Growing your own Summer Cherries
If the weather is warming up and summer is approaching in your part of the world, your thoughts may well turn to the promise of summer fruits. For me it’s the beginning of the best gardening season, when all those delicious fruits and vegetables are starting to come into their own and I am eating a lot of food straight from the garden. One of my favourites of the season is cherries which have such a short season, lasting about 6 weeks a year. When they are ripe from early Summer – mid Summer, we eat them at every available opportunity.
If you’d like to have your own supply of these delicious fruits, there are two types of cherries you can grow – sour cherries (Prunus Cerasus) and sweet cherries (P. Avium). Sweet cherries are the ones we most commonly find at Farmers’ Markets and other outlets for fresh eating, while sour cherries can be great for pies, preserving and baked delights (think cherry cobbler).
Most sweet cherries need a compatible cultivar for pollination so always make sure you buy at least two if you want to grow them at home. They love dry summers and need around 500 chill hours, however they can be grown in colder climates and more chill causes more branching and fruit formation – I don’t this can ever be a bad thing! Certain sweet cherries can't pollinate other specific cultivars, so check with your local nursery before you purchase them to make sure they will work togteher. If you can only plant one tree because of space or other restrictions, buy one grafted with two cultivars, or try a self-fertile cultivar such as 'Compact Stella' or 'Starkcrimson'. 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 cherry-like fruit and grow well in areas with harsh winters where cherry trees won’t grow.
Sour cherries are self-pollinating and relatively easy to grow in a mild climate, but require a bit more care to get them through hot, dry summers. They also require 1000+ chill hours in order for them to fruit. To calculate your chill hours, have a look at this hub. The Morello, a sour cherry variety is a great one to fan-espalier if you are interested in trying your hand at this space saving way of growing.
Cherry trees require a great deal of space, so unless you have a large garden, look for trees grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock. There are some great varieties around – we chose Stella and Lapins (a self-pollinating variety), as well as the more unusual, evergreen Brazilian Cherry for our orchard where we get around 700 chill hours per year (medium to high chill). They are beautifully ornamental in spring, so plant them where you can enjoy the visual feast of blossom as winter breaks.
Prepare your planting space ahead of time. A deep, well-drained soil in full sun gives the best results for sweet cherries, but aspect is less important for sour cherries. Good soil preparation will repay you with lots of yummy fruit sooner. Trees grow to about 1.5m diameter and on dwarf rootstock can still grow to around 10m high. Dig in generous amounts of compost, rock dusts such as basalt, granite and rock phosphate, and wood ash before planting. Bare-rooted trees can be planted from late winter to spring. Provide the tree with a supporting stake and tie the tree loosely to it, using a figure of eight. I make mine out of old panty hose or rubber irrigation pipe so that they have some flexibility to allow the tree to move in the wind, but not snap. Pot-grown trees may be planted at any time of year as long as the weather is not extreme. Water in very thoroughly and apply a pelleted slow-release organic fertiliser each year in early spring. Water the ground under trees thoroughly during summer dry spells to ensure good fruit formation, but don’t let the soil remain soggy. 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.
Sweet cherries bloom earlier than sour cherries. Protect cherry flowers from frost damage so if you live in a frost prone area, make sure you cover your trees if frost is predicted. 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 a soft-fleshed cultivar that resists 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.
When it comes to pruning your cherry trees, it is worth bearing in mind that sweet cherries fruit on one-year-old and older wood. When pruning, make sure you create a balance between older fruiting wood and younger replacement branches.
Formative pruning can be done in spring as the buds begin to open and established trees should be pruned during later summer after fruiting has finished.
With powerful antioxidant qualities, moderate quantities of iron, potassium, and manganese and a good dose of copper, cherries also reduce heart-disease risk factors. If you don’t have cherry trees in your garden yet, head down to your local Farmers’ Market this year to get your fill of them and plan on planting a bare-rooted pair next winter. While you may still be prone to the absurdities of the weather, you will have your own supply of nutritious fruit every year to celebrate the beginning of summer!