How to Grow Cherries

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  • Cherries are a favorite summer treat with a number of valuable health benefits, thanks to their antioxidants and powerful anti-inflammatory compounds. Both sweet and tart cherries are easy to grow
  • Cherry trees will grow about 1 foot per year, start producing fruit in two to four years and can produce anywhere from 150 to 300 pounds of cherries per tree per year once fully mature
  • Tart cherry trees are self-pollinating and can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 4, 5 and 6. They require about 1,000 chill hours below 45 degrees F during winter months
  • Sweet cherry is suitable for USDA zones 5 through 9, and need about 150 to 300 chill hours during winter months. Self-pollinating cultivars include Stella, Black Gold and North Star. Others may need companion trees to ensure successful pollination
  • To keep birds from flying away with your harvest, cover the tree with netting as the fruit starts to form. Planting mulberry trees nearby can also help lure birds away from your cherry trees, but won’t prevent them from eating your cherries as well

By Dr. Mercola

Cherries are a favorite summer treat with a number of valuable health benefits, thanks to their antioxidants and powerful anti-inflammatory compounds. If the steep price and limited availability of commercial cherries leaves you wanting each season, consider growing your own.

General Growing Guidelines

Cherry trees will grow about 1 foot per year, provided they get sufficient amounts of nutrients. They’ll start producing fruit in two to four years and can produce anywhere from 150 to 300 pounds of cherries per tree per year once fully mature.

Ideal soil conditions: Cherry trees need deep, loose, slightly acidic soil

Light requirements: All cherry varieties need a minimum of six hours of full sun. Eight to 10 hours of full sun is better

Fertilizer recommendations: Fertilize your tree three times a year: in early spring, when the tree starts to set flowers, and again in the fall. Worm castings and compost tea are ideal for early spring and flowering in the first year. In the fall, use a phosphorous-rich fertilizer to encourage root growth that will get the tree ready for dormancy. (For a more in-depth discussion on fertilizer usage, see the featured video)

Water needs: After planting your tree, give it 1 gallon of water per day for the first three weeks. For the next two weeks, cut back to 1 gallon every two days. After that, make sure it gets about 1 gallon of water per week. You can gauge the tree’s water needs by keeping a close eye on the cherries as they begin to ripen.

Excessive dryness will cause the fruit to shrivel, while water logging will cause the fruit to crack and split. Certain cultivars are better suited for wet conditions, so look for a cultivar that resists cracking if you live in an area prone to heavy rains in the summer.

Sweet Versus Tart Cherry

Conventional cherries can be divided into two primary categories: sweet and tart (sour). The Duke cherry is a hybrid mix of both sweet and tart. Sweet varieties are typically eaten fresh, while tart cherries develop a fuller flavor when used in cooking, which is why they're often used in baked desserts. Both kinds can be grown in your home garden, depending on your hardiness zone.1

Tart cherry trees are self-pollinating, grow to about 20 feet in height and begin to bear fruit at an earlier age than sweet cherry. They can be grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 4, 5 and 6, and require about 1,000 chill hours below 45 degrees F during winter months. They tend to grow better in moderately heavy soil, and should be spaced about 20 to 25 feet apart for optimal growth.

Sweet cherry is suitable for USDA zones 5 through 9, and need about 150 to 300 chill hours during winter months. Sweet cherry trees can grow up to 35 feet, unless you buy a dwarf variety. The type of soil you have in your yard can help guide your choice. If you have heavy soil, Mazzard sweet cherry is a good choice, whereas Mahaleb sweet cherry grows better in lighter soils. Damil is a dwarf variety of sweet cherry that can tolerate wetter, heavier soils.

Some sweet cherry cultivars are self-pollinating, including Stella, Black Gold and North Star. Others may need companion trees to ensure successful pollination. Van, Sam, Rainier and Bing cherries can pollinate any cross-pollinating variety except their own kind.2

Acerola Cherry

Since I live in Florida, my personal favorite is the Barbados or West Indian cherry, more commonly known as the acerola cherry,3 which is a phenomenal source of vitamin C. Each acerola cherry provides about 80 milligrams (mg) of natural vitamin C, and since the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C in the U.S. is a mere 75 to 90 mg, just one of these cherries can provide you with all the vitamin C you need for the day!

Acerola cherries cannot tolerate transportation and storage, so you won’t find them in the store. Deterioration can occur within four hours of harvesting and they ferment quickly, rendering them unusable in five days or less. Unless you intend to use them for juicing, they also do not fare well being kept in the freezer. If you live in a subtropical climate like Florida, you can easily grow them, however, and eat them straight off the bush as they ripen for several months out of the year.

Growing Cherry From Seed

If you have the patience, you can grow your cherry tree from seed.4 To do this, simply collect the pits from the cherries you eat — ideally bought from a local grower to make sure they’re suitable for growing in your area. Commercial cherries also produce less reliable results due to the way they’ve been transported and stored.

Soak the pits in a bowl of warm water for five minutes, then lightly scrub off any remaining fruit flesh. Let the pits dry on a paper towel in a warm area for three to five days, then place them in a tight-lidded container and refrigerate for 10 weeks. The refrigeration mimics the winter chill period required to trigger germination. 

Before planting, allow the seeds to thaw to room temperature. Place two to three seeds in a small pot and water them into the soil. Keep the soil moist until the seeds begin to sprout. Once the seedlings reach a height of about 2 inches, remove the weakest plants so that only one plant per pot remains.

Continue keeping the seedling in a sunny window until the last frost has passed, at which point you can transplant it into your garden. If planting multiple trees, space them at least 20 feet apart. Add mulch to encourage water retention and slow down weed growth.

Propagating Cherry From a Cutting

Another option, and a far easier and more reliable one, is to propagate your cherry tree from a semi-hardwood or hardwood cutting. Both tart and sweet cherry can be propagated this way. Gardening Know How offers the following instructions:5

“Semi-hardwood cuttings are taken from the tree in the summer when the wood is still slightly soft and partially mature. Hardwood cuttings are taken during the dormant season when the wood is hard and mature. First, fill a 6-inch clay or plastic pot with a mix of half perlite and half sphagnum peat moss. Water the potting mix until it is uniformly moist. Select a branch on the cherry that has leaves and two to four leaf nodes, and preferably one that is under 5 years of age.

Cuttings taken from older trees should be taken from the youngest branches. Using sharp, sterile pruning shears cut off a 4- to 8-inch section of the tree at a horizontal angle. Strip any leaves from the bottom two-thirds of the cutting. Dip the end of the cutting into rooting hormone. Make a hole in the rooting medium with your finger. Insert the cut end of the cutting into the hole and tamp down the rooting medium around it.

Either place a plastic bag over the container or cut the bottom out of a milk jug and place it over the top of the pot. Keep the cutting in a sunny area with a temperature of at least 65 F. Keep the medium moist, misting it twice a day with a spray bottle. Remove the bag or milk jug from the cutting after two to three months, and check the cutting to see if it has rooted.

Tug the cutting lightly. If you feel resistance, continue to grow until the roots fill the container. When the roots have encompassed the pot, transfer the cutting to a gallon container filled with potting soil.”

As with most other plants, allow the tender cherry tree to acclimatize to the outdoors by placing it in a shady spot during daytime hours for a week before transplanting it in the ground, following the directions given previously. The featured video will also talk you through the key planting points.

Common Pests and Diseases

Waterlogging causing the fruit to crack and birds emptying the tree of fruit are two common problems. For the former, ensure proper drainage. To keep birds from flying away with your harvest, cover the tree with netting as the fruit starts to form. Planting mulberry trees nearby can also help lure birds away from your cherry trees, but won’t prevent them from eating your cherries as well.

As for insect infestations and plant disease, cherry tends to be more vulnerable than tart cherry, although both can fall prey to a number of pests and diseases, including the following. For tips and tricks on eliminating these pests, see provided references:

Cherry fruit fly6

Green fruit worm7

Peach tree borer8

Mites9

Plum curculio10

Shothole borers11

Black cherry aphids12

Pear thrips13

Brown rot14

Bacterial canker15

Black knot16

Cherry leaf spot17

Health Benefits of Tart and Sweet Cherries

Tart cherries contain two powerful compounds, anthocyanins and bioflavonoids, which help prevent and relieve arthritis and gout. Sweet cherries such as Bing are also useful against gout, as they lower both uric acid and C-reactive protein levels.18 In one study,19 gout patients who ate a one-half cup serving of cherries per day for two days had a 35 percent lower risk of a subsequent gout attack. Those who ate more cherries, up to three servings in two days, halved their risk.

Tart cherries may also be useful for general muscle soreness. A study20 involving long-distance runners found that tart cherry juice significantly reduced post-exertion pain. Other research has confirmed tart cherry juice is a valuable endurance sports drink.21

Thanks to their high vitamin C content, both sweet and tart cherries may also help stave off exercise-induced asthma, the symptoms of which include cough, wheezing and shortness of breath when exercising. A meta-analysis22 from Finland found vitamin C may reduce bronchoconstriction caused by exercise by nearly 50 percent.

Sweet Cherry Nutrition Facts

Sweet cherries are a great source of potassium,23 which is important for maintaining normal blood pressure. It plays an important role in your fluid balance and helps offset the hypertensive effects of sodium. Sweet cherries also contain a number of antioxidants and plant compounds with medicinal benefits, including:

Beta carotene, which converts into vitamin A (retinol), important for healthy vision.

Vitamin C, the “grandfather” of the traditional antioxidants, the health benefits of which have been clearly established. It’s a powerful antioxidant that helps neutralize cell-damaging free radicals.

Anthocyanins, including quercetin. Sweet cherries have three times the amount of anthocyanins than tart cherries, and those with deep purple pigments (opposed to red) have the highest amounts.

Quercetin is among the most potent in terms of antioxidant activity and has been shown to be an effective antiviral, capable of warding off influenza and a number of other viral illnesses. As a group, anthocyanins have been shown to promote cell cycle arrest and apoptosis of mutated cells, thereby reducing your cancer risk.

Cyanidin,24 an organic pigment compound with powerful antioxidant activity. By promoting cellular differentiation, it reduces the risk of healthy cells transforming into cancer cells. One study found cyanidin isolated from tart cherries was superior to that of vitamin E and comparable to commercially available antioxidant products.25

Ellagic acid, this polyphenolprevents the binding of carcinogens to DNA and strengthens connective tissue,” thereby preventing the spread of cancer cells.26 It also inhibits DNA mutations and inhibits cancer by triggering apoptosis (cell death) in cancer cells.

Melatonin,27 a powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger that helps lower inflammation and associated oxidative stress. It also plays a vital role in sleep, cancer prevention and general regeneration.

Based on daily environmental signals of light and darkness, your pineal gland has evolved to produce and secrete melatonin to help you sleep. Research suggests consuming tart cherry juice increases your melatonin levels, thereby improving time in bed, total sleep time and sleep efficiency. According to the researchers:28

"… Consumption of a tart cherry juice concentrate provides an increase in exogenous melatonin that is beneficial in improving sleep duration and quality in healthy men and women and might be of benefit in managing disturbed sleep."