Cherries are one of the most rewarding fruits to grow, mainly because there is nothing else like them. I love almost all things with cherries: cherry pie, black cherry ice cream, cherry pepsi, fresh cherries off the tree. So I grow them in my landscape. One thing I always wanted to do was to plant 2 rows of cherry trees on either side of my driveway, for the flowers and the fruit.
Unfortunately, when we bought our house, it was already surrounded by trees along the drive, and I could not plant cherry trees. Since then, however, I have planted several cherry trees around the house. Here in Northeast KS, we can grow both types of cherry trees, sweet and sour. But sweet cherries have more pest problems than sour cherries, so I do not plant them. However, that should not stop others from trying to grow them.
These cherries are usually large, and can be either red, dark red, golden with a red blush, or rosy pink in color when ripe. One of the problems with growing sweet cherry trees is that most varieties require cross pollination. This means that you need 2 different varieties to get fruit. So someone with a small yard or landscape may only be able to grow 1 tree, so its important to pick a self-pollinating variety or grow a sour cherry, all of which are self-pollinating.
But, if you have the room, and you are in at least Zone 5b, you can successfully grow sweet cherry trees. And get fruit too. Sweet cherry trees are also usually taller and fuller than sour cherry trees. I once ordered a bareroot sour cherry from a nursery, and the tree ended up being a sweet cherry. Despite the delicious fruit, I was not happy with the size and had to remove the tree from its location.
Cultivars of Sweet Cherries
There are a lot of choices here, despite some concerns with pests and diseases (more on that below). One thing about sweet cherries is that they are really just for fresh eating. I suppose people do can and prepare them, but they are not as good as sour or pie cherries for canning, jams, and pies.
- Bing is one of the most well-known varieties, they are hardy in Zones 5 to 8 and have large, dark red fruit.
- Rainier is another popular variety with red fruit that has a golden yellow blush when ripe. It does best in Zones 5 to 8.
- Black Gold is a very dark cherry when ripe, which grows well in Zones 5 to 9. It is self-pollinating.
- Royal Ann has yellow fruit which blushes red when ripe, and grows best in Zones 5 to 8.
- Black Star was bred originally in Italy, but grows well in Zones 5 to 8. It has deep dark red fruit.
- Sweetheart has red fruit and grows only in Zones 5 to 7. It is self-pollinating.
- Whitegold was developed in New York and has golden yellow fruit. It grows best in Zones 5 to 8.
- Van has bright red fruit and grows best in Zones 5 to 8.
- Regina has dark red fruit and grows best in Zones 5 to 8.
- Lapins has bright red fruit, grows best in Zones 5 to 8, and is self-pollinating.
All of these will pollinate each other. As long as you have 2 different cultivars within 100 feet of each other, you will get fruit.
Problems of Sweet Cherry Trees
One of the biggest problems of sweet cherry trees is cold hardiness. This does not mean that the tree will not grow in colder climates, but rather that the blooms will not survive a freeze or frost and produce fruit. Even here in Zone 5b, Northeast Kansas, we get a late freeze every 3 to 5 years, and this damages the flower buds of sweet cherries, peaches, nectarines, and apricots, resulting in a crop failure for that year.
Another issue with sweet cherry trees is fruit cracking. What happens is that as the fruit is ripening, there is a large amount of water inside the fruit, held by a thin skin. If it rains during ripening, the fruit can swell, resulting in split skins and cracking. For the home gardener this may not be an issue, but for those who are selling at farmer’s markets, CSAs, or to grocery stores, this is a problem. The following varieties are crack-resistant.
- Royal Ann
The main insects problems are those which eat the fruit and those which attack the main trunk of the plant. There are several insects which primarily feed on the leaves of the tree, but do not attack either the fruit or the trunk. Since leaves are replenished each season and are not consumed, they can withstand more damage than other parts of the tree.
Insect pests which should be treated for if found include:
- Eastern or Western cherry fruit fly
- Green fruitworm moths
- Spotted wing drosophila
- Japanese beetle
- American plum borer
- Peachtree borer
If you are chemical free like me, there are limited options for controlling many of these insect problems. For the fruit eating insects, gaining plant and insect diversity in the landscape is probably the most beneficial thing you can do. Once you have a large number of predatory insects, you will have less damage to fruit from pests. Another option for protecting the fruits is to use small sized insect netting, which can go over the entire tree if the tree is small enough. Keep the netting on from fruit set to after harvest for best results.
Another course of action is to use yellow sticky-trap cards placed within the canopy of the tree after fruit set. These cards will attract and catch the majority of fly pests such as cherry fruit fly or spotted wing drosophila, both of which spoil the fruit from the inside.
For the borers, which attack the trunk and often cause secondary diseases and death of the tree, wrapping the tree trunk in early spring with tree wrap and then applying a coat of Tangle-Trap should keep most borers from attacking the tree. Another way would be to whitewash the trunk of the tree. This was done by early fruit tree growers in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska in the 1800s.
Only 3 diseases are responsible for overall tree decline or death, or damage to the fruit. All the other diseases can cause unsightly damage to the leaves mainly, but rarely cause enough damage to warrant chemical application.
- Black knot is a fungal disease of cherries and plums, which forms crusty black galls or knots on the branches of the tree. If left alone it will take over the entire tree within a few years. It can be pruned off the tree, but you should clean your pruners in between cuts with an alcohol wipe or solution.
- Brown rot is a fungal infection which attacks the fruit, making it unusable. The fruit becomes mushy with brown or white fungal growths on it. The best prevention for this disease is to keep fruit flies from stinging (laying eggs) in the fruit. This sting spot gives an opening for the fungal spores to enter the fruit.
- Bacterial canker is a disease which cherries are highly susceptible to. It appears most prevalent when the weather is wet, and enters the plant through pruning cuts. It causes cankers and sap flow through cuts which can cause entire limbs to die. Prevent by pruning only when necessary or waiting to prune until after fruit harvest (July or August).
Sour Cherry Trees
I love growing sour or pie cherries in my landscape. They are quite a bit hardier than sweet cherries, and I usually get a crop, no matter when a late freeze is. A few years ago we a had freeze on May 5th, and I still got a cherry crop that year. Despite their name, sour cherries are not so sour that they cannot be eaten raw off the tree. In fact, I prefer them to sweet cherry fruits.
In my garden, which is also a fruit tree guild, I have 5 cultivars of sour cherry trees, and I am looking to add more. Every fall I add at least 2 new fruit trees to my landscape, to help feed my family in the future. So far, I have sour cherries, apricots, apples, peaches, plums, serviceberries, and pawpaws.
Cultivars of Sour Cherry Trees
I have tried some of these, and found that the rootstock was not compatible or right for my area. Others have done so well, I keep adding them to my list of favorites.
- Meteor is a genetically dwarf tree that only grows 8 to 10 feet tall. The fruit is red when ripe and the tree grows best in Zones 4 to 8.
- Montmorency is a well known variety from France which has bright red fruits and does best in Zones 4 to 9.
- Kansas Sweet has reddish gold fruit on small, 10 to 12 foot tall plants with a semi-dwarf rootstock. It does best in Zones 4 to 10, making it adaptable to a lot of areas.
- Danube was supposed to be a cross between a sweet and sour cherry, but leans more to sour. It grows best in Zones 4 to 8 and has dark red fruit.
- Northstar is one of my favorites, not only for the orchard, but for the landscape too. It has excellent ornamental value and does well in Zones 3 to 5 (cold hardy), with bright red fruit.
- Sweet Cherry Pie is the same as Eubank, a selection from Wisconsin. It does best in Zones 4 to 7 and has bright red fruit.
- Balaton was introduced by the University of Michigan in 1984, and has dark red fruit. It grows best in Zones 5 to 7.
Sour cherries share the same problems as sweet cherry trees, but with less damage from cherry fruit fly and bacterial canker.
Using the Fruit from Cherry Trees
Is pie the thing you think of first when I mention cherries? Well, it usually is for me. But there are many things you can do with cherry fruits. In general, sweet cherry fruits are best for eating, though some hybrids between sweet and sour may make good pies (Danube, Kansas Sweet). Otherwise, the following foods should mainly be made with sour cherries.
- Wine & cordial
- Dried fruit
- Ice cream
Here on our farm, one of my favorite things to do when we have an abundance of cherry fruit (hard to get with our kids) is to make cherry pie filling. This can be used for so much more than making pies. My wife and I like to use it mixed in homemade yogurt, on ice cream, or just eaten from the jar. Yum!
Pruning and Planting Cherry Trees
Here is the best thing about cherry trees. They require almost no pruning at all. I love it in February when I get to a new client’s house and find they have mostly cherry trees, because that means less work for me. The only things I prune from cherry trees are crossing branches, branches which grow toward the center of the tree, or dead branches. Of all of these, there are hardly more than 5 cuts per tree each year.
For tips on planting, go to our tree planting guide by clicking here.
Cherries are not only beautiful trees with fragrant flowers, but their fruit is excellent eaten raw or cooked. I love my cherry trees and I could not have trees without them. By planting and growing my own cherries, I provide food for my family that is chemical free and healthy.