Cherries: sweet

Sweet cherries are usually grown as small open trees or trained as fans against walls or fences. They are too vigorous to be trained as espaliers or cordons. They can be grown in large containers, and self-fertile cultivars will fruit without a pollination partner.

Sweet cherry. Image: RHS

Quick facts

Common name Sweet cherry
Botanical name Prunus avium
Group Fruiting deciduous tree/top fruit
Flowering time Mid-spring
Planting time November to March
Height and spread 3-8m (10-26ft) by 1.5-4m (5-13ft) depending on rootstock
Aspect Full sun, south- or south-west facing
Hardiness Fully hardy, but frost may damage blossom and affect fruiting
Difficulty Easy to moderate

Cultivation notes

Cherries prefer deep, fertile and well-drained soils with pH of 6.5-6.7. They will not thrive on shallow or badly drained sites. As cherries flower early in the year, choose a warm sheltered site, or grow against a south- or south-west facing wall or fence. When frost is forecast, protect the blossom with fleece, but uncover it during the day to allow access to pollinating insects. Cherries tend to do best in southern and central England.

Rootstock choice

Cherries on their own roots will naturally grow into large trees making them unsuitable for smaller gardens. They are therefore grafted onto rootstocks which act to limit their size and encourage earlier fruiting.

The most commonly used rootstock is the semi-vigorous ‘Colt’ that will restrict the growth to about 6-8m (20-26ft). Semi-dwarfing rootstocks ‘Gisela 5’ and ‘Tabel’ will restrict the size to about 3-4m (10-13ft) making them suitable for growing as dwarf bush trees or possibly in a container.

Pollination

Many fruit trees need suitable partners to act as cross-pollinators, and will not fruit well when grown on their own. This applies to some sweet cherry cultivars. It is best to choose a self-fertile cultivar (see cultivar selection below) that does not require a cross-pollinator. If you want to grow a cultivar that is not self-fertile, be sure to seek advice from the nursery on suitable partner cultivars to achieve cross pollination.

Planting

See advice in trees and shrubs: planting for information on planting cherries.

Watering and feeding

Cherries are fairly heavy feeders and will benefit from application of a general fertiliser such as Growmore or Vitax Q4 at 100g per sq m (4oz  per sq yd) in late winter to early spring. They also benefit from mulching with organic matter, such as well rotted farmyard manure, in late winter. If fruiting is poor, apply sulphate of potash at 15g per sq m (½oz per sq yd).

Pruning and training

Sweet cherries are usually grown as small trees (‘open centred bush’ or ‘pyramid’), or else they are fan-trained against a wall or fence.

Sweet cherries fruit on one-year-old and older wood, so pruning needs to encourage a balance of older fruiting wood and younger replacement branches.

Cherries (and other stone fruit) should not be pruned during winter, to minimise the risk of infection by silver leaf or bacterial canker. Light formative pruning can be carried out in spring as the leaves start to develop, but the time to prune established trees is in early to mid-summer.

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

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.

Cultivar Selection

Prunus avium ‘Lapins’: Self fertile, black fruits for picking in late summer
P. avium ‘Stella’ AGM: Self fertile, dark red fruits for picking in mid-summer
P. avium ‘Sunburst’: Self fertile, black fruits for picking in mid-summer

Links

RHS Plant Finder
RHS Plant Selector
AGM Plants

Problems

If flower bud or immature fruit drop occur, then drought, waterlogging, low temperatures, or bird damage are the likeliest causes.

Other problems include aphidscherry blackfly, winter moth caterpillars, pear and cherry slug worm, bacterial canker, blossom wilt, brown rot, cherry leaf scorch, silver leaf and magnesium deficiency.

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