Growing in a warm, sheltered spot, cherry trees fruit abundantly every summer
Cherries are closely related to plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots and enjoy similar growing conditions: namely fertile soil that doesn’t get
Month by Month
Jobs to do now
There are two main types of cherry: sweet cherries (Prunus avium), which are delicious eaten fresh and best grown in a sunny position, and acid cherries (Prunus cerasus), which are excellent for cooking and grow well in sun or partial shade.
There are many varieties of each type, producing either red, black or yellow fruit, from mid- to late summer. Many modern varieties are self-fertile, while others need a ‘pollination partner’ (another cherry nearby that flowers at a similar time) to ensure a good crop – see our guide to fruit pollination. All acid cherries are self-fertile, so you only need one tree, but some sweet cherries aren’t, so check before buying – most fruit nurseries will be able to advise on a suitable partner variety. Even self-fertile trees usually produce a larger crop when there’s a compatible pollination partner nearby. A self-fertile variety is the best option if you only have room for one tree.
‘Morello’ is one of the most popular acid cherries, ideal for a partially shaded site
It is also possible to grow a tree from a cherry stone, but the resulting plant may produce poorer quality fruit and is likely to end up being unsuitably large. If you want a reliable crop of delicious cherries, it’s worth investing in a good quality grafted tree of your chosen variety, bought from a reputable supplier. There are also several species of native cherry tree that produce fruit suitable for cooking or jam making, as well as for attracting wildlife – see our guide to hedgerow fruit.
Cherry tree sizes
Cherry trees sold commercially are usually grafted onto the roots (rootstock) of a different variety that controls the tree’s size and vigour. Ungrafted cherries grow into large trees that aren’t suitable for smaller gardens. The most popular cherry rootstocks are:
- ‘Gisela 5’ – semi-dwarfing rootstock, restricts trees to 3–4m (10–13ft) tall, so suitable for smaller gardens and containers; trees trained as fans will reach 1.8m (6ft) tall and 3.6m (12ft) wide
- ‘Colt’ – semi-vigorous rootstock, producing trees 6–8m (20–26ft) tall, or when fan trained 2.5m (8ft) tall and 5.5m (18ft) wide, so too large for most modern gardens. Acid cherry trees, which are less vigorous, reach 3–3.5m (10–12ft) on this rootstock
What and where to buy
Cherry trees are sold either bare root (without soil around the roots) or in pots. Bare-root trees are only available while dormant, from late autumn to early spring, usually from specialist suppliers. Potted trees are available all year round and are sold by most gardening retailers. Specialist fruit nurseries offer the widest choice of varieties, usually by mail order. If you want to grow a fan-trained tree, decide if you want to train it yourself from scratch starting with one-year-old tree (maiden) or buy a (more expensive) partially trained tree from a specialist nursery.
Choose a tree with a well-balanced shape and three to five good shoots growing from the central stem. You can then train and prune it into any of the popular tree forms if you wish – see Pruning and Training, below.
Where to plant
You can plant cherry trees either in an open site, such as a lawn, or trained against a wall or fence. Choose a warm, sheltered location that isn’t prone to late frosts, which can damage the blossom. A sheltered site will aid pollination too, as insects will have easier access to the flowers. Sweet cherries like a sunny spot, such as against a south- or south-west-facing wall, while acid cherries will tolerate some shade, so are ideal for a north-facing wall. Cherries grow particularly well in southern and central England. All cherries prefer deep, fertile, well-drained soil that is ideally slightly acidic, with a pH of 6.5–6.7. They grow less well in shallow or sandy soil. Poorly drained conditions can cause the roots to rot.
How and when to plant
Cherry trees are easy to plant, and this is best done while they are dormant, between November and March. Bare-root trees are only available during this period. Potted trees are available all year round and can potentially be planted at any time, but will settle in best from late autumn to spring. Prepare your tree for planting by giving it a good watering if it’s in a container or by standing it in a bucket of water for half an hour if it’s a bare-root tree.
If planting in a lawn, remove a circle of grass at least 1m (3¼ft) in diameter, so the tree’s roots don’t have to compete with the grass for water and nutrients as they get established. If your tree is going to be trained against a wall, dig in lots of well-rotted manure or garden compost before planting, as the soil at the base of walls is usually poor and dry. Plant the tree at least 25–35cm (10–14in) away from the wall.
See our guides below for full details of how to plant a cherry tree.
Planting in a container
Cherry trees crop best in the ground, but if you don’t have suitable soil or an available site, you can plant in a large container. Choose a tree on a semi-dwarfing rootstock (‘Gisela 5’ ) – acid cherries are naturally less vigorous, so are better suited to growing in pots. The container should be at least 45–50cm (18–20in) wide – terracotta pots or half-barrels are suitably heavy and stable. Use peat-free soil-based compost, or a peat-free multi-purpose compost mixed with one-third by volume of grit or perlite. You can also mix in controlled-release fertiliser pellets. See our video guide below for full planting details.
Established cherry trees in open ground shouldn’t need watering, except during long dry spells in the early stages of fruit development – they often shed young fruits when short of water. Be careful not to overwater in summer though – too much watering or very wet weather can cause ripe fruits to split.
Young cherry trees, some trained trees and those in pots need watering throughout the growing season:
- Newly planted cherry trees should be watered regularly for at least the first year
- Fan-trained cherry trees may require watering if they’re in a rain-shadow – where the wall or fence reduces the amount of rainfall they receive
- Trees in containers must be watered generously throughout the summer – as often as once a day in hot weather, as they will dry out quickly. But never leave them standing in water, especially in winter, as the roots can rot – raising the container onto ‘pot feet’ or bricks will keep the drainage holes clear and avoid waterlogged compost
Apply a mulch of well-rotted manure around the base of cherry trees in mid-spring to help retain soil moisture, deter weeds and provide nitrogen.
Apply a fertiliser rich in potassium to improve fruiting
Cherry trees in containers should be given a high potassium liquid feed every couple of weeks in spring and summer. Also, repot them every few years in spring, into a slightly larger container, once their roots fill the current container. Use peat-free loam-based potting compost.
Protecting blossom and fruit
Cherry blossom is susceptible to frost damage, which can reduce the crop. So if your tree is small enough, protect the blossom overnight if frost is forecast, using fleece, old net curtains or similar, then remove during the day so pollinating insects can reach the flowers. Potted trees can also be moved into a greenhouse, porch or other sheltered location to avoid frosts when in blossom.
Birds love to eat cherries, so before the fruit starts to colour up, it’s worth protecting some or all of the crop if your tree is small enough:
Netting or fleece will help to deter birds – either cover the whole tree or individual branches. Use bamboo canes to raise the netting off the tree itself, so birds can’t reach the fruit.
Trees trained against a wall are easier to protect than free-standing trees
A fruit cage is a great option to protect small cherry trees
- Trees in containers could be moved temporarily into a greenhouse, conservatory or other protected location while in fruit
Cherry trees are generally propagated by grafting or budding, both quite skilled techniques but worth a try. They can be grown from cherry stones too, but the resulting fruit may be of poorer quality. Trees grown from stones or cuttings will grow into much larger trees than those grafted onto a rootstock (which limits their size) and will be slower to start fruiting.
Pruning and Training
Cherries are usually grown as small open-centred trees (known as bush trees), larger pyramid trees, or as fans trained flat against a wall or fence. All need regular pruning to keep them in good shape and fruiting well. Cherries are too vigorous to be trained as espaliers or cordons. If you’re new to pruning or need a refresher, check out our beginner’s guide to pruning.
Pruning should be carried out annually, as soon as harvesting is finished – usually in late July or August, when silver leaf disease and bacterial canker are less prevalent. However, light formative pruning of newly planted cherry trees can be done in spring – see our guide to initial pruning.
Annual pruning keeps cherry trees more compact, so they take up less space and the fruit is easier to pick and to protect from birds. Pruning also ensures there is a good balance of older fruiting wood and younger replacement branches. Acid cherries, for example, bear almost all their fruit on the previous year’s shoots, so if left unpruned the crop would be produced at the ends of overlong branches.
Cherries should be pruned in the same way as plums – see our guides below for details.
Cherry trees are usually vigorous and productive. However, poor growing conditions or certain diseases can sometimes cause problems. These include:
Immature fruits being shed in early summer – this can be due to poor pollination or lack of water when fruits are developing. Correct pruning, and watering in dry spells, can reduce the problem – see our guide to cherry fruit drop
Split fruit – too much rain or overwatering just as the fruit is ripening can cause the skin to split. Harvest before any heavy rain if possible
Die-back of branches and discoloured leaves – this can be caused by the fungal disease silver leaf (see below). To avoid infection, take care to prune in summer, after harvesting, when the spores are less widespread
Dead patches of bark and small holes in leaves – these can be signs of bacterial canker (see below), which may eventually result in branches or whole trees dying
Birds love cherries and can quickly devour the crop unless the tree is covered with netting or fleece before the fruits start to colour up. Make sure the netting is held away from the branches with canes.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.