How to Grow Cherries
Sweet cherries are great for eating fresh, while tart ones are best for baking. Both can successfully be grown in many parts of the country.
First, consider your climate. A USDA Plant Hardiness map divides North America into 11 climatic zones. You can learn your zone with a quick look at the map.
As a general rule, sweet cherries grow best in zones 5 through 7, where summers are typically mild and where winter temperatures are only moderately cold. Tart cherries have a wider range, growing well in zones 4 through 9. If you're not sure which cherries are best for your climate, check with your local extension service.
You will also need to decide whether you want a standard, dwarf or semidwarf tree. Standard sweet cherry trees can reach heights up to 40' tall and nearly as wide. This can be too large for many home growers, so dwarf and semidwarf trees (which can range from five to 20' tall) are more common in home orchards.
Another factor to take into consideration when buying a cherry tree is its chilling requirement. After a cherry tree goes into dormancy in the fall and loses its leaves, it requires a certain number of hours between 35 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit in order to produce well. Fortunately, this is a factor that is taken into consideration when trees are rated for various climate zones; if you select a variety rated for your zone and recommended by your local extension service, the chilling requirements will have already been factored in.
You can plant either bare-root or containerized cherry trees. Bare-root trees should be planted before they break dormancy in early spring; trees growing in containers, on the other hand, are typically planted somewhat later in the spring.
When planting a cherry tree, prepare the planting hole as you would for any fruit tree. Be sure to place the tree in the hole so that the graft union is 3"-4" above the surrounding soil level (Image 1). Backfill the hole three-quarters of the way; then add water to settle the soil around the roots (Image 2).
Continue backfilling the hole and water well when finished (Image 3). A layer of light mulch underneath the trees will help conserve water and also keep down weeds; in addition, it will give your landscape a finished look.
All cherries need at least six hours of full sun a day in order to fruit. Both sweet and tart cherries have similar growing requirements, but sweet cherries are more particular as to soil drainage and pH; tart cherries are more adaptable to a wider range of soils. Sweet cherries must have good soil drainage in order to survive. If you have clay soil, you will need to amend it with plenty of organic compost and organic soil conditioners before planting. Sweet cherries also tend to do best with a soil pH between 6.3 and 7.2. You can use a pH meter to test the soil's acidity, or send a soil sample to your local extension service for analysis.
The primary reasons for pruning are to encourage a tree to be more fruitful and to open up the tree so that the sun can shine into and reach most of the branches. The best time to prune any cherry is late winter or early spring.
Most sweet cherries are produced on spurs, short shoots that arise from lateral leaf buds. The best quality fruit are produced at the base of the previous year's growth and on one- to three-year-old spurs. When pruning your trees, therefore, you want to make sure to leave as many spurs as possible and also encourage the development of future spurs.
Tart cherries require less pruning than sweet cherries, although pruning can used to maintain tree height to about 10' to facilitate harvesting fruit.
A common recommendation is to fertilize cherry trees once year, applying a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as 5-10-10 in early spring, about a month before bloom.
Keep high-nitrogen fertilizers away from cherry trees, especially in the late summer and the fall, since excess nitrogen can make trees more prone to brown rot infection. In fact, if your cherry trees are planted in your yard and you're fertilizing the yard, the trees are probably getting more than enough nitrogen. In this case, do not apply any additional nitrogen fertilizer, but add a 0-10-10 or similar fertilizer only.