Cherry trees grow well in most zones. Although if you want to get more technical, tart cherries thrive best in zones 4-9, and sweet cherries grow best in zones 5-9. Bush cherries (somewhat sweet) are hardy enough for zone 3. Thanks to modern plant breeding, there are now self-pollinating cultivars and dwarf root-stocks of both tart and sweet cherry trees. Whether your preference is tart or sweet, select a healthy, disease-resistant tree cultivated for your zone. Expect standard-sized trees to start bearing fruit in their fourth year (30 to 50 quarts), and dwarf-sized trees to produce fruit in their third year (10 to 15 quarts).
Plant trees or bushes in a sunny site with good air circulation and average to rich, well-drained soil. They prefer a soil pH of between 6.0 and 6.8 (slightly acidic). Avoid low areas where frost and standing water can be a problem (especially for sweet types) or sites where cherries, peaches or plums have grown previously. Wild choke-cherries should be located well away from your intended site.
Cherry trees should be planted in the early spring (zones 4-6) or fall. All purchased cherry trees come grafted on a rootstock, and the type of rootstock it's grafted on will determine its performance, size and how deep it's planted. Consult with the nursery to determine exact planting specifications for the type you buy. Generally speaking, when spacing trees for planting, allow for a distance of 20 to 30 feet in every direction around a standard-sized sweet cherry tree; dwarf trees 8 to 12 feet. Tart cherry trees should be planted about 15 to 20 feet apart. Mulch trees around the base, leaving 4-5 inches next to the trunk bare.
Semi-dwarf and standard-size sweet cherry trees should be trained to have a central leader shape (one main trunk with many side branches-like apple trees). Tart cherry trees seem to respond better to a modified leader structure (an open center with evenly spaced side branches-like peach trees). Trees should be pruned annually in late winter while they are in their dormant state. Apply fertilizer in the spring until fruit sets and after harvest annually. Check trees for common disease and fruit pests in the spring and fall.
Harvest cherries, stem on fruit, when they are fully ripe. Avoid damaging the spur (point of attachment) or you may damage next year's cherry. Fruit will be dark red, black or yellow depending on the variety. The sugar content in the fruit rises in the last few days of ripening so it's worth the wait. Fresh cherries will keep up to a week in your refrigerator, up to three in slightly cooler (31 to 32F) temperatures.
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