How to Grow Your Own Delicious Cherries

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Ripe cherries

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 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.

Sweet cherry trees trained along a wall

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 supermarket 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 flavour 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 autumn 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 catalogues to select a choice cherry that appeals to your sense of taste and imagination is sublime.

Cherry blossom

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.

Netted cherry tree

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 secateurs 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 yoghurt. See, I've tempted you, haven't I?!

By Benedict Vanheems.

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Show Comments


"I'm not understanding the overturned pots on stakes tip. How tall would the stakes need to be?"
Julie Zeh on Friday 1 August 2014
"Hi Julie. The bamboo canes/stakes just need to be as tall as your tree. The upturned pots are popped onto the ends of the canes/stakes to allow you to throw over the netting, otherwise the netting could slip over and down the canes/stakes."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 4 August 2014
"My trees had fruit n a bad spot on it that made it uneatable. What should I spray on it. "
Mary on Tuesday 6 January 2015
"Hi Mary. I'm not entirely sure what would have caused this. My suggestion would be that as the leaves will now have fallen (I am assuming you are in the northern hemisphere) you are better off waiting to see what happens next year. In the meantime rake up any leaves still remaining on the ground to avoid infecting next year's growth. As an additional precaution you could also apply a natural winter tree wash, which controls common insect pests. But it sounds like the problem is likely fungal, so in this instance it wouldn't be necessary. Hopefully any hard frosts and good hygiene by removing any remaining fallen leaves will help to bring the problem under control."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 14 January 2015
"How ling does it take to bear the cherries ??"
Memory Herholdt on Monday 23 March 2015
"Hi Memory. If you plant a two to three-year-old tree, then you should get cherries within about three years. But it does depend on your local conditions."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 23 March 2015
"Hi there my dad is growing a cherry tree and the crows keep getting the cherries what is the best to stop them would the netting stop them or what, they do have plastic bags but that dosent seem to be doing it "
Melissa on Sunday 6 December 2015
"Hi Melissa. Unfortunately this is a very common problem! The best way to deal with birds is to net your fruit. Place the nets over the tree as soon as it has started to form its berries. Keep it in place until you've finished picking. It doesn't look very attractive but it certainly works."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 7 December 2015
"I just planted a Lapin Cherry on Gisela 5 into the ground but the soil was clay.After reading your article,I was thinking about replanting it in the container,25 gallon black it safe to do,will I damage the tree even if I carefully remove from the ground?"
Prasid on Sunday 27 March 2016
"Hi Prasid. If the tree is still dormant from winter, you could safely transfer it into a container. Use a soil-based compost/potting soil - something like John Innes Number 3. However, if your soil doesn't get waterlogged, drains well and is in sunshine, then perhaps leave it in the ground as it will probably thrive best where its roots can expand and reach out further."
Ben Vanheems on Wednesday 30 March 2016
"Hello, I stay in Johannesburg and I'm considering adding a few cherry trees to my garden (specifically, Stella trees). I've read that the number of chill hours are really important for cherry trees. Do we have sufficient chill hours in Johannesburg for cherries? Thanks Werner"
Werner on Monday 10 October 2016
"Hi Werner. I am not 100% certain of the answer, but there are cherry orchards in the suburb of Lindon in Joburg, so I would imagine you can go ahead and plant cherries. The best thing would be to consult a local fruit nursery to see what they sell and recommend."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 11 October 2016
"Hello I live in Pretoria East and have planted 2 Stella cherry trees. Do these trees need to be watered during the winter months? Thanks Jan"
Jan Kirstein on Sunday 4 June 2017
"Hi Jan. It really depends how dry your winters are. If the ground is appreciably dry, then I'd be inclined to continue watering throughout the winter months too, until the plants establish. Younger, recently planted trees will need some additional watering until they've sent down roots to draw up moisture from further down."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 5 June 2017
"where can I buy Cherry plants in South africa?"
Linda on Wednesday 1 November 2017
"Please tell me why my tree has 2 sub branches with different leaves from the cherry tree. Is it a fungus type or intruder plant restricting growth? Can i cut it of?"
Werner vsn der Mescht on Wednesday 25 April 2018
"We bought a miniture sour cherry tree and planted it 3 years ago but other trees grew and shaded it .Now we dug it up (very hard job by hand and couldn't free it without cutting sme big roots the roots left are healthy and wound in loose circle but we could not move it with dirt We right away had new hole ready and put some original soil from last hole. What are our chances of this tree survival by the way the tree is almost 6 feet tall and lots of bushy branches . We also moved it to a sunny spot in garden .Thanks for any advise Sharon"
SHARON SIMON on Saturday 22 September 2018
"Hi Sharon. It's hard to know whether it will survive or not. The best time to move trees like this would be when the tree is dormant, with no leaves. That way it can settle into its new position before growth starts again in spring. I would advise keeping it very well watered when it does start back into growth. It will have a lot of top growth supported by relatively fewer roots, so may need this extra moisture, particularly if it gets warm and dry. It may also be advisable to prune the tree in late winter/early spring - as late as possible before growth starts, to reduce the crown so it is in better proportion with the roots."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 24 September 2018

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