growing cherries

One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

No fruit screams “Kiwi Christmas!” louder than a bowl of cherries. The arrival of these glossy red crowd-pleasers announces that summer has well and truly arrived and celebrations can commence. Goodbye apples, oranges and winter veg; hello salads, barbecues and fun in the sun. Growing up in Marlborough, cherry orchards were a dime a dozen and with friends who were growers, it wasn’t uncommon for a box or two to magically appear (and disappear again almost as quickly!). I eagerly awaited the red-flushed, white-fleshed Rainier variety in particular – they seemed just a little more exotic than the standard red fruit – but you don’t seem to see these for sale very often any more. I last bought some from a roadside stall about a decade ago and haven’t spied any since. Perhaps that’s good enough encouragement to plant a tree of my own…

Cherries are one of the more difficult crops to produce in the home orchard, being fairly large trees (which require some winter chilling), rather susceptible to disease and with fruit that is absolutely irresistible to birds. Most sweet cherry cultivars also require a polleniser as they are not always self-fertile. With the fruit ripening from mid-November to late December in New Zealand, the crop is also at risk of being damaged by rain and hail – the fruit’s tender skin is prone to cracking and splitting after such weather events. However, there are several modern developments in the form of dwarfing rootstocks and improved selections that do make it easier to achieve a bowl of home-grown crimson perfection, so with a little patience and attention to detail, success is within your grasp.

Cherries: a short family history

Cherries belong to the exceptionally-fruitful Rosaceae family, which provides us with a host of pome fruits, stone fruits and berries. They have their own subgenus, Cerasus, and are broadly divided into two groups, the sweet cherries (Prunus avium), which we know best as fresh eating dessert fruit, and the sour or tart cherries, (Prunus cerasus), which are less common here in the antipodes but popular in Europe and North America for preserves, pies and liqueurs. It is interesting to note the two species do not readily cross-pollinate. Cherries are a diverse group, and there are many wild-type species with edible fruit outside of commercial cultivation worldwide.

Sweet cherries are native to Europe, Western Asia and Northwest Africa and are now naturalised in North America and Australia. Sour cherries are native across Europe and Southwest Asia, and are thought to have originated from historic natural hybridisation of P. avium and P. fruiticosa, (the European dwarf or Mongolian cherry) in either Eastern Europe or the Persian plateau. This hybrid species eventually stabilised and interbred to form the P. cerasus of modern times and is now split into two further groups, the Morello types (dark red skin, juice and flesh) and Amarelle types (red skin, yellow or white flesh, clear juice, with lower acidity than Morello fruit). They are a long-valued source of food for humans, with evidence of consumption found at Bronze Age sites in Europe, carbon dated back to approximately 2077 BC.

The cherry’s popularity has certainly not declined over time. In terms of commercial cultivation, the worldwide sweet cherry crop in 2020 was 2.61 million tonnes, with Turkey leading production, followed by the USA and Chile. In comparison, the sour cherry crop was just shy of 1.5 million tonnes, with the majority grown in Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. In 2020, New Zealand exported approximately 2,500 tonnes of cherries, with Taiwan and China the main markets. Production is centred in Central Otago, with just a small volume of pre-Christmas export fruit produced in Marlborough. The total New Zealand crop consists of about 80% export fruit with the remaining 20% supplying the domestic market.

Fresh cherries contain high levels of antioxidants, including anthocyanins, and significant levels of vitamin A (even more so in the sour types). All parts of the cherry tree, apart from the ripe flesh of the fruit contain cyanogenic glycosides and must not be consumed. The wood is hard, fine-grained and has a rich, deep red-brown colour, which makes it popular for fine woodworking and cabinetry. It is also a popular choice for food smoking in chip form, so there will be zero waste if you dispatch your old cherry tree when it is past its prime! There are many ornamental cultivars prized for their flowering form and ornate bark. Cherry blossom (sakura) is considered the national flower of Japan, with the spring blossoming period having strong cultural symbolism. The Japanese Meteorological Agency tracks the sakura zensen or ‘cherry blossom front’ and reports progress to the country in a special bulletin following the television news weather report each night during the season. New Zealand’s national equivalent would have to be the famous Alexandra Blossom Festival held in Central Otago each September. I was interested to read this is actually New Zealand’s longest-running festival, and started back in 1957.

Suitable climates and growing conditions

As previously mentioned, cherries fall into the prima donna crop category. Their winter chill requirements (approximately 500-1400 hours, depending on the cultivar) means they are only really suitable for the temperate climate of the South Island and central to lower North Island, as they will suffer from inadequate fruit set and poor leaf development in warmer, subtropical climates. They are also ‘out’ if your region experiences wet conditions in the pre-Christmas harvest period as fruit will split and crack then rot – this is what makes cherries such a high-risk crop for commercial growers, devastation is not uncommon. The long, cold winters and hot, dry summers of Central Otago make it ideally suited to cherry production, although Hawkes Bay does produce reasonable crops from some of the low-chill cultivars.

Cherry trees are well-known for their stately physique – sweet cherries can easily reach 10-15 metres in height (or more!) at maturity, whilst their sour cousins are more diminutive (sort of) at four to six metres and are more shrubby in growth form. So yes, in general, you need space. Don’t despair, however, if you are on a small section. There are dwarfing rootstocks now available and some smaller-stature cultivars such as ‘Compact Stella’ - you can also use size-limiting techniques including pruning to get cherries to crop under pot culture or in large grow-bags, the latter can be kept either above ground or buried in the soil. Grow-bags are even utilised commercially for under-cover cherry crops. When planting, allow a six to ten metre spacing between sweet cherry trees and about four to six metres between sour cherry trees. You can expect your first crop within four or five years of planting and properly cared for, trees will live to around the 80 year mark. A mature tree (of either sweet or sour cultivars) can yield 20-60 kg of fruit per season. Cherries ripen rapidly, so keep an eye on your crop to beat the birds. Pick sweet cherries with the stems on for prolonged storage and freshness, but sour cherries are actually best picked without their stems. You can mimic commercial harvesting methods by shaking them from the tree!

Most cherry trees produced for the commercial market are propagated clonally by budding or grafting. You can grow cherry trees from seed (best sown when fresh), but because of hybridisation, the offspring are unlikely to grow true to their parents. I have a seedling tree that is seven or eight years old, barely a metre high and has never flowered! I continue to let it struggle along as I have a soft spot for it (it grew from fruit I bought on Trade Me, from a prolific tree growing in someone’s Christchurch backyard – I was in awe of this productive behemoth, but the owner was thinking about giving it the axe as too many seedlings were appearing in their gravel driveway, which I thought was a small price to pay for bucket after bucket of delicious cherries, but each to their own…). You can also propagate via semi-hardwood cuttings, layering and digging up suckers from seedling trees (not from grafted types though, as you’ll end up with a rootstock!) but given this is a high-maintenance crop, it’s best to invest your cash in a reliable, commercially-grafted specimen of your preferred cultivar.

Site selection and planting

Cherry trees can be planted from late autumn to early spring, but the late autumn-early winter period is preferable as it gives the young trees a chance to settle in before spring growth commences. Choose a hot, sunny position – some cultivars will tolerate a little shade, but avoid windy, exposed sites, especially in coastal areas. Although cherry trees are cold-hardy when dormant, they flower early, so are susceptible to frost damage at flowering. If you have frost pockets on your property, keep the cherry trees well way from these areas as a late frost could decimate your crop. Keeping the area directly under the tree as bare, cultivated soil can help reduce the frost risk at flowering by slightly increasing the soil surface temperature (when compared with that of a grassed area).

Well-drained soil types of fairly neutral pH are ideal, cherries can tolerate some alkalinity but will suffer from certain nutrient toxicities in acidic soils and deficiencies in overly alkaline soils. The trees are highly susceptible to root rots, so avoid waterlogged areas at all costs. Dig the soil over well and remove weeds, and incorporate some good-quality compost into the planting hole.

Culture and care

Adequate moisture levels during the period encompassing budbreak, flowering and fruiting is extremely important when growing cherries, as they complete this cycle in the space of about four months, which is a short timeframe when compared to other tree fruits such as apples and pears. Irrigate carefully, but don’t overwater during this period. Too much water close to harvest will result in watery, insipid fruit. You can apply mulch around the base of the tree, avoiding the trunk zone, to assist with water retention during the growing season. Irrigation requirements in the dormant winter phase are minimal.

Sweet cherries are more nutrient-hungry than their do-gooder sour relatives. A general fertiliser can be applied in a split application (half in early spring, half in late spring) at the rate of 250-500 g per year of tree age, up to maximum of 5 kg per tree at maturity. Apply evenly around the base of the tree to the dripline (the zone underneath the outer circumference of a tree’s canopy, where water drips from onto the ground when it rains). Aim for a coverage of about a cupful of fertiliser per square metre of ground. Always apply prior to rainfall or irrigation to help move nutrients into the soil for uptake by the plant’s roots.

The good news is that cherries are one of the few fruit crops that don’t require thinning – hurrah!

Pruning

As with all stonefruit, cherry pruning should be carried out during the summer months after harvest. This decreases the incidence of infection by fungal and bacterial diseases such as silverleaf and bacterial blast. Being naturally large trees with a relatively upright growth habit, establishing the tree’s structure is relatively simple and little long-term maintenance pruning other than height management and removing spindly twigs and diseased or damaged branches is required.

Initially choose four to five upright shoots on the young tree to form the leaders, removing all other growth. Development of side branches will follow, and the growth habit should become a little more spreading with each subsequent crop. The fruit is borne on spurs that develop on the leaders and lateral branches, remaining fruitful for a number of years – no need for annual renewal of fruiting wood. Sour cherries tend towards fruiting more on one-year-old wood and less on older spurs.

Pests, diseases and what to do about them

The cherry tree’s public enemy number one = birds. Net, cage or otherwise protect your trees well before harvest if you expect to pick any fruit!

Black cherry aphid - Myzus cerasi

If you spy curling leaves and deformed shoots amongst the new growth on your cherry trees this spring, the black cherry aphid, Myzus cerasi, could well be the culprit. Take a closer look and you may well find dozens of aphids happily feeding in the sheltered environment of these ‘leaf nests’.

This pesky sucker has both sexual and asexual stages in its lifecycle. Newly-hatched aphids from overwintered eggs, which are pinkish-grey in colour, can infest flowers and cause them to drop. These ’stem mother’ aphids are capable of giving birth to large numbers of live young through parthogenesis (reproduction without mating) – these offspring are the most commonly found wingless forms (apterae) and are dark brown to black in colour.

Their feeding causes leaves to become distorted and severely rolled, induces premature leaf fall, shoot deformation and general suppression of growth. Heavy infestations can result in a reduction in fruit size. Honeydew exuded by the aphids and the resultant sooty mould, coupled with shed exoskeletons and dead aphids contaminate the fruit, making it sticky and dirty.

Softer options for aphids in the home garden include Yates Conqueror Oil or neem oil. Apply according to the label directions. I’ve also heard suggestions that very minor infestations can be treated with a gentle squirt from the garden hose…but I’ll leave that to your own discretion!

Plan to prune your trees in summer after harvest to prevent the ingress of fungal diseases such as Silverleaf (Chondrostereum purpureum). Immediately seal all pruning cuts with a paint containing fungicide such as Yates PruneTec®. The first sign of this disease affecting trees is a literal silvering of the leaves – it looks like each leaf has a metallic film covering it. This is followed by branch dieback, with bracket-like fungal fruiting bodies forming on the dead wood. To treat, remove all affected branches and burn or dispose of the diseased material – do not compost. Apply pruning paint to all open cuts as described above. Once the infection is present, it spreads throughout the tree and is usually fatal – you can try to limit its spread by inserting TrichodowelsTM into the trunk after pruning off the affected wood.

Bacterial blast (bacterial canker) caused by Pseudomonas syringae pv. syringae shows up as limb dieback with weeping cankers and/or gummosis on branches and trunks. You may also see spots on the leaves and blast damage on flower buds and young shoots. Maintaining healthy, vigorous trees by carefully managing irrigation and nutrition can help stave off infection, as may copper sprays during the leaf fall period. Once infected, prune affected limbs back approximately 30 cm below the canker – until you hit clear, unstained wood (you may have to remove an entire branch or leader) – and seal with pruning paint.

For a general overall spray programme, apply a clean-up oil (e.g. Yates Conqueror Oil) in late winter to deal with overwintering insects and a copper oxychloride spray at leaf fall and again pre-blossom in spring just when the buds start to move.

Varieties: My top picks

Sweet cherries

Tangshe (sometimes Tangshi) – An exceptionally early light pink cherry with a red blush, ripening as early as late October-November in some areas, so a great hungry gap-filler. Self-fertile. Be quick to beat the birds!

Rainier – Sweet-tasting early to mid-season fruit, yellowish-white cherries blushed with red. Developed at Washington State University in 1952 and named after Mt Rainier, a local landmark. Lapins is a suitable polliniser. Winter chilling requirement = 700 hours.

Compact Stella – Mid-season, prolific cropper, smaller stature than standard Stella, reaching around three metres at maturity. A self-fertile variety with large red fruit. Polliniser for Dawson. Potentially suitable for warmer districts.

Dawson – Mid-season variety (ripe mid-December), bearing tasty dark-coloured fruit of medium size. Requires Stella or Lapins for pollination.

Lapins – Mid to late season, bears large dark red fruit which are firm-fleshed and juicy. A widely grown commercial cultivar. A universal sweet cherry polliniser.

Sour cherries

Montmorency – mid-late season, ripening late December. Amarelle type (red skin, white flesh, clear juice). Self-fertile, winter chilling requirement = 700 hours. Suitable for cooking, bottling and juice.

Waimea Nurseries also stocks Griotella®, a dwarf sour cherry (reaching approximately two metres in height at maturity) which is self-fertile and particularly suited to small gardens (Morello type – red skin, flesh and juice).

Watch out for: Taiwan cherry, Prunus campanulata – an ornamental species imported into New Zealand in the 1960s, it has now turned weedy and is subject to sustained management protocols as part of many regional councils’ Regional Pest Management Plans. This means landowners/occupiers must destroy this pest if required by a written direction from an authorised person unless a property specific pest management agreement has been agreed and signed between the occupier and the council.

What to do with your crop

I don’t think you will have any problem dealing with your cherry crop, as I can pretty much guarantee 90% of it will be eaten fresh, and most of that won’t even make it inside!

You can pit and freeze cherries for later use – mechanical pitters to make this job easy are available from specialist kitchen shops. They also dry well in the dehydrator and make a nice fruit leather when lightly cooked and blended with some stewed apple and a handful of strawberries.

Sour cherries hold their own in jams, pies and preserves, as well as making an excellent accompaniment to the fattier game meats such as duck. And of course there’s the famous liqueur, kirsch.

If you do have a cherry glut on your hands, here’s my way of using up squishy cherries that are maybe a bit past their best, or just putting aside a wee stash for the colder months.

Cherries in brandy

1 kg cherries (you can use any sweet or sour variety)
1 cup sugar
3 cups water
Juice of one large lemon
Optional extra flavourings – a vanilla pod, split and scraped; a few strips of orange zest, a cinnamon stick.
About 200-250 ml brandy

Preheat your oven to 125°C. Wash four 300 ml capacity glass jars and their metal/lacquered lids in hot soapy water, drain, then place jars on their side on oven racks. Heat for at least 30 minutes to sterilise. If you have a metal preserving funnel, wash this along with the jars and pop it in the oven too. Place lids in a small saucepan and cover with water. Drop in a slotted spoon, large kitchen knife and pair of tongs.

Place sugar and water in a preserving pan along with additional flavouring (if using) and bring to the boil, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce the heat and simmer steadily for 15-20 minutes while you prepare the fruit.

Wash and destem the cherries – you can pit them too if you like, but I’m a bit lazy. Add the fruit to the simmering syrup, return to the boil and cook for about 10 minutes, until just tender when poked with the tip of a knife.

Bring the saucepan with the water, lids and utensils to the boil and simmer for ten minutes.

Remove the hot jars from the oven using your sterilised tongs and place them on a wooden chopping board or folded tea towel. Place the preserving pan on a heat-resistant mat near the board with the jars. Remove the metal funnel (if you have one) from the oven with tongs and place in the mouth of a jar.

Using a slotted spoon, fill the jars with hot fruit, then top up with syrup to about an inch and a half below the level of the jar rim. Top up the jar right to the rim with brandy (about 3-4 tbsp, 50-60 ml). Take the sterilised knife and push it down the side of the jar until it reaches the bottom, then pull inwards – this gets rid of the air bubbles trapped inside the jar. Repeat at least four times around the circumference of the jar – I go by the points of the compass. Wipe any bits of fruit from the rim using a clean cloth, dipped in boiling water. Top up the syrup again so it is level with, or just spills over the rim. Pick up a hot lid from the saucepan with your tongs and drop it on top of the jar, then screw it down tight, using a clean tea towel to help if necessary.

Line another spot on the bench with tea towels and place the filled jars on the towels to cool – if you put them straight on a cold surface they will crack, game over. Repeat for the remaining jars and fruit. Leave the jars on the bench for at least 24 hours to cool – properly sealed jars will have concave lids. Clean the excess syrup from the jars using tepid water (hot water can crack the jars and your hard work will go down the drain) and a cloth.

Store the cherries for at least a month before consuming so the flavours can develop – they will store in a cool, dark place for at least a year. Perfect for serving at a midwinter Christmas feast with something rich and creamy alongside.


Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association who endeavours to grow and preserve as much of her own fresh produce as possible. When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.

The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organisation promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage and other productive crops. Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/

Disclaimer: the information supplied above is of a general nature and provided as reference material only. In regards to pest and disease control, please consult your agrichemical consultant for suitable products, application rates and further region-specific information.

Image credits
Cherry fruit on tree – beValorous, via Pixabay.com
Cherry fruit heart – Susanne Jutzeler, Schweiz, via Pixabay.com
Cherry blossom – shell_ghostcage, via Pixabay.com