Whether you like them sweet enough to eat right off the tree, or served warm, tart and cocooned in flaky pie crust, growing your own sweet or sour cherry fruits is well worth the challenge. Depending on the variety or cultivar, a sweet cherry tree (Prunus avium) and a sour cherry tree (Prunus cerasus) are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8.
A 1- to 2-year-old, nursery-started cherry tree produces fruits more quickly than a tree started from seed. Expect a nursery-started sour cherry to fruit in three to five years and a sweet cherry in five to seven years.
The Ideal Site
A properly fertilized cherry tree grows well even in nutritionally deficient soil, as long as it has good drainage. Solid clay is off limits, but other slowly draining sites are acceptable if amended with 1 part sphagnum peat moss to 2 parts soil at planting time.
Loosen the top 6 inches of the planting site's soil with a spade or rotary tiller.
Rake a 2-inch layer of sphagnum peat moss evenly over the soil.
Spade or till the peat moss thoroughly into the loose soil.
During the growing season, a cherry tree needs six to eight hours of daily direct sun exposure. More is better, but the sunlight can occur any time of day as long as it totals at least six hours.
As the smaller of the two species, a sour cherry tree usually needs less space than a sweet cherry tree. Set multiple dwarf sour cherry varieties 8 to 10 feet apart, semi-dwarf sour varieties 12 to 15 feet apart and standard-size sour varieties 15 to 18 feet apart.
Allow 8 to 10 feet between dwarf sweet cherries, 15 to 18 feet between semi-dwarf sweet cherry trees and 18 to 25 feet between standard-size sweet cherry varieties.
Fertilizer for a Cherry Tree
A Non-Fruit-Bearing Tree
A healthy cherry tree should grow 8 to 12 inches per year until it begins producing fruits. If your tree is achieves that growth rate, then don't fertilize it.
Fill a 1- to 2-gallon watering can with water.
Add 1 tablespoon of water-soluble, 22-24-12 fertilizer granules for each 1 gallon of water in the watering can. Stir the water to dissolve the granules.
Pour the contents of the watering can evenly onto the soil around the non-fruit-producing cherry tree, from its base outward to its drip line -- where rain falls from the outermost branches to the ground. Use enough to wet the soil thoroughly.
A Fruit-Producing Tree
Fertilize a fruit-producing cherry tree only in the years when its average amount of new spring growth is fewer than 8 inches.
Examine the fruit-producing cherry tree's branches after its new growth emerges in early spring. Locate bud scale scars that indicate where the previous year's growth stopped. The old and new growth have differently colored and textured bark.
Measure several branches from the bud scale scars to the tips of the new growth, and write down your findings.
Find the tree's average growth by adding the measurements and dividing that total by the number of branches you measured. If the tree's average growth is 8 or more inches, then the tree doesn't need fertilizer.
When Fertilizing Is Necessary
Measure the cherry tree's trunk diameter 1 foot above the soil, and give the tree enough granular, high-nitrogen fertilizer, such as 21-0-0, to provide no more than 1/8 pound of nitrogen per 1 inch of diameter.
To calculate the amount of nitrogen, look at the first of the N-P-K numbers on the fertilizer's label. A 21-0-0 fertilizer, for example, contains 21 percent nitrogen, with no phosphorus or potassium, which are represented by the "P" and "K' numbers.
If your tree has a 4-inch trunk diameter, then it needs no more than 1/2 pound of nitrogen. To use a 21-0-0 fertilizer, divide 0.5 -- for the 1/2 pound -- by 0.21; the result is about 2.38 pounds -- roughly 2 pounds, 6 ounces. That amount is enough to feed the tree for one year.
Sprinkle the granular fertilizer evenly from the drip line -- the ground below the outermost branches' tips -- to 2 or 3 inches from the trunk, but don't get it on the tree. Rake it lightly into the soil, and water the soil well.
An established cherry tree needs just 3 inches of rain or supplemental water each month. Any more than that could lead to saturated, oxygen-deprived roots.
One inch of water amounts to about 6 gallons of water for each 10 square feet of soil. When watering is necessary, turn the hose to emit water at a trickle, set it on the ground beneath the tree and leave it until the root zone is soaked.
- Virginia Tech, Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation: Sour Cherry
- Arbor Day Foundation: Bing Cherry
- Arbor Day Foundation: Montmorency Cherry
- University of Connecticut: Why Fruit Trees Fail to Bear
- Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States: Sour Cherry
- Stark Bro's: Choosing a Location for Cherry Trees
- Stark Bro's: Fertilizing Cherry Trees
- Stark Bro's: Stark Tre-Pep Fertilizer
- Stark Bro's Tre-Pep 22-24-12 Tree and Plant Food Label
- Colorado State University Extension: Fertilizing Fruit Trees
- Stark Bro's: Watering Cherry Trees
- Lowe's: Make Watering Easier