Fresh juicy cherries straight from the tree are a delicious treat around Christmas time and its great to be able to harvest them in the sort of quantities that lead to full-on feasts. If you grow your own then you’ll hopefully not only have enough to satisfy a taste for the sweet fresh cherries but also to store as jams, preserves and frozen puddings. Cherry trees can grow to the height of a two-storey house and they often make an attractive, spreading shape. They are a cool climate tree in New Zealand, needing a cold spell in the middle of winter to stimulate production on flower buds and a dry summer to ripen fruit. They are frost hardy, although blossom can be damaged by late spring frosts. Cherries don’t thrive in humid areas.
Companions Borage, chives, comfrey, strawberries, marigold, calendula
Quantity 1 tree per family – you may need an additional tree for pollination.
There are two main cherry varieties. Sweet cherries where fruit are eaten raw. Sour cherries where fruit are eaten cooked. Many cherry varieties need the company of another cherry tree to help with pollination but some are self fertile - meaning they can be grown on their own. For cherry varieties to cross-pollinate with each other they need to flower at the same time.
You can also get trees with two varieties grafted onto them – this means flowers of the two varieties pollinate each other and often you’ll get fruit for longer than if growing a single variety. These are usually quite small trees.
Montmorency self fertile, sour cherry variety forming a small tree just over standard ceiling height. Good for smaller gardens. Produces a sour cherry that is the most popular variety for filling cherry pies, can be dried or made into jams and preserves. Will help to pollinate other cherry varieties – sweet or sour.
Dawson cross-pollinates with Compact Stella, Lapin and Stella. Produces black-skinned fruit with red flesh, very juicy.
Compact Stella self fertile, good for small gardens with only room for one tree. Produces large crop of juicy dark red cherries. Helps to pollinate Dawson and Rainier. Also comes as straight ‘Stella’ a large tree with same fruit – grows better in warm areas than many other cherries.
Rainier cross-pollinates with Stella and Compact Stella. Produces bi-coloured yellow and red fruits.
Lapin self fertile variety with tolerance of humidity – so good for warmer north island areas. Large, juicy red cherries.
Cherry trees are generally planted when dormant in autumn or early spring.
Cherries like an open position with good air circulation. Avoid dips and hollows where damp air can collect and create humid conditions. Cherry trees are often grown in lawns and orchards. Depending on variety they can be large or modest-sized trees. They need to grow into their recommended full shape to produce a decent harvest and do not respond well to being hacked back. Put them where you’ll be able to enjoy easily walking around them and ensure access is good for harvest. Sweet cherry varieties need full sun and shelter from strong prevailing winds. Sour cherries prefer partial shade and are often pruned and trained into fans on cool, shaded walls and fences. Avoid putting cherry trees in the shadow of buildings and tall trees. Blossom in spring can be damaged by late frosts so try not to plant them in any hollows if you are in a frost-prone area. Trees planted in lawns or grassy orchards will grow better if grass is removed from a circle around their stem – take a stride away from the stem and make this the radius of your circle, remove grass and add a finger-deep layer of mulch.
Cherries like a deep, rich fertile soil that is well drained.
Space cherry trees about six strides from trunk to trunk. Keep trees that are being grown together within the same part of the garden to ensure good cross-pollination.
Before planting dig a hole about 20% larger than the size of the container the plant comes in. Half-fill with well-rotted compost, rotted manure and some coarse sand or fine pumice to help with drainage. Mix together with garden soil at the bottom of the hole. Soak the container-grown tree before gently lifting it from its pot. Check the roots on the root ball and loosen any that appear to have grown around the inside of the pot – this should help them to get away and grow into the garden soil. Stand the root ball in the hole and adjust soil beneath it so that soil level is the same as ground level around it. Back fill with the soil/compost mix and firm with downward hand-pressure as you go. The container soil level should be the same as soil level in the garden. Drive three stakes in at even spacings around the outside of the root ball. Using a suitable tie – rope, cloth, plastic tree tie (but definitely no wire that will damage bark and stems) – secure the stem of the tree at about knee-height above ground. Water well.
Water around the base of your young trees in dry periods, making sure that soil gets enough water for roots to be fully soaked.
Mulch around base of newly-planted trees, especially if you have sandy soil or trees are planted in lawns or grassy orchards. Cover a circle as wide as the spread of the branches with a finger-deep layer of compost, rotted manure or old straw and replenish mulch when necessary. Make sure the mulching layer doesn’t touch the stem of your tree as this can cause it to rot. This should be done for the first three years after planting, Thereafter roots should have spread wide enough to draw sufficient moisture and nutrients without help. You can plant borage, comfrey, chives and strawberries beneath your trees to draw nutrients from deep in the soil and to attract beneficial pollinating and predatory insects.
Feed: Trees can be fed with a sprinkling of blood and bone meal around the outer edge of their drip line in spring, however if you keep the ground beneath your trees weed-free and well-mulched when its dry this should help to reduce the amount of feeding that is required.
Harvest: Depending on variety and weather you can be picking cherries from late spring through to late summer. In the case of sweet cherries taste is a good enough indicator of ripeness but generally fruit are ripe when full-coloured and glossy skinned. If in doubt, the birds will also let you know! Handle carefully when harvesting to prevent bruising, pick cherries with their stems in tact. Line your bucket or basket with soft material such as cloth or newspaper. Best to pick on a dry day as wet fruit will deteriorate quickly off the tree.
Storage: Fresh cherries don’t last all that long, keep them in the fridge. Cherries can be frozen and then stoned when de-frosted. Frozen cherries are usually only good for cooking.
Pruning: When first planted check over your young trees and if they have more than 5 upward growing stems off the main stem remove the surplus by cutting them back to main stem. This sets up a good framework for the tree to then grow into a balanced open shape. In general, when removing stems follow them down to the point where they are growing off a main stem. Cut the stem you are removing just above the point where it joins the next stem so that this leaves a small protruding collar that will heal over.
Cherry trees don’t need much pruning if grown as a tree. Regular maintenance involves cutting out dead, diseased and crossing stems. This is usually done after harvest in late summer or early autumn.
Hybrids and sour cherry varieties can be pruned to grow as fans of carefully spaced stems against a wall or fence. Stems are pruned to maintain a strong framework and to stimulate new shoots that will produce flowers and then fruit.
Birds are a common arrival just as cherry trees start to ripen. Where practical trees are covered with mesh to protect the fruit. Other pests include aphids and leaf roller caterpillars. The best method is prevention and planting to attract beneficial predators as controlling an outbreak on a tree can be hard without resorting to sprays. Neem oil spray will help if aphids get out of control.
To reduce the likelihood of your trees falling victim to and suffering from pests and diseases look after them and maintain a diverse planting in your growing area.
Sweep and compost fallen leaves.
Mulch and feed, ensure constant moisture during dry weather.
Spray fresh spring foliage with Neem oil spray to kill aphids, scale insects and mites.
For best advice on how to deal with fruit tree related problems in your area seek out local organic growers and talk to them. A half hour chat can save on years of trial and error.