Sweet Cherries: A Guide to Planting, Cultivation & Cooking

Margene Whitler Hucek
Thursday, 7th May 2015

Design and plan as you may, sometimes nature gives us surprises. Margene Whitler Hucek describes her sweet cherry and how to chose a variety, cultivate and cook with this beautiful and delicious tree.

We didn’t expect that the sweet cherry tree that my husband and I planted in our small orchard on the south side of our house would be the source of some gardening wisdom, but it has proven to be so. Over time, like most gardeners, we’ve come to the realization that we are not, ultimately, in control over what we plant. 

With pencil and paper, we’d plan and it’s all neat and set but nature often intervened... an unusual late spring freeze, the ravages of a violent summer storm, or raccoons in the sweet corn.

Sometimes it is an error at a nursery that comes into play which happened when we planted what we thought was a dwarf sweet cherry whose tag listed a maximum height of 10 feet. Perfect. That was 18 years ago and this spring I took some lovely pictures of the tree in full bloom through our bedroom window - our second story bedroom window.

Obviously, our sapling sweet cherry was not a dwarf, but a giant that is still growing. At first it was an irritation - it did not fit into our carefully conceived plan to have a double row of fruit trees with a path between. Instead the cherry, once it got going, took over the space allotted for a dwarf apple and blocked the end of the path. We thought of cutting it down and starting again, but it looked so healthy and provided cherries for both us and the mockingbirds. And, while our little orchard is not what we had envisioned, for us it did end up being perfect.

Sweet cherry, Prunus aviumis a large tree reaching 35 feet or taller. Dwarf trees grow to 10 feet. It is a good tree to use in the landscape as it is attractive year-around with abundant white flowers in mid-spring, followed by attractive dark green leaves and heart-shaped or oval fruit in purple, yellow or red in June or July. Leaves turn red and yellow in the fall and the red-banded bark adds interest to the winter garden. Sweet cherries are long-lived with healthy trees reaching the 100 year mark.

Planting & Cultivation

Most sweet cherries will need another cherry tree for pollination. If space is a problem, plant a self-fertile cultivar such as ‘Compact Stella’ or ‘Starkcrimson’. 

Site your tree where the ground is elevated, avoiding low-lying areas where frost is more likely. Sweet cherries are hardy from zones 5 through 9. Spring planting is recommended for zones 4 and 5, while those in zones 6 through 9 can plant either in the spring or fall with fall being the preferred time. Like all fruit trees, sweet cherries do best in full sun and thrive in soil that is rich and viable. Sweet cherries will not tolerate very dry or waterlogged soil. Be sure to monitor your cherry tree faithfully for the first two years when it is particularly vulnerable to drought conditions. A soil pH of 6.0 to 7.0 is ideal. Use a fruit tree fertilizer at planting time and then yearly in the spring once the tree begins to bear fruit. You can expect cherries from dwarf varieties in two to three years, while a standard can take 4-5 years to bear fruit.

Except for broken branches, cherries rarely need pruning. Although spraying is recommended to control insects and blight, because of environmental concerns we decided not to spray and have had good crops except in 2010 when we lost most of our cherries to fruit rot. Fruit rot occurs when there is too much rain when cherries are in their ripening stage causing the fruit to expand and crack which allow the fungus to enter. If you live in an area prone to heavy summer rainfall, choose cultivars that resist cracking. 

Buying Sweet Cherries

Don’t miss out on this taste of summer if you don’t have a tree, as sweet cherries travel well. Look for them at your grocers from May through July. By August the cherries offered would have been in cold storage and are inferior. Select glossy cherries with their stems attached. Don’t buy prepackaged cherries as even a few spoiled cherries will effect the taste of all cherries, often giving them a moldy taste.  

The maraschino cherries that we love to add to cocktails and cakes are sweet cherries that have been pitted and bleached and then dyed red.

Harvesting

The easiest way to tell when your cherries are ripe is by taste. Be sure to monitor daily, as once cherries have reached their peak sugar content birds will find the fruit and have a feast on the cherries. Because of the size of our cherry tree, we found that netting was not practical. 

Harvest cherries with stems attached, as removal of the stem allows bacteria to enter the cherry, causing a brown spot and loss of flavor. It’s best to use cherries immediately after picking; however, if you are pressed for time, arrange a single layer of cherries on paper towels. Avoid rinsing them as cherries keep better when they are dry. Sweet cherries are easy to freeze. Simply wash in cold water, stem, pit and pack into freezer quality bags. Be sure to freeze soon after picking to maintain freshness.

Once you have picked cherries on a warm summer day, you’ll agree that this attractive tree is a delight to grow - no matter how large it gets!

Recipes

Sweet cherries are a healthy snack rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and vitamins A and C. Their unique flavor also lends itself to quick breads, cakes and jams. We enjoy this sweet bread on Sunday mornings with a cup of hot tea.

Sweet Cherry Bread

Preheat oven to 350oF (180oC). Grease a standard bread pan [9½ x 5¼ x 2¾].

Chop 2 cups of washed, pitted sweet cherries. Toss with 2 teaspoons sugar.

Whisk together:

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

Set aside.

Combine in a small bowl:

1¼ cups sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla 

In a large bowl, beat on medium sped until light and fluffy:

½ stick butter, softened

¾ cups sugar

Beat in 1 at a time:

2 eggs

Add ? of the flour mixture, followed by ½ of the sour cream mixture, beating at low speed. Add another ¼ of the flour mixture, followed by the rest of the sour cream, and beat. End with remaining flour and beat until batter is smooth. Gently fold in cherries. Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake 40-60 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes. Loosen sides of loaf and remove from pan. Cool completely before slicing.

Nita’s Sweet Cherry Jam

My sister, Nita, is the jam maker in our family and we love to get her packages of jam in the mail. She enjoyed experimenting with sweet cherries to produce a jam that highlighted their unique flavor. We just got our package and are enjoying it on our morning toast. When I called to thank her, she said she had warmed some jam to use as a topping for ice cream and declared it a winner - I’m sure you will, too.

4 cups finely chopped sweet cherries

½ cup sugar

4½ teaspoon low or no sugar pectin

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Prepare jars, lids and bands; keep in simmering water until ready to use.

Place chopped cherries in a heavy 6-quart saucepan. Gradually stir in pectin, then stir in cinnamon. 

Over high heat, stirring constantly, bring mixture to a full rolling boil (boil doesn’t stop when stirred). Add sugar. Bring mixture again to rolling boil; boil exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly Remove from heat.

Ladle into hot jars leaving ¼ inch headspace. Wipe rims with a clean damp cloth. Cover with lids and and tighten bands with fingertips. Process 10 minutes in a boiling water canner. Jams can take up to two weeks to set.

Yield: 4-5 half pints.

Further resources

How to convert a concentional orchard into a perma-orchard

How to Make a Forest Garden by Patrick Whitefield for a special price of £12.70 from our Green Shopping site

How to graft a fruit tree

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