PHOTO: Pixabay
April 6, 2016

Cherry trees can be an excellent food crop for the backyard or small-farm setting. The most important decision when planting cherry trees is whether to plant the sweet cherry (Prunus avium) or the tart cherry (Prunus cerasus). By knowing the differences between the two species you can determine which will be right for you.

The Sweet Cherry

Sweet cherries are more challenging to grow. Sort of the Goldilocks of fruit trees, they require everything to be “just right”—excellent drainage and a drier climate but not too hot—in order to thrive. Because of the heat factor, they don’t tend to grow well in the southern United States, instead being relegated to hardiness zones 5 to 9, west of the Rocky Mountains in low-humidity areas, where they have fewer pest threats.

Standard-sized sweet cherry trees reach 20 to 40 feet tall, while dwarf or semi-dwarf trees reach 8 to 15 feet tall. The sweet cherry requires at least two different cultivars for cross pollination.

Sweet Cherry Varieties:

  • Bing: large, dark-red, meaty fruit commonly seen in stores; prone to cracking in wet weather
  • Black Tartarian: juicy, sweet black cherry with an early ripening season
  • Emperor Francis: yellow skin with a red flush; among the sweetest of cherries; tolerant of various soil types
  • Kristin: sweet red fruit; resistant to cracking in wet weather; cold-hardy
  • Stella: dark-fleshed fruit; prone to cracking in wet weather but is self-fertile

The Tart Cherry

The tart cherry is more widely adaptable to various climates. It prefers well-drained soil but can tolerate a rainier, more humid climate than the sweet cherry. Tart cherries grow best in hardiness zones 4 to 8.

Tart cherries, aka pie cherries, are not as tart as the name implies and can be quite enjoyable eaten straight off the tree. Those with a penchant for sweeter fruit will find that cooking them for just a few minutes on the stove with a tablespoon of water will mellow their flavor and turn them into something akin to pie filling without the added sweetener.

Standard-sized tart-cherry trees are considerably smaller than their sweet counterparts, reaching only up to 20 feet tall. Dwarf or semi-dwarf tart cherry trees will reach 8-12 feet tall. Tart cherry trees are self-pollinating, meaning there’s no need to plant two different cultivars for cross pollination.

Tart Cherry Varieties:

  • Meteor: a natural dwarf variety; large, bright-red fruit; cold-hardy and disease-resistant
  • Montmorency: the standard pie cherry with large, bright-red fruits; early ripening season; fruit resists cracking in wet weather
  • North Star: a compact tree that produces medium-sized red fruit; cold-hardy and resistant to cracking and disease; does well in rainy, humid conditions

Which Rootstock Is Right For You?

As you begin your search for the perfect cherry tree keep consider whether a standard-sized tree or a dwarf or semi-dwarf variety is best for you. Both have their advantages and disadvantages that you’ll need to weigh for your climate, growing space and use of the fruit.

Standard Cherry Trees

Standard-sized cherry trees will generally be more vigorous and resilient and have a longer lifespan and higher yield than dwarf varieties. Although they take up more space, they can be pruned to remain small if you’re growing in a smaller urban or suburban plot. Keep in mind that the larger the tree, the more difficult it will be to harvest from.

Standard-sized trees will begin bearing at 3 to 7 years of age and yield around 150 to 300 pounds of fruit per year once they start producing.

Dwarf and Semi-Dwarf Cherry Trees

Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees will be naturally smaller, taking up less space, and will yield fruit at a younger age. However, they typically have a shorter lifespan, yield less and can be more finicky about their growing conditions. Because they have a less vigorous root system, they will be more likely to need supplemental irrigation and fertilization, making them the less likely candidate for remote locations.

Planting A Cherry Tree

When To Plant

Fall is the most advantageous time to plant fruit trees, and cherry trees are no different. The summer heat can be taxing to a new tree, so when planted in the fall, they’ll have extra time to adapt to their new home and develop a strong root system that will help them thrive through hot, dry spells. If you’re planting in the spring, be sure to give your new tree enough water throughout its first summer when there isn’t sufficient rainfall.

Where to Plant

Cherry trees need well-drained soil. If you have high groundwater or live in a rainy, humid climate, plant your tree in a raised mound so the roots will sit above standing water.

Both sweet and tart cherries prefer a location in full sun. Although tart cherry trees can tolerate some shade, the more full sun they can get, the better chance you’ll have against pest and disease problems. Access the morning sun, in particular, allows the dew to dry from their leaves, reducing fungal issues.

A late-spring frost can threaten to kill cherry blossoms, which would mean no fruit that year. To protect your trees from frost damage, plant them on the northeast side of a building or slope.

When the proper care is taken, cherry trees can be a beautiful, delicious, and productive addition to the backyard garden or small farm. The hardest part will be deciding which type to grow—sweet or tart.

Once your trees are fruiting, try out these recipes:


Next Up