Of all tree fruits it is the cherry that stands head and shoulders above the rest for sheer juicy indulgence and lip-staining goodness. These tempting teasers fill the mouth with their moreish aroma, an almost addictive experience that's led to many a sugar rush!
Cherries have a long and illustrious history. Here in my native Britain they were introduced by the Romans. Legend has it that Roman roads could be made out from some distance away by the flush of blossom from the cherry trees growing parallel. Just like the 'wild' apples that grow along modern roads due to people lobbing apple cores from the windows of their passing cars, these magnificent trees will have sprouted from cherry stones spat out to the wayside by Roman soldiers as they marched purposely onwards. Or at least that's how the story goes.
Dwarfing Cherry Rootstocks
Until surprisingly recently – and we're talking a matter of three or four decades ago – growing cherries was, to put it mildly, a pain in the bum. The trees needed to be grown in groups to ensure proper cross-pollination and fruit set. Harvesting the cherries from trees that were often 18m (60ft) or more required a ladder and a head for heights, while birds would inevitably consume a hearty proportion of the crop before you'd even got the ladder from out of the shed.
Modern dwarfing rootstocks have tamed this once majestic tree into something far more practical for today's gardener. The 'Colt' rootstock will keep trees to a manageable 4m (13ft) tall, while 'Gisela 5' rootstocks work even harder to stunt trees to a mere 2m (6ft) in height. This makes trees much easier to net against birds, a doddle to prune and, of course, all the easier to harvest.
Like other tree fruits, cherries can be trained into many forms: a standalone tree or 'bush', as a pyramid, a fan against a wall or fence, or as a single-stemmed minarette planted in the open ground or in pots.
Lovers of cherries straight from the tree will want to grow a sweet cherry. That said, it's well worth growing one of the acid varieties, the most famous of which is the 'Morello'. Acid, or sour, cherries are rarely available to buy in the grocery store and the trees are happy in shade, making them a valuable solution for that troublesome shaded wall. Cook or bottle them to bring out their flavor and quash their sour taste.
Choosing the Right Type of Cherry Tree
Many modern cherry varieties are self-pollinating, meaning you can grow a tree on its own quite successfully. All acid cherries are self-pollinating, making your decision more straightforward when selecting what variety to try. It's still worth seeking out the old-fashioned varieties that aren't self-fertile, such as the early cropper 'Merton Glory', which has large, yellow fruits with a red flush and exceptional sweetness. If you opt for a non-self-fertile tree be sure to properly research compatible varieties that flower at the same time to guarantee pollination. Any plant nursery worth its salt will be able to advise you on this.
Modern self-fertile cherries worth growing include the deep red 'Stella', a Canadian variety bred as one of the first of the self-fertile tribe; compact and well-behaved 'Celeste'; and, for an outstanding acid cherry, the heavy cropping 'Nabella' which is giving 'Morello' a run for its money.
Trees may be bought container-grown or bare-rooted, the latter offering much more choice and usually available from specialist fruit nurseries. Container cherries can be planted at any time of year, so long as the soil is moist enough, while bare-root trees will need to be planted when dormant from late fall to late winter. If you can bear it, it is worth waiting for bare-root trees to come into planting season – the joy of trawling through the catalogs to select a choice cherry that appeals to your sense of taste and imagination is sublime.
Planting and Growing Cherries
Select a sunny position for sweet cherries. Soil should be prepared in advance by removing all traces of weeds and working in plenty of well-rotted organic matter. The soil must be well-drained, moisture retentive and, ideally, slightly acidic at around pH 6.5. Do not plant them anywhere that gets waterlogged or your tree will struggle.
To plant, dig a hole large enough to accommodate the roots. Set the tree into place and refill soil to the original soil mark on the stem, firming as you go by treading (not stamping!) the soil down to remove any air pockets. Make sure the roots are properly spread out and provide support in the form of a tree stake and ties. Water in well and top off with an organic mulch.
Cherries on a 'Gisela 5' rootstock can be grown in containers. Use a soil-based compost and a pot that's at least 45cm (18in) in diameter. You'll need to re-pot in another year or two, trading up to a larger pot to allow the root system to continue to develop. Keep container trees well fed (using a high-potash liquid feed) and watered during the growing season.
All cherries need to be kept watered during dry periods, and this is especially important for recently-planted trees. Feed and mulch the ground around trees in late winter, taking the opportunity to clear any lurking weeds.
In cool climates, trees are pruned during the growing season to avoid the risk of infection from silver leaf disease. Established trees simply need dead, damaged, diseased or badly placed branches pruned in late spring, with other branches thinned out to ensure an open bush that lets in plenty of light and air. In warm climates a winter pruning is preferable.
Drape netting over trees as the fruits develop to keep the crop safe. Birds can also peck at swelling buds in late winter, so you may need to don the nets twice a year. A series of stakes with upturned plant pots over the top provides a useful framework to throw your netting over. Secure it at the bottom to stop birds entering at ground level and becoming trapped.
Sweet (and Sour) Rewards
Cherries are best left to ripen on the tree where the gentle warmth of the sun will develop their full flavour. Pick with the stalks still attached, cutting the fruits free using hand pruners or scissors. Like most fruits, cherries will keep for a few days but are always best snaffled as soon as possible. That is rarely a problem! Excess fruits make delicious cherry compote – a decadent treat slathered over ice-cream or swirled into thick, Greek-style yogurt. See, I've tempted you, haven't I?!
By Benedict Vanheems.