Kitchen Gardening

How to Grow Sweet Cherries

Dwarfing rootstocks and self-fertile varieties give you the upper hand. With proper care and the right techniques, you can make your cherry dream come true.

  • Photo/Illustration: Adam Gibbs
  • Showy white blossoms are a sign that luscious fruit is on the way.
    Photo/Illustration: John Bray
  • Make some Black Cherry Preserves with your homegrown fruit.
    Photo/Illustration: Boyd Hagen
  • Tipping encourages better branching. Pinch out the tips of vigorous shoots to encourage side branching and keep the tree from getting too tall.
    Photo/Illustration: John Bray
  • Cut a notch above a dormant bud to stimulate growth along bare branches of the tree. This will help keep fruiting wood where you can easily reach it.
    Photo/Illustration: John Bray
  • Bend branches away from vertical to encourage fruit development.
    Photo/Illustration: John Bray

Gardeners like to visualize doing such fantastic things as picking heaps of perfectly ripe, juicy, sweet cherries from their own trees. If you’ve actually tried to grow them, you know a cherry tree’s stores of torment can be bottomless: excessive growth, pollination problems, diseases that rot the fruit or kill the tree, ravenous birds that always seem to hear poet Thomas Campion’s “Cherry Ripe” clarion a moment ahead of you. It’s all so familiar.

But for the first time in my 40 years of growing sweet cherries—and I’ve grown them in Washington, California, Utah, Michigan, New Jersey, and Connecticut—I am downright enthusiastic about the home gardener’s chances at real success. From the orchards of Giessen, Germany, has come a series of dwarfing rootstocks that keep trees small and manageable. Matched with grafts that don’t need a mate for pollination, the rootstock produces a nearly ideal tree for the kitchen garden. With proper care and the right techniques, you can make your cherry dream come true.

A winning combination
Almost all fruit trees are grafted onto a rootstock, a major deter­mi­nant in a tree’s size, pest and disease resistance, and cold hardiness. You usually can see a bit of a crook or swelling in the stem at the graft point of a tree you buy from the nursery.

A few nurseries in the United States and Canada have been licensed to sell Giessen dwarfing root­stocks. Demand is heavy, so be patient. This list, including wholesalers, provides a starting place.

C&O Nursery
1700 North Wenatchee Avenue
PO Box 116
Wenatchee, WA 98807

Hilltop Fruit Trees
PO Box 538
60395 C. R. 681
Hartford, MI 49057

One Green World
28696 S. Cramer Rd.
Molalla, Oregon 97038-8576

Raintree Nursery
391 Butts Road
Morton, WA 98536

Van Well Nursery
PO Box 1339
Wenatchee, WA 98807


While dwarfing rootstocks for apples are common, there hasn’t been a satisfactory one for cherries until recently. The Giessen root stocks developed by Werner Gruppe and Hanna Schmidt work well, far better than some of the others that have come along, such as Stockton Morello, which produced too many suckers. The Giessen series, which has been available in North America for only the past few years and marketed mainly to commercial growers under the name Gisela, varies in the amount of dwarfing the different types impart. For example, Gisela 5 holds down growth to about 45% of a traditional full-size tree on Mazzard rootstock, Gisela 6 about 70%, and Gisela 7 about 50%.

Trees on Giessen rootstocks also produce fruit earlier, usually by the third year. Most other types take four or five years.

Pollination isn’t the problem it once was. Cross-pollination with another variety used to be essential, and not just any variety would do. If your orchard had just ‘Bing’, ‘Royal Ann’, and ‘Lambert’, you wouldn’t get a single cherry because those varieties don’t cross. New varieties make cross-pollination much easier.

But what if you want only one tree? Well, English and Canadian scientists have developed sweet cherries that are self-fertile, just like most peaches and sour cherries. I have one of these varieties, ‘Lapins’, grafted on my Gisela 5 rootstock, and I see it as nearly the epitome of a backyard cherry tree. Careful management will keep the tree about 6 ft. or 7 ft. tall and about as wide, with cherry production running about 20 lb. to 30 lb. annually. That’s plenty to keep my family regular. Who needs a cherry tree 20 ft. tall?

You can expand your options with “two-way” or “three-way” trees, those with multiple varieties grafted on one root, though managing them can be more difficult.

Do you have what it takes?
It’s a tree. But that doesn’t mean you can grow it in the woods. Cherry trees require 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight daily. Winter temperatures should rarely fall below –10°F, but there needs to be enough chill to keep the trees dormant until it’s time to bloom. It also can’t be too hot, not over 100°F. High temperatures and high humidity encourage disease.

If you have soggy, shallow soil, or heavy clay, perhaps you’d better stick to apples, pears, or plums. Cherries like well-drained soil. The Giselas have shallower root systems and require more frequent watering in summer than the bigger trees.

The prevalence and persistence of pests and disease depends on your area. We don’t have many insects in my region of the Columbia Basin. We do have the cherry fruit fly, and, being in a major commercial fruit-growing region, we must spray for it. One cherry fruit fly in a delivery to a commercial packing house can condemn the whole orchard because the maggots eat the fruit on the way to market. In other areas, you may be plagued by plum curculio, aphids, pear slugs, mites, wood borers, cherry sawfly, and other creepy crawlers. Some of these, such as aphids and pear slugs, cause minor damage and don’t really require control.

For the birds, cloaking the tree with about $15 worth of 1-in. polypropylene mesh should pay for itself in frustration relief in a single season.

Bacterial canker, common in areas afflicted with wet, cold winters, can kill the tree. In wet, warm springs, brown rot can destroy the blossoms or fruit. Spraying a fungicide is a must. Cherries are more often than not over-fertilized, so go slowly with the stuff. Wait and see how the tree grows. If annual growth of new shoots is at least 12 in., don’t worry. If it’s less, some nitrogen might be in order.

Like most fruit trees, cherry trees need about 1 in. of water per week during the active growing period. The Giselas, with their shallow roots, do not tolerate drought well. Keep competing vegetation away.

Three tricks for keeping your tree fruitful
If you buy a new tree, it is usually best to maintain a cone shape with a single central leader like a Christmas tree.


Tipping encourages better branching. Pinch out the tips of vigorous shoots to encourage side branching and keep the tree from getting too tall.

The important thing in training a sweet cherry is to allow enough space between main branches, and to encourage the development of small fruiting branches The more you prune a cherry tree, the larger the fruit size will be, within limits, but also the smaller the crop and the greater the stimulation of vegetative growth. I would tend to go easy on the pruning, especially when the tree is young.

Winter pruning should be avoided in many parts of the country because it encourages the spread of bacterial canker. Prune so that air circulates easily through the branches. Foliage stays drier, which helps prevent disease.

Short circuit unwanted growth. A good trick for managing the size and shape of the tree is tipping. If new shoots are a foot or more in length by the first of July, just pinch out the tip of any new growth that exceeds 12 in. to 16 in. Then the shoots will start to make numerous side branches at the tip, which will help to control height and provide more fruiting branches. 

Notching Notch
Force bud development. Sweet cherries have a tendency toward long, bare branches, devoid of fruit. Cutting a notch through the bark to the inner hardwood just above a dormant bud often stimulates the bud to grow, a technique that can be used to encourage low, fruitful branching. Eventually these buds along the trunk and branches will die if they aren’t stimulated. So it’s best to do your notching early on wood no older than two years.

Bend branches and spur fruiting. Sweet cherry trees, more than any other fruit type, reach for the sky. The more vertical the branch, the more vegetative the growth. By bending branches 30 to 60 degrees, you will have fewer leaves and more fruit. It’s easy to tie down or brace a branch with a grooved piece of wood.

Tree scientists believe that bending branches slows the draining of hormones that are critical for fruiting.And the fruit is what we want. Despite the obstacles, the royal thrill of picking sweet cherries makes it all worthwhile. Let the birds eat cake.

Cherry recipes

Sweet Cherry Clafouti
Sweet and Savory Cherry Sauce
Black Cherry Preserves

Bend branches
Choosing the best cherry varieties
Quick, name a variety of sweet, black cherry. ‘Bing’! Time’s up. You got it. Or maybe ‘Royal Ann’ or ‘Rainier’, if you cherish light-skinned fruit. These are the cherries you will most likely find at the supermarket. If you’re growing your own, however, and don’t live in a favored climate with little rain during ripening, you’ll be better off with less finicky varieties. The self-fertile types work well if you can get your hands on one. The easiest to find is ‘Stella’, which bears fruit similar to ‘Bing’. The cherries are a little softer and a little less prone to cracking, which happens when the fruit absorbs too much water directly through the skin and splits. I love my ‘Lapins’, which also is like ‘Bing’, but is harder to find. Other self-fertile varieties are ‘Glacier’ and ‘Sweetheart’. They also are harder to find.

Working with trees that require a pollenizer means more effort, but more variety. I like ‘Emperor Francis’, which is light colored with yellow meat and similar to ‘Rainier’, only with smaller fruit. I can also recommend the very hardy and crack-resistant black cherry called ‘Kristin’. ‘Angela’ also resists cracking. If you’re looking for a versatile pollenizer, ‘Van’ does the job, but requires pollination by another variety to bear fruit.

Since we have not yet put all the good characteristics in a single tree, there will be drawbacks with any combination you select. Make sure what you buy fits your growing conditions.

by Robert A. Norton
October 1997
from issue #11

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