Cherries

There are two main types of cherry – sweet and acid. Sweet cherries produce delicious fruits for eating fresh, and are usually grown as small trees or trained as fans against a sunny wall. Acid cherries are excellent for cooking and grow well in partial shade. Cherry trees are ornamental as well as productive, with pretty spring blossom and colourful autumn foliage. There are choices to suit all sizes of garden, including compact options for small plots and even containers.

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Grow

Feeding and mulching

In late winter, feed cherry trees with a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4. Scatter two handfuls per square metre/yard around trees growing in bare soil or two-and-a-half handfuls per square metre/yard around those growing in grass. Then apply a generous mulch of well-rotted manure or garden compost around the base of the tree, to help hold water in the soil and supress weeds.See our guide to feeding and mulching fruit trees.

Watering

Once established, cherry trees shouldn’t generally need watering, except during long dry spells or in the early stages of fruit development. Newly planted trees should be watered regularly for at least the first year.
Plants in containers dry out much more quickly than those growing in the ground. They need careful watering throughout the summer to prevent the fruits dropping before they ripen or the leaves browning around the edges.

Protecting flower from frost

Cherries flower early in the year, so if frost is forecast, protect the blossom with horticultural fleece, removing it during the day to allow pollinating insects access to the flowers.

Propagation

Cherry trees are generally propagated by grafting or budding. Named cultivars will not come true from seed. Trees grown from seed or cuttings will be much larger trees than those grafted onto a chosen rootstock, and will be slower to start fruiting.

Pruning

Pruning of cherries is usually carried out in late July or August, when silver leaf and bacterial canker are less prevalent, although light formative pruning can be done in spring as the leaves start to develop.
Cherries are usually grown as small trees (shaped as an ‘open-centred bush’ or ‘pyramid’) or as fans trained flat against a wall or fence. Both need regular pruning to keep them in good shape and fruiting well. Cherries are too vigorous to be grown as espaliers or cordons.

Keeping cherry trees compact by annual pruning makes the fruit easier to pick and to protect from birds, and means the trees take up less space. Pruning also ensures there is a good balance of older fruiting wood and younger replacement branches. Acid cherries, for example, bear almost all of their fruit on the previous year’s growth, so need regular pruning to ensure good harvests.

Fan-trained trees, grown flat against a wall, take up very little ground space and make attractive and productive features. But they need careful pruning annually to keep them productive and in good shape.

Formative pruning of an open-centred bush tree

In the first spring on a feathered maiden tree, choose three or four well-spaced wider angle side-shoots (laterals) about 75cm (2½ft) from ground level to be the main branches and shorten these by two-thirds. Cut the central leader back to just above the uppermost lateral. Remove shoots below the selected laterals.

By the second spring the main laterals should have produced their own side-shoots, the strongest of which need shortening by half, pruning to an outward-facing bud to develop an open crown. Remove any weak or badly placed shoots.

In the third spring continue developing a well-spaced framework.

In the fourth year switch to early- to mid-summer pruning, as for established trees. Rub out any buds developing on the lower trunk and carefully pull off suckers arising from the rootstock. Pruning is mostly limited to removing crossing, weak, diseased material and strong vertical growth. If the branches are still crowded, then further thinning can be done.

Pruning established bush trees of acid cherries

In August, remove about one in four of the older fruited shoots, to a younger side-shoot that will replace the removed growth.
Shorten over-vigorous upright shoots crowding the centre, to a suitably placed side-shoot.

Pruning of established fans of acid cherries

In late July, thin new shoots formed along the main branches to 5–10cm (2–4in) apart and tie the retained shoots to their supports. Also prune back shoots growing outwards from the wall to two leaves, to keep the tree flat. In late August, tie in the current season’s growth that will flower and fruit next year. Then cut back fruited shoots to a suitable side-branch that can replace the removed growth.For step-by-step advice on pruning fan-trained cherries, see our expert guides:

Fan-trained trees: initial training
Fan-trained trees: pruning established fans

Plant

Choosing a cherry

Cherry trees sold commercially are usually grafted, with the named variety forming the upper part of the tree and the roots (or ‘rootstock’) being a different variety that controls the tree’s size and vigour. Ungrafted cherries naturally grow into large trees, unsuitable for smaller gardens. 
The most commonly used rootstock is semi-vigorous ‘Colt’, which restricts the tree’s size to 6–8m (20–26ft) wide and tall, and is suitable for growing as a fan against a wall. Acid cherries are less vigorous, growing to 3–3.5m (10–12ft) on a ‘Colt’ rootstock. Semi-dwarfing rootstocks ‘Gisela 5’ and ‘Tabel’ restrict to 3–4m (10–13ft), making them suitable for dwarf bush trees or containers.

As well as choosing a rootstock, you also need to select the variety for the upper part of the tree, and whether you want sweet or sour cherries. Different varieties fruit at different times over the summer, and some are self-fertile, while others need a ‘pollination partner’ (another cherry nearby that flowers at the same time) to ensure a good crop.

All acid cherries are self-fertile, but some sweet cherries are not. If you want to grow a variety that is not self-fertile, be sure to seek advice from the nursery on suitable partner cultivars to achieve cross pollination.
It’s also worth looking for varieties with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) – these performed well in trials, so should grow readily and crop reliably. See our list of AGM fruit and veg.

Cherry trees are sold either bare-root (without soil around the roots) or in containers. Bare-root trees are only available while dormant, from late autumn to early spring, for immediate planting. Containerised cherries are available all year round. Specialist fruit nurseries offer the widest choice of cherry varieties, usually by mail order. Bare-root trees are generally only available from specialist suppliers. Cherry trees in containers are also available in garden centres and from other online plant suppliers. 

Where to plant cherries

As cherries flower early in the year, choose a warm, sheltered site that is not prone to late frosts. A sheltered site will aid pollination, as insects will have easier access to the flowers.

All Cherries prefer deep, fertile and well-drained soil that is ideally slightly acidic, with a pH 6.5-6.7. They dislike shallow, sandy or poorly drained soil. They can be planted in an open site, such as a lawn, or trained flat against a wall or fence. Sweet cherries like a sunny location, such as against a south- or south-west facing wall, while acid cherries tolerate some shade, so are ideal for a north-facing wall. Cherries grow particularly well in southern and central England.

How to plant cherries

Cherry trees are easy to plant, and are best planted while dormant, between November and March. Bare-root trees are only available while dormant, for immediate planting, but containerised trees are available all year round. They can potentially be planted at any time, but will settle in best from late autumn to spring. 

See our step-by-step guides for full planting details:

How to plant a tree
Video guide on best ways of planting trees
Planting trees and shrubs

In containers

Cherries on semi-dwarfing and dwarfing rootstocks (‘Gisela 5’ and ‘Tabel’) are suitable for growing in large containers. Sour cherry trees, in particular, are naturally less vigorous, so are ideal in pots. 
Choose a container that’s at least 45–50cm (18–20in) wide – terracotta pots or half-barrels are suitably heavy and stable. Use a soil-based compost (such as John Innes No.3), or multi-purpose compost mixed with one-third by volume of grit or perlite. You can also mix in controlled-release fertiliser pellets.

For more details, see our expert guides:

Trees in containers
Fruit in containers
Planting in containers

Common problems

Birds
Birds

Birds, especially pigeons, can cause an array of problems including eating seedlings, buds, leaves, fruit and vegetables.

Remedy

Protect the plants from birds by covering them with netting or fleece. Scarecrows and bird-scaring mechanisms work for a while, but the most reliable method of protection is to cover plants with horticultural fleece or mesh.

Shedding of flower buds and immature fruit
Shedding of flower buds and immature fruit

This can be caused by drought, waterlogging or low temperatures, and bullfinches may damage fruit buds.

Remedy

Water, reduce watering, protect plants with horticultural fleece or netting depending on the problem.

Spotted wing drosophila (SWD)
Spotted wing drosophila (SWD)

This small fruit fly was first reported in the UK in 2012 and is likely to become an increasing problem on fruit, especially cherries. Maggots infest the cherries and cause them to rot.

Remedy

Use traps and fine mesh to help protect developing fruit.

Cherry blackfly
Cherry blackfly

Small insects suck sap at the shoot tips distorting shoots and leaves. This does not affect fruiting and acts as a form of pruning.

Remedy

Attract natural predators, like blue tits, before the leaves curl.

Harvesting

Cherries ripen from early summer onwards, depending on the variety. 

Pick during dry weather if possible, and hold the stalk rather than the fruit, which bruises easily.

Eat sweet cherries fresh or store in a fridge in a sealed plastic bag for up to a week.

Acid cherries are too tart to be eaten raw, but are excellent sweetened and cooked to make pies, puddings, liqueurs and preserves.

Recommended Varieties

Cherries — early summer

Cherries — mid-summer

Cherries — late summer

Sour cherries — late summer

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