Cherries are divided into two categories: Sweet cherries and Sour cherries. Sweet are typically what you buy in the supermarket and have a rich, sweet flavor, likely used fresh, cooked, frozen and dehydrated. Sour cherries are generally smaller in size than the sweet cherry and are often used in pies and preserves.
When Planting Edibles, Always Start with a Plan:
Step 1: Comprise a wish list of plants.
Step 2: Experiment – Try something new!
Step 3: Know your land and location – Sunlight, space, and soil conditions.
Step 4: Growing methods – Raised beds, traditional rows, or containers?
Step 5: Choose your fruit – Start with trees, then berries and vegetables.
There is nothing more scrumptious than eating fruit harvested from your own crop, and your success begins with the planting site and method you use.
When you purchase your fruit trees from Herbein’s Garden Center, they should already be acclimated to our temperatures. If, however, you mail-order a plant, be sure to place them in a sheltered, shady area and gradually increase the time outdoors by 1-2 hours a day. After about 7 days, your plants should be ready to transplant into the ground.
BEFORE planting, consider these 4 things when planning your home orchard:
- Sun and soil
- Surrounding area
- Space for future plants
Most cherry trees are self-fruiting, meaning they will produce fruit without the need of a different variety of tree. However, when another variety is present, you will notice a higher fruit yield. Two of the same varieties will not cross-pollinate and sweet and sour are not recommended pollinators for one another. Because insects and wind carry the pollen between the blossoms, you should have the cherry trees planted within 50’ of one another.
Plant in full sun (at least 6-8 hours) and well-draining fertile soil. Light is critical to fruit production and fruit quality and helps minimize fungal problems.
Well-draining soil will keep your cherry tree’s roots healthy which is the foundation of a healthy tree. If necessary, add soil amendments to heavy or fast-draining soils. Add coco fiber potting medium or 1/3 peat to the soil at planting time. Fruit trees can be very adaptable and respond well to soil additives such as compost or fertilizers.
Check your soils pH before you dig. You can purchase a Penn State Soil Test Kit from us or a meter for a quick result. Sweet cherry trees need a soil pH of 6.3 – 7.2. Sour cherries prefer a pH of 6.0-7.0. Use Espoma Organic Garden Lime if your soil’s pH is too low, or Espoma Organic Soil Acidifier if the soil’s pH is too high.
Check for any wires, cables, underground utilities, or any other obstructions that could be a problem when your tree reaches full maturity. Once your tree is planted and is stable, it can be a difficult task to transplant later. If you start off by planting your fruit trees at the proper spacing, you can avoid any problems or issues in the future.
If you are new to planting fruit trees. it is best to start with just a few trees and add more later. Plan where you would plant future trees and be sure you have adequate space for them.
Space Between Sweet Cherry Trees
- Dwarf: 8-10’
- Semi-dwarf: 15-18’
- Standard: 18-25’
Space Between Sour Cherry Trees
- Dwarf: 8-10’
- Semi-dwarf: 12-15’
- Standard: 15-18’
*Most cherry trees that we carry are semi- dwarf varieties, but always check the tree’s tag for information.
Preparing Your Soil
Roots will grow faster if they are in soil that is loosened and has enough room to spread. Dig your hole deep and wide enough so the root system has room to expand. If the soil needs loosened up, mix aged cow manure, peat moss or compost (up to 1/3 concentration) into the pile of soil you dig from the hole. Use this to backfill and cover the plant’s root system.
Adding organic matter will improve just about any type of soil condition by helping retain moisture and nutrients and break apart clay soils so that water can penetrate through and roots can spread.
The goal of soil prep is to give your fruit tree a strong foundation, the best chance for survival, and to yield an abundance of fruit, as well as breaking up and adding nutritious organic matter. Replenishing nutrients and minerals that get used from the soil is an important process for the overall health of your tree.
- Once you get your fruit tree home, if you cannot plant it right away, you will need to keep the roots hydrated, however, do NOT place in a bucket of water as this might cause root rot or even kill the tree.
- Dig a hole deep and wide enough to accommodate its current root system and have plenty of room for the roots to spread out.
- Gently pull the tree from its pot and loosen the roots. Place the tree in the hole with roots down and backfill with the soil you dug out.
- Create a rim of soil around the planting hole about 2” above the ground level. This will allow water to stop and soak into the ground surrounding your newly planted fruit tree. In fall, level out this hill of soil to prevent water from ponding and freezing around your tree.
- This is a good time to stake your tree to help keep it straight.
- At this point, remove any tags that are on your tree. If not removed, it could become tight and cause injury or be fatal to your tree. If you want to keep the tag with your tree, replace it with a loose piece of twine that you can keep an eye on as the tree grows and loosen as needed.
- Water thoroughly with a deep, slow soaking. If the soil settles, add more soil until it is ground level.
- If you are planting your fruit tree in the fall, wait until spring to apply any fertilizers.
- Adding a layer of mulch around your tree will help keep rodents out, discourage weed growth, and keep water from evaporating at a quick rate. Add another layer of mulch in the fall for extra protection during winter months.
When to Fertilize
Cherry trees thrive from macronutrients that are present in the soil. You will need to fertilize but be sure to take care that you do not over-fertilize which could affect fruit production and leave the tree susceptible to pests and disease. Signs of macronutrient deficiency in cherry trees include reddish or pale colored leaves, narrow or shrunken leaves and dead spots on leaves. Cherry trees are light feeders and prefer a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as 5-10-10 or 10-15-15. In general, fruit trees need a well-rounded fertilization plan to help them produce to their maximum capabilities.
Micronutrients are also needed in the soil. These include copper and zinc that help prevent color mottling and misshapen leaves, and calcium that helps to improve leaf and fruit quality. The easiest way to add micronutrients is by adding aged compost or a balanced fruit tree fertilizer that states micronutrients are in the formula.
Espoma Organic Tree-tone is a great fertilizer to use for Nitrogen (for leaf and branch growth), Phosphorous (for root and blossom development), and Potassium (for the tree’s natural disease-resistance and overall health). Use once in spring before growth starts and again in fall after leaf drop, but before the ground freezes. Follow all package directions.
Here is an easy way to remember what the (N – P – K) stands for = Up↑ leaf & branch growth – Down↓ root growth – All Around⸨⸩ overall health.
If you already have nutrient-rich soil, you can hold off fertilizing until the cherry tree begins to bear fruit. If it does not put out several inches of new green growth during the growing season, start using a fertilizer the next spring. Typically, with cherry trees, fertilizing once a year is enough – apply a low-nitrogen fertilizer in spring about two or three weeks before it blooms. You can still fertilize after bud break, but not after July 1st.
Pests & Disease Control
Cherry trees may experience pest or disease problems during growth. Factors like location and weather will play a role in which issues your fruit tree will encounter. Practicing proper maintenance on your fruit tree such as watering, fertilizing, pruning, spraying, weeding, and cleanup will help keep most issues at bay.
Below is a list of pests that have been known to make an appearance on cherry trees.
Cherry Fruit Fly Tarnished Plant Bug
Japanese Beetle Tent Caterpillar
Below is a list of diseases known to infect cherry trees.
Armillaria Root Rot Crown Gall
Botrytis Rot Phytophthora Root Rot
Brown Rot Crown Rot
Buckskin X-Disease Powdery Mildew
Grab our brochure “Pest & Disease Control for Edibles” for more in-depth info.
Pruning is essential for proper development of fruit tree growth.
Pruning vs. No Pruning
It is in the best interest of your cherry tree to do some pruning versus none at all. If left unpruned, your cherry tree may not produce fruit, grow as well, or may not grow at all.
- Plan on pruning your cherry tree every year during its dormant season, in late winter. This stimulates stronger and more vigorous growth from the remaining buds and provides a structured shape.
- Make sharp, clean slanted cuts about a ¼” away from the next OUTWARD pointing bud so you don’t leave a messy stub that won’t heal over. Cutting just above the outward bud will help new growth to take on a spreading shape which keeps the inner area open to air circulation and light.
Shape and Structure
Always prune a sweet cherry tree to a “Central Leader”. This structure encourages scaffold development that supports the canopy and keeps the fruit from becoming overexposed to the sun. Sweet cherry trees can be pruned to a modified central leader or more of an “Open Center” or “Vase-Shaped” structure. This keeps the canopy open to light and air.
First dormant season – A year after you plant your fruit tree, remove the central leader, and direct the tree growth toward 3-4 strong scaffolds, choosing branches that are evenly distributed around the trunk. Keep about 6” between the scaffold branches, keeping the lowest branch at least 18” from the ground. Keep a few small branches on the lower trunk to encourage strong trunk growth.
Second dormant season – Prune fast growing new shoots but leave twig growth that will be future fruit-bearing wood. Encourage new scaffold branches if needed.
Third dormant season – Prune off any broken limbs or crossing branches, but do not do any MAJOR pruning until the tree has produced a nice sized crop.
Mature tree pruning – Once the shape of the tree has been established, you can prune based on which branches are bearing fruit. Most cherry trees produce fruit on the previous year’s long stems and on short branches, which will bear fruit for several years. Each year prune away parts of the older fruiting wood to encourage and rejuvenate the tree. Prune back last year’s stems to about half their length.
Whips are unbranched trees, which are ideal if you want more control over which branches can develop, such as an espalier type. Prune whips back to about 28-36” above the ground at the time of planting. After new branches have grown 3-5”, pick a shoot that will be the leader and the rest become the tree’s scaffold limbs.
Sometimes off-season pruning is necessary. This could be damaged branches broken by wind, diseased branches, or branches cracked by the heavy load of fruit. Fast-growing tree suckers and sprouts should be removed as soon as you notice them.
Thinning fruit can be done by hand in home orchards. In spring, many cherry trees will start to drop underripe fruit in a natural process that allows the tree to mature the remaining crop. If not corrected through thinning, cherry trees could only produce biennially or perhaps light one year and heavy the next.
Spraying Cherry Trees
A well-rounded and consistent spray plan can be significant to the survival of your cherry tree and can prevent potential problematic issues.
General Preventative Maintenance:
When to spray:
- Dormant Season (late winter/early spring, before bud break)
- Growing Season – Bud Break – (emergence of new growth)
- Growing Season – After Blossom – (*after petals drop)
*gives bees and other beneficials a chance to safely pollinate the blossoms.
Bonide® All Seasons® Dormant Spray Oil
Bonide® Captain Jack’s™ Deadbug Brew Garden Dust
Bonide® Insecticidal Soap
Bonide® Thuricide® BT
GardenTech® Sevin® Bug Killer
Bonide® Captan Fruit & Ornamental
Bonide® Copper Fungicide
Bonide® Fung-onil™ Fungicide
Bonide® Neem Oil, Bonide® Citrus, Fruit & Nut Spray, Bonide® Fruit Tree Spray
Unless you planted your cherry tree in an area where you would water your plants for “normal” plant growth, you probably will not need to water after the first growing season. However, do not forget to water directly after planting at your site. Also, here is another reminder to level out the soil berm around the trunk before winter begins.
When to Harvest
A sure sign that your cherries are ripe is when the birds start visiting for a treat! If necessary, cover your tree with netting. Thin tiny fruit will appear about three weeks after the tree blooms. Harvest season begins in early June and ends in July, depending on the variety.
- Pick cherries at the last minute when they are ripe. The sugar content increases significantly during the last few days of ripening. The cherries will be firm and completely red.
- Do not wash until just before eating. Keeps 7-10 days in the refrigerator.