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Cherries

Recent developments mean you don't need a large plot to enjoy your own crop of these delicious fruits. Anthony Bennett explains the best way to plant a cherry tree this autumn

It wasn’t so long ago that cherries were considered a bit of a handful to grow. However, the development of self-fertile varieties, coupled with the relatively recent introduction of dwarfing rootstocks has transformed the trees into an attractive proposition for any plot. Today, gardeners-in-the-know have at least one cherry tree to produce a burst of glorious springtime blossom followed by a crop of mouth-watering, shiny, crimson fruits.

Cherries are broadly split into two categories, both of which are worth growing. Sweet (dessert) cherries are wonderful eaten fresh and make a great addition to your fruit bowl. Sour (acid) cherries are tart to taste when eaten raw but are perfect for cooking. These make great pie-fillers or the basis of a cherry jam, where sweet cherries would prove to be a bit too sugary.

For the heaviest yield of fruit per tree, grow the plants as free-standing bushes or, for a neat and compact habit, train them as wall-trained fans. The scion (upper section) of a cherry is often grafted onto the roots and lower part of another tree (the rootstock) to control the plant’s size and vigour. Common rootstocks for cherries include ‘Colt’ and ‘Gisela 5’. The latter is the sensible choice for smaller gardens as it limits the ultimate tree size to little more than head height, or less if carefully pruned. You can expect to pay a little bit more for cherries on a ‘Gisela 5’ rootstock, but it’s an investment well worth making.

Cherries flower quite early on in the spring – early April in the South and late April further north – and are therefore vulnerable to frost. For this reason, pick a sheltered position for your tree and one that’s out of any frost pocket. Sweet cherries always prefer a sunny site and the fruits will have the fullest flavour if this simple requirement is met. Acid cherries, however, will tolerate some shade, making them a very useful fruit for those difficult-to-fill northfacing garden walls. The plants prefer warmer weather, so will tend to perform better in southern counties, but so long as a sheltered position is selected and a hardier variety such as the Canadianbred ‘Summer Sun’ is picked, other areas will have some success.

Although it matters little whether your soil is acid or alkaline, cherries need a fertile and free-draining growing position, such as a sandy loam. Soil can be improved by adding plenty of well-rotted manure or compost before planting but it is harder to stop the ground from becoming waterlogged in wet spells. If the site you have in mind has become boggy or puddled in the past, pick another location that you know is safe. Prepare the spot about a month before planting by digging it over and adding your organic matter. This will allow the soil to settle back down in good time for the new trees.

Bare-root trees are best planted in late autumn, around November, while the soil is still warm but can be put into the ground any time up until early spring so long as your plot is not wet or frozen. Dig out a hole in your prepared soil and spread out the roots along the bottom so that they are not cramped. Container-grown trees may be planted throughout the year, but will need careful watering during the growing season to prevent a check in their establishment.

Free-standing trees will require a supporting stake for the first few years of their life. Drive this about 30-50cm into the ground just before planting and loosely attach your cherry to it using tree ties. This will stop it rocking back and forth in the wind and therefore prevent it from becoming unstable.

If you want to train your cherry into a fan shape then select a partially-trained specimen, which will have had a lot of the initial work completed. Position the tree into the ground so that it is about 22cm away from the wall and leaning into it. Next, carefully tie the branches onto bamboo canes then secure these to horizontal wire supports spaced about 38cm apart on the wall. The wire supports should be stretched taut into position using vine eyes to hold them out, clear of the wall. In both cases, make sure the tree is planted at the original depth it was at before and then water it in thoroughly. Take great care to keep the grafting union – where the variety joins the rootstock – above ground level.

While self-fertile cherries are happy growing on their own, yields will improve if another cherry of a different variety is grown nearby. Fruit nurseries or garden centres will be able to offer advice on compatible strains. As cherries flower early in the year, they may need protection from late frosts, so be prepared to throw a covering of horticultural fleece over them if cold weather threatens. Remove it during the day so that pollinating insects can reach the flowers. If you want to make sure that you get a good crop then give the bees a helping hand by gently teasing a paint brush into the centre of each flower to assist pollination.

Cherries do not need thinning but excessive fruit drop may occur if soil moisture levels decrease when they start to swell. Keep new trees and those with developing fruits well irrigated in dry weather to avoid any problems but ease off watering as the cherries near maturity when excessive moisture levels can cause the skins to split in much the same way as tomatoes.

The occasional explosion of aphid populations can affect young shoots. Encourage a healthy patrol of hungry predators, such as ladybirds and lacewings, by keeping a bank of wild flowers to the base of, or adjacent to, your trees. Each spring, apply a top-dressing of general-purpose fertiliser such as bonemeal.

Predictably, we’re not the only ones tempted by those attractive, shiny fruits, so some protection against birds, particularly blackbirds, will be needed. Drape netting over the trees well before the cherries near picking time and ensure it is taught so as not to trap any birds. Fruits will be ready for picking once they attain their final, rich colour – usually dark red. Most cherries will be ready for picking from about mid-June, gearing up for the main fruiting month of July. Pick cherries as they ripen, which will be over a period of several weeks. It is preferable to harvest them in the morning, while they are still plump and cool. Pluck, or carefully cut them, from the tree using scissors (recommended for acid cherries) so that each cherry has an accompanying stalk as this will significantly increase the length of time that the cherries will keep for. If rain is forecast and your fruits are ripe, pick them before their skins get wet, as otherwise they’ll split. Avoid handling the fruits, instead hold them by the stalk, to minimise the chances of bruising.

Eat dessert cherries immediately – you’ll be rewarded with a heavenly flavour – or store them in the fridge in polythene bags for up to a week, while browsing recipe books for delectable ways in which you can savour the sour varieties. Pies, puddings and jams are all popular, traditional choices for using up these delicious fruits. Alternatively, use up your glut by sharing your crop with fellow plot-holders.

Sweet cherries have slightly different requirements to acid cherries. Formative pruning of both is carried out in spring, usually around April. If you are growing your tree as a fan, leave any leaders (main branches) intact to grow on to form the framework, but rub out any shoots growing towards or away from the wall. In summer, pinch out the growing tips of any other shoots on sweet cherries once they have developed five or six leaves. After the trees have fruited, these can then be cut back to leave just three or four buds.

When branches of fan-trained acid or sweet cherries reach the top of the wall, prune them back to a weak lateral (side shoot). Sweet cherries grown as free-standing bushes are very easy to prune – simply cut away any dead, diseased, crossing or over-crowded wood to keep the tree healthy and open. Do this immediately after harvesting.

Acid cherries only produce fruit on one-year-old wood, so it is just the youngest shoots that are productive. It means acid varieties need slightly heavier pruning to stimulate plenty of replacement growth that will yield a satisfying crop. After harvest, a proportion of the older, fruited stems on fan-trained trees should be cut back to a replacement shoot. This can then be tied in to form next year’s fruiting stem. Freestanding trees should also have a proportion of older, less productive branches cut out to encourage new growth. In both cases do not prune wood older than three years or you run the risk of heavily wounding the tree. Seal cut ends with a tree paint to prevent the spores of fungi, such as silver-leaf, gaining entry.

Month-by-Month

  • January

    Plant any remaining bare-root trees. If this isn't immediately possible, prepare a shallow, slanted trench in a sheltered spot and heel them in until you're ready to plant.

  • February

    Keep planting bare-root trees, though don't place them into extremely wet or frosty soil as they may become damaged in these conditions.

  • March

    If the weather is mild then cherries may burst into blossom this month. Take precautions against frost damage by protecting such trees on cold nights with horticultural fleece.

  • April

    Continue to safeguard blossom whenever frosts threaten and help pollinate flowers with a soft paint brush if necessary. Complete formative pruning of trees.

  • May

    Most cherries will have set by now and the young ones will be visible. Keep new introductions well-watered as the fruits start to swell.

  • June

    Pinch out the tips of side shoots on fan-trained sweet cherries as soon as they have five to six leaves. Net trees as the fruits continue to grow.

  • July

    Start picking the earliest cherries at the start of the month. Regularly check over trees as the fruits do not all ripen at the same time.

  • August

    Mid-season varieties join the list of cropping trees by early August. Make sure netting is well secured so that valuable fruit is not lost to birds at this late stage.

  • September

    As soon as the harvest is over, complete your main pruning. It is important to do this while the trees are still in active growth to reduce the chances of a bacterial canker or silver leaf strike.

  • October

    Prepare the ground for the introduction of new, bare-root trees next month. Add plenty of well-rotted organic matter to improve the soil.

  • November

    Plant bare-root and container-grown cherry trees into prepared soil, being sure to knock sturdy, supporting stakes for free-standing trees into place.

  • December

    Continue planting bare-root trees as weather conditions allow. Try to get them into the ground as soon as possible to prevent roots from drying out.

Next
Canker Caution

Canker Caution

Gardeners new to growing cherries should take precautions to avoid an attack of bacterial canker. This disease of stone fruits, including plums, cherries and damsons, causes brown spots to appear on the leaves. The spots are normally surrounded by a pale yellow halo and, as the disease progresses, these develop into ‘shot holes’. Infected branches may exude a sticky, brown gum. The problem is caused by the Pseudomonas syringae bacterium, which gains entry through fresh cuts and wounds. The danger period is during autumn and winter, although symptoms won’t appear until the following spring when growth resumes.

Don’t fall foul of this disease. Be sure to carry out any pruning during the summer months and only during dry weather, when the chances of infection are minimised. Spray recently pruned branches with Bordeaux mixture in mid- August and then again in mid-September and mid-October to kill off any bacteria. Remain vigilant and, if canker does strike, cut out infected branches immediately and burn them, using a disinfectant-soaked cloth to wipe clean your pruning blade between cuts.

Cherries: Varieties To Try

  • Stella

    The original self-fertile dessert cherry, reliably producing a generous crop of good-sized, sweet, red fruits. It has received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

  • Lapins

    Also listed as ‘Cherokee’, this popular self-fertile variety forms a healthy number of large, deep-red fruits. It crops in the middle of the cherrypicking season and has some resistance to bacterial canker.

  • Sunburst

    A late-season, self-fertile dessert cherry, with fruits of the deepest red – almost black – when ripe. They are large, sweet and have a particularly delicious flavour when eaten fresh.

  • Morello

    This is the most popular acid cherry on sale and it's also self-fertile. Pick the fruits for cooking when they're deep red, or eat them straight from the tree once they've turned nearly black.

  • Summer Sun

    If you want to grow a self-fertile dessert cherry but aren’t sure if your garden is warm enough, then pick this one. It’s tolerant of exposed locations and forms sweet, deep-red fruits. Even better, it’s also partly resistant to bacterial canker.

  • Bigarreau Napoleon

    The mature fruits of this stunner are pale yellow with red mottling. They taste good, too, and are ready for harvesting from July. The tree will need a pollinating partner.

  • Merton Glory

    This dessert variety forms sweet, yellow or red heart-shaped cherries with white flesh. It is one of the earliest trees to fruit. It needs a pollinating partner such as ‘Stella’ or ‘Sunburst’.

  • Sweetheart

    Choose ‘Sweetheart’ to extend your season of picking well into autumn. The sweet, almost black cherries of this dessert strain are self-fertile.

  • Nabella

    This self-fertile cooking variety of cherry has a pleasant, slightly acidic taste. The medium-sized fruits have a very dark-red skin.

  • May Duke

    A dual-purpose cherry tree with rich, blood-red fruits. Pick them early for cooking, or leave them on the tree to sweeten up for use as a dessert cherry.

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Fertile Developments

Just a few decades ago, if you wanted to grow sweet cherries you’d have had to plant more than one variety to ensure successful cross-pollination and fruit production. While this enabled a choice of cherries to tuck into, it isn’t ideal for small gardens where there might be space for only one tree. Furthermore, crosspollinated cherries require dry weather conditions so that bees, which perform the task, can move easily between blooms.

Today’s self-pollinating varieties have solved this problem, giving greater flexibility and enabling anyone to grow these mouth-watering fruits. Flowers of self-fertile cherries are less dependent on the weather, still set fruit in areas of low bee populations and consistently produce the highest number of fruits possible. Development began in Britain but it was from the agricultural Summerland Research Institute in Canada that the first named self-fertile cultivars were developed. ‘Stella’ was born in 1956 and introduced to growers 12 years later. It went on to spawn other modern favourites including ‘Lapins’ and ‘Sunburst’, and coupled with modern rootstocks has helped revive the fortunes of the cherry industry in this country, while single-handedly making the tree enormously popular with home-growers. Further developments have seen the average fruit size double.

Cherries

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