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Cherries Growing Guide

Cherries Growing Guide

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.

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Growing Cherries 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.

Must do this month!
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.

Caring for your Cherries plants + problems

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.

How to harvest Cherries

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.

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