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Garden Wise: Grow your own cherries

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Kelley's Canyon Orchard

Mark Binnebose shows off cherry trees at Kelley’s Canyon Orchard.

Cherries are the first tree fruit crop to ripen in our area. They can be grown for fresh enjoyment, cooking and preserving. Cherry trees come with their challenges but are worth a try in your yard. At the best, you will enjoy your own crop and avoid having to buy expensive fruit. At the worst you will gain another ornamental tree or two.

At one time, Idaho had a booming cherry industry located primarily in south eastern Idaho. Disrupted by bacterial canker, which killed trees, and by increasing competition from new orchards in Oregon and Washington, the industry declined, leaving fewer orchards. There are still several orchards in the Magic Valley that supply fresh cherries or give you a chance to pick them yourself!

Cherries come in two types: sweet and tart. Sweet cherries are used for fresh eating and production of some juices and desserts. Tart cherries are used for pies, preserves, sauce, syrup and other desserts. Both types of cherries are good dried or in fruit leather and can be canned or frozen for later use. Sweet types include the familiar Bing, Lambert, Royal Ann, Rainier and Gold. Tart types include Montmorency, Meteor and North Star. There are several bush cherries to consider including Korean bush cherry and Nanking cherry. However, some bush varieties will grow as tall as dwarf cherry trees.

In order to get fruit, the cherry flowers must be pollinated. Many sweet cherries and some sour cherries will not pollinate their own flowers. Cherries require cross pollination by another specific type of cherry tree that blooms at the same time. An internet search of “pollination chart for cherry trees” will bring up all the information you need for tree choice. There are some newer cherry types that are self-pollinating, but most likely you will need to plant two trees. That can be a combination of sweet and tart cherries as long as they can pollinate each other.

Standard size cherry trees get very large and will produce fruit beyond the top of a ladder. Trees that are dwarf or semi dwarf are recommended for home use. These smaller trees make care and picking reasonable and begin producing within two to three years.

Cherry trees are available in the early spring at local nurseries or online through mail order nurseries. Cherry trees do not like soggy soil, so choose a well-drained location to plant. They prefer full to half sun and even watering. Cherry fruit will split if an excess of water follows a dry spell, including moisture from rain.

There are diseases and insects that plague cherries. However, the isolated cherry tree in a back yard is not troubled by most of them. Aphids are a common problem and can be dispatched easily with an insecticidal soap spray or with Neem oil spray. The fatal bacterial canker, which produces cankers, gumming and dieback of girdled branches, is fostered by bark freezing, wounds and poor nutrition. Only resistance will stymie this problem. Resistant varieties include Corum, Regina, Rainier, Sam and Sue.

Cherries produce fruit on one-year terminal growth and spurs on growth from recent years. Once an open center or central leader framework of well-spaced limbs is established, trees require only light yearly pruning to keep them productive.

Cherries bloom relatively early in the spring and, about one out of every four years, trees in the Magic Valley will not fruit due to the blossoms being frozen. There is little that can be done to prevent this unless a tree that blooms later is planted. There are references listing the order of bloom in cherries, but the difference in time is small. The cherry grower just needs to take the chance.

Cherries are ripe in the Magic Valley at the end of June and into early July. While you are watching your trees set fruit and ripen, the birds are too. They love cherries! Birds will remove whole fruits or leave a bare pit hanging on the stem. Fruit that is not completely eaten is often subject of a peck or two — ruining it. Deterrents to birds include flopping shiny objects hung in the tree like old CDs and mylar balloons or streamers. Noise deterrents work well but are not an option for the home garden. Netting is effective but it must be held away from the tree by a frame or support to keep birds from sitting on the net to eat through. One year in desperation, I wrapped my whole tree in white row cover held on by clothes pins. The birds could not reach the fruit, but neither could the sun. Fruit ripening was delayed, and the cherries never did develop a full flavor.

Let the cherries ripen on the tree because they do not continue to ripen after picking. Pick with the stem on, particularly for fresh eating. The tearing away of the stem can leave a wound that hastens spoilage. Cherries should be used or processed as soon as possible to maintain that fresh home-grown quality.

Garden Wise is presented by the Magic Valley Master Gardener Association. We will try to answer questions of general interest submitted by the community. Email questions to


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