How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Fruit Bearing Cherry Trees
Adding fruit trees to your garden can be a very rewarding gardening experience. Cherry trees are quite popular, depending on your geographic location and hardiness zone. In this article, gardening expert Madison Moulton walks through how to plant, grow, and care for cherry trees in your garden or yard.
Here’s a funny thing about cherry trees: not all of them grow cherries. But for this article, we happen to be focusing on the fruiting varieties that produce edible fruit. These cherry trees are the kind that you can plant, and grow for fruit in your yard or garden space, not the ornamental variety.
Cherry trees are celebrated across the world for their beauty, symbolizing rebirth and springtime. Plus, they are instantly recognizable with their bright white cherry blossoms that look gorgeous against a spring or summertime sky.
It might sound a bit daunting taking care of a tree, but it is not much different than any other plant. As long as you prune it every so often, give it water, sunshine, and the right food, it should grow into quite a beautiful plant that produces delicious fruits year after year.
Cherry Tree Plant Overview
Plant Type Stone Fruit
Species Prunus avium
Hardiness Zone 5-7
Maturity Rate 4 years on average
Plant Height 12-25 Feet
Growth Rate Slow
Plant With Marigold, Hydrangea, Nasturtium
Don’t Plant With Other Aphid Attracting Fruit Trees
Soil Type Loamy
Plant Spacing 35-40 feet, 8-10 Dwarf trees
Watering Needs Moderate
Sun Exposure Full Sun
Pests Aphids, Beetles
Diseases Black Knot, Brown Rot
There are a multitude of cherry trees, some that produce delicious red fruit, and others that bloom spectacularly. When it comes to edible cherry trees, there are two species to look out for.
Prunus avium, or sweet cherries, are the earliest bloomers and produce sweet fruits that are ideal for eating fresh as a snack, straight off the tree.
Prunus cerasus are known as sour cherries. These types are typically cooked before eating, often combined with sugar in desserts to balance their intense tart flavor.
No matter which type you choose, both have similar care requirements and enjoy almost the same conditions. Opt for the tree that best suits your cooking needs to enjoy your harvest year after year.
History and Cultivation
Both sweet and sour cherries are native to Europe and Asia, cultivated for commercial use around the world. As these plants are prone to damage and require some upkeep to produce fruits in an agricultural setting, they tend to be more expensive than other fruits.
Cultivating your own trees in your backyard is the best way to cut out these costs and enjoy the fruits for free (minus the price of a little gardening time and effort).
The best time to plant a cherry tree is in early spring. When growing a cherry tree for fruit, you will want to do so in a drier, cooler climate. Sweet cherries grow best in USDA Zones 5-7, while sour cherries prefer the cold of Zones 4-6. Plant varieties that all bloom at once for more successful pollination.
Planting your cherry tree begins by thoroughly watering and moistening the potted tree. Make sure the root ball is well watered before you dig your hole.
Dig the hole roughly twice the size of your root ball and place it inside the hole, making sure the top of the root ball is just visible over the topsoil line. Fill the gap around the roots with fresh soil and pour water over it. Adding water eliminates air pockets in the earth without compacting it too much.
For extra planting care, spread a layer of moss roughly 1 to 2 inches thick around the tree’s base. Make sure the layer is as wide as the tree’s canopy. Cherry trees grow best when planted in higher ground. Planting them in lower-lying areas leaves them susceptible to more frost during early spring, and cherry tree flowers don’t take well to ice.
How to Grow
Like we said, taking care of a cherry tree is not that different from other plants. The difference is in how you time the application of nutrients like mulch and fertilizer.
Fortunately, they have a lovely natural shape, so you do not need to work hard to keep them looking pretty. They tend to grow upright, their branches spreading outward to form a vase-like canopy. Let’s take a look at all the important factors to consider when growing them in your yard or garden.
Cherry trees grow best in full sun. Place them where they can get a full day’s worth of sun (at least 6 hours) and not where other trees will shade them.
In lower lighting conditions, these trees will not produce flowers and ultimately fruit, leaving you without a harvest. The right amount of light is key to getting the most fruits from your sweet or sour cherry tree.
You should water your tree about twice weekly while it is still being established. After this period (roughly three years), you only need to water during extended dry periods. You can also give the sapling a deep watering once a week during its growing season.
However, if you do not water your cherry tree enough, it can leave your tree more susceptible to disease and pests.
Monitor your sapling, especially during dryer seasons, and water whenever the soil seems dry. You may have to do so several times a week. Be sure to cut back on your watering whenever you receive a lot of rainfall.
Be sure to use well-draining, nutrient-dense soil when planting your cherry tree.
Make sure it is well-drained but still moist enough to water the tree. Keeping that 1 to 2-inch layer of mulch around the tree will help retain moisture.
Well-drained soil lets water drain at a moderate rate without allowing water to puddle around the roots. Sopping wet soil reduces the plants’ oxygen intake, suffocating the roots and resulting in the demise of the plant.
On the other hand, if you keep your soil too dry, the plants will not have enough water (or time to absorb that water), and they can die.
Do not use sandy soil, which can drain the water too fast, or heavy clay soil that holds too much moisture around the roots. Rich loam is preferred.
Moderate climates without extreme fluctuating temperatures throughout the year are ideal for growing cherry trees.
They grow best in temperate climates, like the Southeastern US, but they will need protection in extreme temperatures. Putting a layer of mulch around the cherry tree should protect the soil during those intense temperature fluctuations.
Make sure you grow your tree where it will have protection from colder winds. Too much premature exposure to cold might damage or even kill the flower buds.
You will not need to apply fertilizer to your cherry tree for the first two years. Eventually, you will want to use a high in nitrogen fertilizer that releases slowly into the roots.
Apply fertilizer to your cherry across the early spring. This fertilizer will help the tree continue to grow throughout the season with an extra spurt of nutrients. If, for some reason, your tree is slow to bloom, gently increase how much fertilizer you use.
One of the most important ways to maintain your tree is to prune it. However, you will need to do a little prep work before doing so and keep a few things in mind about over-pruning.
Disinfect Your Pruners Before Use
First, make sure you disinfect your pruners both before and after working on your tree. If you have used these pruners on any other plant, there could be remnants of pests or disease on them, so do not spread them to the cherry tree. Either wipe the pruners with rubbing alcohol or a solution with a 9 to 1 ratio of water and bleach.
How to Prune a Cherry Tree
Sometimes, a tree grows faster than it can support itself. Pruning helps keep the tree not only looking attractive but also prevents it from falling over on itself or not getting enough nutrients.
Sometimes little suckers or growths will appear at the base of your tree. If there are any, remove them outside the branch collar, where their stem meets the trunk. Also, trim any weak branches or shoots pointed toward the trunk of the tree. You should prune your cherry tree into an open vase shape to allow better light and air exposure.
Any of these things can steal nutrients from the tree and decrease air circulation, preventing them from getting where they need to. Similarly, any dead or broken branches make the tree look messy to eliminate those as well.
Heading Cuts in the First 1 to 2 Years
A heading cut involves removing part of a branch, shoot, or limb at ⅓ to ½ its length, which encourages growth for lateral branches. You should make cuts like these during the fall or winter (springtime is a growing period for the tree, so don’t cut during that period). Only make heading cuts on your tree within the first year or two of life (when the sapling is over 30 inches tall) to help control the tree’s shape.
Never make head cuts at straight angles. Instead, cut at a 45-degree angle, reducing the tree’s height to 24 to 36 inches tall.
Heading Cuts in the Subsequent Year
You will now begin making scaffold whorls after making angled heading cuts in the first 1 to 2 years. These are a set of four strong lateral branches growing out from the tree. You want to choose four strong and evenly-spaced branches and then prune out the rest around them.
Choose branches that sit at 45 to 60 degrees against the leader trunk, are about 8 inches apart from the lowest branch, which sits 18 inches off the ground. Then cut each of those branches to 24 inches with a ¼ inch angled cut above any buds to encourage new growth.
In the following year, repeat this process to create a second scaffold whorl. Choose another robust four-branch set about 2 feet higher than your first branch set.
Don’t let your pruning cuts go back any further than the branch collar. If your tree becomes overcrowded with too many branches, thin the stems back to the main trunk. Doing so helps the branches get fresh air and better light penetration.
When to Prune a Cherry Tree
Cherry trees do not grow very fast, so pruning often is not necessary. However, late winter or early spring is the best time to do heavy-duty pruning for best results. That is because, during that time, the cherry tree is dormant and not growing very fast. On the other hand, you should remove suckers the instant you find them on the tree.
When you aggressively prune your tree during the winter, you are not taking from the tree’s energy reserves. The dormant season usually begins in late winter, when pruning the tree will not injure it.
Your tree will grow throughout the spring and summer, so pruning too much during those seasons can hinder your tree’s maximum growth. If you must prune during that time, only use thinning cuts, which remove an entire branch or limb from its base on the tree. Doing so opens up the canopy better and provides more sunlight to other limbs.
If you need to clip off a single dead or broken branch every so often, you can do so anytime you need.
In short, here are the significant benefits of pruning your cherry tree:
- Reduce the spread of pests or diseases
- Promote the development of flower buds in the tree canopy
- Helps with establishment stages in new trees
- Promote fruit quality and size
- Help development with new fruiting wood
Keep these benefits in mind when deciding whether or not you’ll prune your tree.
Cherry trees are prolific producers, giving you more cherries than you know what to do with each season.
You’ll know your cherries are ready to harvest when they change color to classic red. The longer you leave the fruit on the tree, the more sugars they will develop and the sweeter they will become.
To determine when the perfect time to harvest sweet cherries is, simply pick one or two off the tree from a bunch and taste them. If they are too tart, leave them for a few more days. For sour cherries, they will tell you when they’re ripe enough by coming off the branch with ease.
When harvesting, it’s best to leave the stems on the tree and to only remove the fruit. If you accidentally damage or remove the spur, that branch will not produce any fruits the following season. If you want to save a couple for later use, you can remove them with the stem attached, but try not to damage the spur in the process.
Both sweet and sour cherries have a number of uses in the kitchen, from desserts to salads and more. They are also packed with nutrients and antioxidants that make them one of the healthiest snacks around.
The easiest way to enjoy the fruits is fresh – straight off the tree. Many sweet cherry varieties are delicious when eaten fresh, and taste even better when slightly chilled for a few hours.
Sour cherries – as evident in the name – are not as popular raw. They can be incredibly tart, best cooked for pies or made into jams and combined with sugar to offset the strong flavors.
Cherries are also great candidates for preservation. Canning or using in jams or other preserves will greatly extend their shelf life beyond the 10 days they last once off the tree.
Pests and Diseases
The only downside to caring for a cherry tree is all the pests and diseases that ravage this variety of trees. Keep in mind that some of these pests or diseases only occur when a tree is already unhealthy. Therefore, you should take measures to protect your tree against things like poorly drained soil, lawnmower injury, sunscald, or drought.
Cherry Leaf Spot
Cherry leaf spot is a fungus that usually affects leaves but can also target stems or twigs. It is probably one of the most severe diseases this tree can get.
You will usually see this fungus in more humid areas when your tree may have too much moisture. Dark-colored spots on the leaves, white spots on leaves in wet weather, leaf yellowing, or even premature leaf-dropping are signs your tree may have this fungus.
To Prevent Cherry Leaf Spot
Collect and destroy the fallen leaves in late autumn to better control this disease since the fungus can overwinter on them. This practice should also prevent the fungus from moving onto other nearby trees.
As a preventative measure, make sure you plant your tree in a site that will get 8 hours of sunshine and good soil drainage.
Black Cherry Aphid
Curled or twisted leaves are a sign of aphid damage. Black cherry aphids are small metallic black insects that eat cherry tree leaves, which causes the leaves to look twisted or curled. They emerge from eggs that have overwintered in the cherry tree bark, hatching in the spring. Two or three generations can appear by midsummer.
If left unchecked, an infestation can kill young trees or reduce the size and quality of a cherry harvest. Black cherry aphids may also secrete honeydew, which sometimes causes black fungus on the tree.
To Prevent Black Cherry Aphid
Watch your tree when buds start to appear in late winter. If there are sticky yellow cards, you will see how severe a black aphid infestation has become. Sometimes, you might be able to get rid of a small black cherry aphid infestation with a strong jet stream of water.
To keep Black cherry aphids away, you should encourage natural predators like ladybugs, lacewing larvae, soldier beetles, and parasitic wasps to hang around your tree. Do not use broad-spectrum insecticides, which can harm these bugs.
For more severe infestations, you want to spray your tree with horticultural oil in early spring. Doing so will kill the aphid eggs before they hatch.
Not even cherry trees are safe from the most common fungal disease in gardens, powdery mildew.
This common fungus attacks leaves and twigs. You will notice it with leaves dropping too early and white or light gray patches appearing on new leaves. Sometimes you might also find it on or underneath stems, flowers, or fruits. Eventually, the spots spread to cover most of the plants’ leaves, especially newer plant growth, stopping the flow of water and nutrients.
Powdery mildew can thrive in warm, dry climates or climates with high humidity. Inadequate sunlight exposure and lousy air circulation can also contribute to powdery mildew forming on a plant.
To Prevent Powdery Mildew
You want to remove any susceptible plants to improve airflow. Spacing plants between each other and away from fences can improve airflow too, as well as getting proper sunlight.
Try to find an organic fungicide where sulfur is the main active ingredient. Sulfur can prevent powdery mildew or treat an existing case.
Damage from tunneling borers can be visible from the exterior of your tree.
Borers are brown or black-winged insect larvae that like to bore into wood, causing damage to their trunks. Unlike other tree larvae, borers don’t feed on the foliage or plant juices.
Borer damage consists of a gummy-looking sap coming out of small holes in the trunk. This sap means that the flow of nutrients and water through the tree is damaged. Other damage includes browning and wilting leaves or branches or wood shavings and powdery stuff left at the bottom of the trunk. The powdery stuff on the trunk is called frass, a waste material that borers leave behind.
Cherry tree wood borers typically only infect an unhealthy tree, so you will have to take measures to keep your tree healthy.
To Prevent Borers
You can use pyrethrum-based bark spray to repel certain pests, like cherry wood borers. Pyrethrum is a chemical compound made of extract from different flowers that create electrical overloads in various insects, killing them before they can damage the plant. All you have to do is spray the trunk and main limbs. Spraying the leaves should not be necessary.
This spray is handy if you already see borer eggs on the tree. The spray forms a sort of barrier around the tree, preventing them from entering the wood.
It is best to remove infected branches so the disease does not spread if you suspect brown rot.
Brown rot infects small branches, blossoms, and fruits. You might see brown-grey, powdery bunches on twigs or fruit when they get wet. You’ll also possibly see blight, fruit rot, or cankers.
To Prevent Brown Rot
Be sure to remove all shriveled fruit from the tree, and make sure the area around the tree is clean of fallen fruit and debris. Doing so lowers how many spores may grow.
If pruning out diseased wood still does not prevent twig blight or fruit rot, you might need a fungicide on hand. You can first do so when blossoms start to open and repeat sprays (according to the product’s instructions) until the cherry petals fall.
To protect from fruit rot, start spraying fungicide 2 to 3 weeks before the fruit ripens.
White Prunicola Scale
Patches of white fungus are a sign of this disease that can be fatal for your tree.
White Prunicola Scale appears as white patches on trees and shrubs, feeding on the nutrients in the fluid and sap in these plants. When you have spotted these white patches, it is usually too late to turn your cherry tree’s health back around, and it will keep declining. You will also notice the tree’s leaves yellowing and dropping earlier than usual and cracked bark.
To Prevent White Prunicola Scale
In some cases, if the pest population is not too high, an arborist can wash the bark and prune out the infestation. That said, you might also need to apply horticultural oil during the early spring and dormant season. In more extreme cases, you might need insecticides to target feeding adults.
Be careful not to confuse White Prunicola Scale with White Peach Scale, a white armored insect that feeds on cherry trees. A White Peach Scale infestation produces many of the same symptoms as the White Prunicola Scale.
This fungal disease can appear a season after the infection begins.
Like Brown Rot, Black Knot is a slow-developing fungal disease that attacks fruiting and ornamental cherry trees. It might be a whole season before the illness becomes apparent on the tree. It shows up as hard, uneven black bunches that wrap around branches and twigs.
Black Knot, if left untreated, severely slows down new growth, causing the tree to deteriorate and produce low-quality fruit. Insects and other plant diseases use the black bunches produced through this fungus to enter the tree.
Pest and Disease Prevention
Again, for some pests and diseases, it is all about preventing the pests and diseases from coming to your tree. As long as the tree is healthy, it is unlikely to attract them.
Pyrethrum, while helpful, is poison. It can even kill beneficial insects like butterflies, bees, or ladybugs. If you must use this chemical, be sure to apply it during the late evening, early in the morning, or at night, before the bees come out to forage. You may need to reapply insecticide 2 or 3 times before you take back control of your cherry tree.
You might also consider using sticky traps outside the tree, but these will only attract adult male pests.
Ensure you disinfect your pruners after caring for a diseased plant so you do not spread disease to other plants.
Be careful not to over-fertilize the plants, which can cause a rush of new plant growth. New growth is especially susceptible to disease, so beware.
Frequently Asked Questions
How close to my house can I plant a cherry tree?
Fortunately, cherry trees do not grow very tall, nor are they ever in danger of falling over in severe weather.
The only problem you would genuinely have when planting close to your home is the petals and leaves. Plant them a little further away if you do not want to clean their leaves out of your garden or porch.
Also, make sure you leave at least 2 yards between your home and the tree. Such space will allow the roots to grow without interfering with the integrity of your home.
Can you eat cherry tree cherries off the branch?
While most cherry tree fruits are edible, you may want to cook them before eating. Some varieties have better tasting fruit than others, so make sure to identify your variety before plucking its fruit.
Remember that people have bred cherry blossom trees for their ornamentation and not necessarily for their fruit. Be especially wary of black cherries or any wild cherry you cannot identify.
How can you tell older cherry trees from younger ones?
You can tell how young a cherry tree is from two factors: glossy bark or horizontal lines across the bark. These horizontal lines are called lenticels.
Older trees tend to develop calluses, which, while rough and bumpy, are supposed to protect wounds on the tree’s bark. Sometimes an entire old tree will look twisted and knotted up thanks to all those coverings.
Can they attract birds?
Yes. Their fruit attracts all manner of birds, including robins, waxwings, and cardinals. They will also attract some insects, such as butterflies, ladybugs, or bumblebees.
Is any part of the tree toxic?
Yes. The leaves, stems, and blossoms contain Cyanogenic glycosides, which stop your cells from absorbing and transporting oxygen. If you are worried about your pets eating stray tree parts, you should clean them up soon after they fall and supervise your pets when they are near the tree.
When do cherry tree flowers bloom?
That is entirely dependent on the weather. Most often, you will find cherry flowers blooming in mid-April to early May. The period in which at least 70% of cherry trees bloom determines the peak bloom when a sustained time of warm temperatures prompts the blossoms to emerge.
Sometimes the peak bloom comes early because of unseasonably warm weather. However, such a bloom can just as quickly die thanks to frost.
Where can I buy cherry trees?
Any home improvement or gardening stores like Lowes or Home Depot should have potted trees ready for planting. Check your local nursery for varieties that will best suit your local region and produce the most fruit.
Do these trees require daily care?
Luckily, cherry trees do not require constant attention. Compared to other flowering trees, they are relatively low-maintenance. At the most, you need to make sure their soil does not dry out and that the tree stays pruned. Make sure that there are no diseases or infestations every time you water the plant.
Cherry trees are among the prettiest fruit trees around, producing delicious fruits with many uses in the kitchen. They are also not fussy, providing an abundant harvest with very little effort. While they may not be as popular as apple trees or pear trees, fruit bearing cherry trees can make a wonderful addition to any home or garden with the right care and maintenance schedule.