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The two basic types of cherries are sweet and tart. Sweet cherries are great for eating fresh, while the tart ones are best for baking. To produce fruit, most cherries require another tree nearby for cross-pollination. Tart cherry trees are adaptable to a broader range of climates than sweet cherries. Popular sweet varieties include Black Tartarian and Stella. Popular tart varieties include Balaton and Montmorency.
Tip: As a general rule, sweet cherries grow best in zones 5 through 7, while tart cherries do best in zones 4 through 9.
Cherry trees need at least six hours of full sun a day in order to produce fruit. Cherries also need good soil drainage in order to thrive. If the site is heavy with clay, amend it with plenty of organic compost and organic soil conditioners before planting. Tart cherries are more adaptable to a wider range of soils.
Many cherries are sold as bare-root trees. Shake off any material clinging to the roots and soak the roots in a bucket of water for two hours before planting. Dig a hole the same depth and width as the roots. Place the tree in the hole and fan out the roots. Position the tree in the hole so that the graft union is 3" above the soil level. Backfill with soil until the hole is three-quarters full. Water well to settle the soil. Finish filling the hole and water again.
In the first year or two after being planted, cherry trees require regular watering. A layer of light mulch underneath the trees will help conserve water and keep down weeds. A common recommendation is to fertilize cherry trees in early spring with a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as 5-10-10. In many areas of the country, insecticides and fungicides may be required for good harvests.
The primary reasons for pruning are to encourage a tree to be more fruitful and to open up the tree so that the sunshine can reach most of the branches. The best time to prune any cherry is late winter or early spring. Your local cooperative extension service should have a free brochure on how to prune cherry trees.
Cherry blossoms must be protected from spring frost damage, which can wipe out a year’s crop. If a late frost is predicted after fruit-bud set, place lightweight fabric over the tree to form a tent. Add a small heat source such as a light bulb on an extension cord.
Birds love cherries. As soon as the fruit begins to ripen, cover the trees with bird netting to protect the fruit. Make sure there are no gaps or openings in the netting. Secure the netting to the ground with bricks, stones or other weights.
Cherries are among the earliest ripening fruits, being ready to harvest in late spring or early summer. Cherries increase in size until they're ripe. Sweet cherries become firm when ripe. Ripe cherries pull easily off the tree. Sweet cherries are typically picked stem and all. Tart cherries are usually picked without their stems.