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Cherries - Prunus Species

The delicate blossom that appears in
early spring is an attractive feature of
cherry trees and a welcome bonus.

Although cherries are a really delicious fruit, they are not widely grown
in gardens. One reason for this is that until relatively recently cherries could be grown only on large trees. This was a problem in small gardens 
as well as creating a problem in trying to prevent birds from stealing the whole crop since it is virtually impossible to net a large tree. Now that dwarfing stock are available, much smaller trees can be grown and it is worth finding the space to grow them.

There are two types of cherry: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and sour or acid cherries (P. cerasus). Sweet cherries are perfect for eating, while the sour varieties, typified by “Morello” cherries, are cooked or bottled. Most people prefer sweet cherries, but the sour forms are easier to grow in a small garden. This is because they are less vigorous, and when they are on “Colt” dwarfing stock they do not make very large trees. They are also self-fertile, so one tree is sufficient.

If you do not have room for a big tree, sweet cherries are best trained as fans 
on a warm wall, where their size can be 
controlled and they can be easily covered against marauding birds. Improvements are being made in the development of dwarfing stock for cherries, and it may soon be 
possible to grow them as small trees, smaller than the current 4m/13ft. Sweet cherries generally need two varieties in order 
for pollination to be effective, except for 
‘Stella’, Sunburst’ and a few other self-fertile varieties.

Cultivation

Cherries need a warm, sunny position – a south-facing wall 
is ideal. The soil should be well-drained so that it is not waterlogged but it must be 
sufficiently moist to provide 
the precise conditions that cherries like. Plant full-sized trees 9m/30ft apart. Smaller trees and fan-trained cherries can be 4.5–5.5m/15–18ft apart. Stake young trees firmly so that the lower part of the trunk and the rootball are not rocked by the wind. If possible, mulch with manure or other organic material to help retain moisture. Water cherries in dry spells but keep the level of moisture even, because a sudden glut of water during a dry spell is likely to crack the fruit, which ruins it. There is no need to thin cherries.

Pruning and training

Sweet cherry trees need little pruning, apart from removing dead or damaged growth, unless they are trained as fans, when new growth is cut back to five leaves every summer. In early spring remove 
all new side growth. Sour cherries grow 
on year-old wood, and so some of the older wood is removed each year so that new growth is produced. After picking the fruit in summer, cut back existing, one-year-old shoots on which the fruit was borne to the first new growth. In early summer reduce the number of new side shoots to about one every 8cm/3in. Remove all shoots that face towards or away from the wall. Remove any “water” shoots that appear from the bottom of the tree. Bush and full-size trees need 
little pruning.

This fan-trained cherry has been netted
to protect it against marauding birds.
Here, it is trained against wires, but it
could also be trained against a wall or
fence.

Harvesting and storage

Pick sweet cherries as they become ripe. 
If you have a lot of cherries to pick, early in the morning is the best time because the leaves are crisp and stand up, revealing the fruit. Later in the day, especially if it is hot, the leaves tend to be limp and hang over the fruit, hiding it. Pick the fruit with the stalks on. The stalks of sour cherries should be cut rather than pulled to avoid tearing, which would allow disease to enter. Cherries can be frozen or bottled. They should be stoned (pitted) first.

Pests and diseases

Birds are the worst problem – given the chance, they will eat every cherry long before the gardener can get to them. Aphids can also be a problem. Canker, silver leaf and brown rot are the most likely diseases.


Varieties

Sweet

  •           ‘Colney’
  •           ‘Early Rivers’
  •           ‘Governor Wood’
  •           ‘Greenstem Black’
  •           ‘Kent Biggarreau’
  •           ‘Merton Bigarreau’
  •           ‘Merton Favourite’
  •           ‘Merton Glory’
  •           ‘Napoleon Bigarreau’
  •           ‘Noir de Guben’
  •           ‘Stella’
  •           ‘Sunburst’
  •           ‘Waterloo’

 

Sour or acid

  •           ‘Kentish Red’
  •           ‘May Duke’
  •           ‘Montmorency’
  •           ‘Morello’
  •           ‘Nabella’
  •           ‘Reine Hortense’
  •           ‘The Flemish’

 

Sour cherry fan

Once established, there are two purposes to pruning a cherry fan: to keep the fan shape and to ensure that there is a constant supply of new wood. To keep the shape completely, remove any shoots that are 
pointing in the wrong direction. For renewal, cut back in summer all shoots that have fruited, preferably as far back as the next new shoot. Tie these new shoots to the cane and wire framework.

Sour cherry bush or tree

Once established, bush and full-sized sour cherry trees need little pruning other than to remove a third of the old fruiting wood, cutting back to a new growth. Also remove any crossing branches.

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