How to grow cherries

Val Bourne / 19 January 2017

Find out how to grow your own cherries, including where to plant cherry trees and how to protect cherry blossom from frost.



Many gardeners do not realise that there are two types of cherry - sweet cherries and acid cherries. They need different growing conditions and the darker acid cherries, or Morellos, have a distinct, sharp flavour and are usually cooked with added sugar.

Where to plant

All cherries prefer need a sheltered, warm site and deep, fertile and well-drained soil with pH of 6.5-6.7. They do not thrive on shallow or badly drained sites.

Sweet cherries need a sunny position but acid cherries can be planted in shade against a wall.

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When to plant

Cherry trees can be bought as bare root or containerised trees. Containerised trees can be planted at any time, with plenty of well-rotted manure or compost, but must be watered regularly during warm weather until their roots are established. 

Bare root trees can be planted between November and early spring.

Find out how to plant bare root trees

How to plant

Plant bare root trees between late autumn to early spring, when the ground is not frozen. Plant containerised trees at any time, digging a hole twice the size of the rootball and working some well-rotted manure or garden compost to the hole. Water well.

Young free-standing trees will need staking for the first few years.

How to prune cherry trees

All cherries (and all other stone fruits such as peach, plum and apricot) need to be pruned when in leaf, because the flow of sap seals the wounds as they are cut. This will help prevent diseases such as Silver leaf (Chondrostereum purpureum) from infesting the tree because in summer there are fewer fungal spores. The main symptom of silver leaf is silvery foliage, caused by a toxin produced by the fungus that’s carried upwards by the sap stream. Die back follows.

Bacterial canker can also be a problem and this produces patches of dead bark. and small holes in the leaf.

If a tree is affected badly by either, prune out the dead and diseased in August.

Sweet cherries produce fruit on one-year old wood and older wood, so light pruning should remove some of the older, darker wood and leave new wood, so there’s a balance of both.

Morello trees fruit on the previous season’s growth so when pruning take out some older wood and leave newer wood, so there’s a balance of both.

Cherries are harder to shape, so it’s best to use a good supplier and spend twenty pounds or so more to get a standard tree that’s already had formative pruning. Colt, the most popular rootstock used, produces trees that reach 20ft or more in time. Gisela 5 produces bush-sized trees.

Protecting from frost

Cherry trees flower early in the year and in cold springs the blossom should be fleeced to keep off the frosts. Support the fleece on tall canes, making sure the fleece is well above the blossoms. This will allow pollinators access to the blossoms. Remove the fleece once the petals drop.

Find out about the best cherry trees for early blossom

Giving cherries extra warmth outside in Britain

Cherries need warmth in late-spring, after the blossom has been fertilised, so that the pollen tubes develop. 

Fruit set can vary from year to year but will be always be far heavier after a warm spring. You can throw up extra heat, however, by placing large pebbles round the trunk of your cherry tree. As the pebbles warm up in the sun they radiate heat upwards. 

Fruit expert Will Sibley believes that pale or white pebbles work the best. Your layer of pebbles should help drainage too. 

The other option is to grow sweet cherries against a warm wall.

Cherry tree growing against a wall

Train cherry trees to grow against a warm wall to avoid frost

Feeding

Apply a general fertiliser, such as Growmore or Vitax Q4, in late winter to early spring, following the directions.

Keep cherry trees watered in the early stages of fruit development to prevent fruit falling off in May.

Pests

Cherries are popular with birds so, if possible, net your tree to protect the fruit.

Sweet cherries (Prunus avium)

The sweet cherries, the delicious ones that can be eaten freshly picked, crop in early summer. They need excellent light and warmth in order to crop well so traditional cherry growing in Britain used to be concentrated in the country’s hotspots such as the south of east of England and the Tamar valley which separates Devon and Cornwall. These heritage varieties were tall and lanky and harvesting proved uneconomic so many traditional cherry orchards and their varieties disappeared decades ago.

However recent breeding in Canada and Eastern Europe has produced sweet cherry varieties that crop heavily in a wider range of conditions. These varieties are grafted on to dwarf rootstocks so commercial cherry crops can now be grown in poly tunnels, where yields are guaranteed. Being undercover deters bird damage, because a cherry crop is irresistible, so you must always net a crop or the blackbirds and thrushes will eat every one.

These modern dwarf varieties are small enough to be grown in fruit cages and some are even suitable for large containers. A poly tunnel, should you have one, is ideal too because it creates extra warmth. Good summers produce better cherry crops because Canada and eastern Europe , although cold on winter, have short hot summers.

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Varieties of sweet cherry for the garden

Lots of new varieties with more cold tolerance have been bred in recent years both in central Europe and in Canada. Some of these are suitable for pots on the patio. The Gisela rootstocks produce dwarf trees. Those on Colt root stocks produce small trees.

‘Stella’ AGM (1968)
A Canadian self-fertile cherry that ready to pick in late July. It’s a great pollinator for other cherry varieties and it crops heavily too. The dark-red fruit is large and sweet, although this cherry is not recommended for wet positions because the fruit tends to split.

Sibley’s Patio Cherry ‘Stella’
Will Sibley has developed small varieties for the patio and this is his version of Stella, grafted on to Gisela 5.

‘Summer Sun’ AGM (1970)
A Norfolk self-fertile variety with deep-red fruit, suited to a colder climate. This one’s recommended for the North of England.

‘Sunburst’ (1975)
Another Canadian variety, with almost black fruit in late-July. Grown for its exceptional flavour.

‘Lapins’ AGM
Considered an improvement on ‘Stella’, which is one of its parents, this Canadian-bred, red-fruited, mild-flavoured cherry does very well in British gardens throughout the country. Named after its raiser.

‘Kordia' AGM
Bred in the Czech Republic, this dark almost-black cherry, with exceptionally large fruits, will need another cherry variety in order to set fruit because it’s self-sterile. It’s probably the best new cherry to emerge in recent years. It’s also grown commercially, always a good sign, because the glossy red-fleshed fruit does not split after heavy summer rainfall.

‘Merchant’ AGM
An early cropping cherry, bred in Cambridgeshire, with dark-red fruit.

‘Penny' (1998) AGM
A modern black cherry raised at East Malling in Kent. Useful because it ripens later than many, in August.

‘Sweetheart' ( 1944) AGM
An older Canadian, self-fertile variety still grown for it’s late paler cherries. The sharper flavour is popular too.

Acid cherries (Prunus cerasus)

These were a staple of the old walled garden, because they tolerated shade so the north-facing walls of many a kitchen garden supported fan-trained, acid or Morello cherries. They are self-fertile, so will set a crop on their own by late summer. The fruit, which has a distinctive flavour, is either bottled, jammed or used in pies. It tends to be smaller. Morello cherries (like most sour cherries) contain melatonin, a natural anti-oxidant substance which is helps to regulate sleeping and wakefulness. Morello blossom is very attractive.

If you’re buying a Morello cherry for a wall or side of the shed, it’s often best to invest in ready-trained fan or standard tree rather than a whip or maiden. A north-facing wall sounds very bleak, but it’s often sheltered from wet weather and strong winds. It doesn’t get sudden thaws on frosty mornings either.

Acid cherry varieties

‘Morello’ (pre 1629) AGM
The traditional sour cherry, now grafted on to modern root stocks. The cherries have dark-red flesh and small stones. Very hardy and productive.

‘Nabella’ AGM
This is late, acid cherry bears clusters of bright-red glossy fruits that ripen late. It’s German-bred and naturally more compact and crops more heavily.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.