Organic Gardening: How to Grow Organic Cherries

Do you crave the taste of sweet cherries despite their steep price? Do you love Fresh Baked Cherry Pie or the sight of a cherry tree in full bloom? If so, grow your own sweet and tart cherries, and you’ll enjoy a hearty harvest that is sure to satisfy your cherry craze.

Selecting Trees

Tart cherries (Prunus cerasus), also called sour or pie cherries, are easy to grow. Use the tangy fruit for baking, or let it overripen on the tree for fresh eating. Sour cherries are self-fertile and will set fruit alone. They grow only 20 feet tall and bear fruit at an earlier age than sweet cherries. Sour cherries are hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4–6.

Sweet cherries (P. avium) do best in mild, dry climates, but some cultivars will do well in other climates with a little special care. Most sweet cherries need a second compatible cultivar for pollination. Certain sweet cherries can’t pollinate other specific cultivars, so check before you plant. If you can only plant one tree, buy one grafted with two cultivars, or try a self-fertile cultivar such as Compact Stella or Starkcrimson. Sweet cherries can grow into trees 35 feet or taller, but they’re also available on dwarfing rootstocks that will keep the trees as small as 10 feet. They are hardy in zones 5–7 and also thrive in zones 8 and 9 in the Pacific Northwest.

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.

Ground cherries have a distinctive, sweet-tart taste that lends itself to wildly diverse recipes.

Duke cherries are hybrids between sweet and tart cherries, and tend to be sweet/tart.

Bush cherries (P. besseyi, P. tomentose, and Prunus spp.) bear small cherry-like fruit and grow well in areas with harsh winters where cherry trees will not.

Tart Cherries

Tart cherries are small trees no matter what rootstock they are grafted on. Standard sweet cherries are grafted on seedling rootstocks such as Mazzard (P. avium) and Mahaleb (P. mahaleb). If your soil is heavy, try Mazzard. For lighter soils, choose Mahaleb for a smaller tree that bears in 2 to 4 years. Mahaleb also adapts well to irrigation and slightly alkaline soil. Damil rootstock makes a sturdy dwarfed tree and appears even more tolerant of wet soil than Mazzard, but some of the dwarfing rootstocks available give disappointing results.

Planting + Care

Tart cherries grow well throughout much of the United States. They need about 1,000 chill hours below 45 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. This limits their range to the Carolinas and northward through zone 4. Although all cherries need well-drained soils, tart cherries tolerate moderately heavy soils better than sweet cherries. Space tart cherries 20 to 25 feet apart, sweet cherries 25 to 30 feet apart. Dwarf trees can be planted with closer spacing.


Sweet cherries are not as winter hardy as tart cherries. Early autumn frosts also can damage sweet cherry trees. Commercially, sweet cherries grow best in the West, where summers are dry.

Cherries bloom early and are susceptible to frost damage. Sweet cherries bloom earlier than sour cherries.

Healthy cherry trees will grow about 1 foot per year. If your tree’s progress is slower or the new leaves are yellow, have the soil and/or foliage tested for nutrient deficiencies. Mulch each spring with a thin layer of compost out to the drip line. Don’t fertilize after midsummer. This could encourage new growth that won’t harden before fall frosts.


A central leader form is best for dwarf tart cherries. Use a modified central leader form for semi dwarf and standard cherry trees. Spreading the branches while they are young will help control height and encourage earlier bearing. After the trees reach bearing age, prune to let light penetrate to the interior of the tree. Prune tart cherries lightly each winter to stimulate new growth and thin tangled branches. Prune sweet cherries less frequently, only every third or fourth year. Cut back heavy tops on overgrown sweet cherry trees to force new fruiting wood to develop on lower branches.


Hungry birds and fruit cracking are two of the major issues that can happen while raising cherries. Most of the disease and insects are less serious on tart cherries as compared to sweet.

Peach tree borer, green fruit worm, plum curculio, mites, and Cherry fruit fly are the insects that usually attack cherries . Scale and Aphids can also create issues. Sawfly larvae are also known as pear slugs, which can cause the plant die.

Shothole borers can damage the fruits as they create small holes in the bark of trunk and twigs. Mostly, the holes are covered with gum. During the summer, spring, and fall, you need to paint the branches and trunk with white latex to prevent the adults from laying eggs. Most of the times, these pests attack the damaged or wounded plants. Their appearance is the sign that your trees are in some serious trouble and you might need to remove few of them

The disfigured leaves and blossoms are the sign of pear thrips. Although, predatory mites (naturally occurs) provide controls against them, but if you notice serious infections, you can sprate insecticidal soap.




When the fruit begins to drop, it is ready to pick. Tart cherries can be left to sweeten on the tree for a day or two.

To pick cherries, gently pull off clusters, keeping the stems on the fruit. Be careful not to tear off the fruit spurs (small woody twigs to which the cherry stems are attached).

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