Cherries make a wonderful tree for all sizes of garden. Many varieties are attractive trees, bearing spring blossom, colourful fruit, interesting bark and leafy foliage that turns orange, red and yellow in autumn.
Both sweet and sour (morello) cherries are available to grow, each type of tree needing slightly different requirements. All can be grown in containers, as freestanding trees or fan-trained against a wall. They do require careful maintenance, but enjoying freshly picked cherries makes growing them worth the effort.
How to grow cherries
Grow cherries in moist but well-drained soil in a sunny, sheltered spot. Mulch annually with well-rotted compost or manure and prune in summer if necessary.
More on growing cherries:
Where to grow cherry trees
Cherry trees do best in a warm, sheltered frost-free spot in well-drained, slightly acid soil. Morello cherry varieties are generally smaller and will also tolerate some shade, so can be grown against a north-facing boundary. These varieties are also self-fertile, so can be grown without a planting partner.
Sweet cherries can be grown as free-standing trees in larger spaces, or dwarf varieties can be grown as fan-trained trees against a warm wall, or in containers, but they do require plenty of sunshine. Some sweet cultivars need to be planted with a partner for pollination, so do check the requirements when choosing your cherry tree.
Planting cherry trees
Pot-grown cherries can be planted all year round but you can usually have a wider choice of varieties, for less money, if you buy bare-root trees in autumn or winter. Plant bare-root cherries from autumn to spring, when trees are dormant. Dig over the soil, remove weeds and dig a square planting hole. Plant the tree at the same depth it was growing in the field (check the soil ‘tide mark’ to help you), replace the soil and water thoroughly. Depending on the size of your chosen tree, you may need to position a stake to support a young specimen.
How to care for cherry trees
Care at the start of the growing season is important for cherries as they flower early. Give the roots a good mulch with well-rotted manure or garden compost in February and feed regularly with a general fertiliser through until the end of March. Keep the trees well watered in this early stage of growth. If frost is forecast, it’s vital to protect any early blossom with horticultural fleece.
In summer, you may want to net your trees to protect the fruits from birds. Alternatively, share the fruit with them.
Pruning and training cherries
Cherries are traditionally grown as either bush-type open trees, or are fan-trained against a wall or fence. Sweet cherries produce their fruit on wood produced the previous season or earlier, while morello cherries fruit on one-year-old wood.
Pruning should be carried out to balance old and new growth, to remove dead, diseased and dying branches, and to shape the tree.
The golden rule for all types of cherry is never prune in winter, as this puts the tree at risk of developing silver leaf disease or canker. As a general rule, prune young trees in spring, when new growth appears, while established trees should be pruned in summer, if needed.
Cut bunches of cherries from the tree, with stalks intact, taking care not to bruise the fruits.
Sweet cherries are best eaten fresh, but will store in the fridge for about a week after picking. The acid varieties can be used in preserves, cakes and tarts. See some of the recipes using cherries, from our friends at Olive Magazine.
Growing cherries: problem solving
Cherries can be prone to cherry blackfly, and fruit fly – maggots invade the cherries and cause rotting, and caterpillars. These insects can be controlled by encouraging natural predators like blue tits early in the season. Later, when the fruits have formed, birds can become a problem, eating the fruit, so you may want to net your crop.
Five cherry varieties to try
- Prunus avium – the wild species cherry has pure white flowers in spring followed by small, red-purple cherries in summer; these fruits are edible, but can be bitter. This tree does have high ornamental value with chestnut-coloured bark that becomes silvery with age, and good autumn colour. Prunus avium is only suitable for large gardens – trees can reach 20m in height or more
- Prunus ‘Sweetheart’ RHS AGM – a dark red, sweet cherry, with very good flavour, that crops through until September
- Prunus ‘Morello’ RHS AGM – this acid cherry can be planted on its own as it is self-fertile. With attractive blossom and lots of fruit in July and August, these make good garden trees. The cherries are good in preserves, cakes and tarts
- Prunus ‘Sunburst’ – a self-fertile, sweet cherry, the fruits are black and ripen in midsummer
- Prunus ‘Sylvia’ – grafted onto dwarfing rootstock, this is a compact variety perfect for large containers or growing against a wall. It produces pale pink blossom in spring, followed by sweet cherries. It is a self-fertile cultivar