries are small trees no matter what rootstock they are grafted on. Standard sweet cherries are grafted on seedling rootstocks such as ‘Mazzard’ (P. avium) and ‘Mahaleb’ (P. mahaleb). If your soil is heavy, try ‘Mazzard’. For lighter soils, choose ‘Mahaleb’ for a smaller tree that bears in 2 to 4 years. ‘Mahaleb’ also adapts well to irrigation and slightly alkaline soil. ‘Damil’ rootstock makes a sturdy dwarfed tree and appears even more tolerant of wet soil than ‘Mazzard’, but some of the dwarfing rootstocks available give disappointing results.
Planting and care
Tart cherries grow well throughout much of the United States. They need about 1,000 chill hours below 45°F in winter. This limits their range to the Carolinas and northward through Zone 4. Although all cherries need well-drained soils, tart cherries tolerate moderately heavy soils better than sweet cherries. Space tart cherries 20 to 25 feet apart, sweet cherries 25 to 30 feet apart. Dwarf trees can be planted with closer spacing.
Sweet cherries are not as winter hardy as tart cherries. Early autumn frosts also can damage sweet cherry trees. Commercially, sweet cherries grow best in the West, where summers are dry.
Cherries bloom early and are susceptible to frost damage. Sweet cherries bloom earlier than sour cherries. For site selection and frost protection ideas, see the Peach entry.
Once the fruit sets, watch soil water levels. Cherry fruit matures early and fast. It is particularly sensitive to moisture availability in the last two weeks of ripening. If the soil is too dry, the swelling cherries will shrivel. If it is too wet, they will crack and split. If you live in an area prone to heavy summer rainfall, choose cultivars that resist cracking. Spread a thick organic mulch out to the drip line to help maintain soil moisture
at a constant level. Irrigate as necessary to keep the soil evenly moist.
Healthy cherry trees will grow about 1 foot a year. If your tree's progress is slower or the new leaves
are yellow, have the soil and/or foliage tested for nutrient deficiencies. See the Soil entry for instructions on taking a soil sample. Mulch each spring with a thin layer of compost out to the drip line. Don't fertilize after midsummer. This could encourage new growth that won't harden before fall frosts.