Cherry trees are a wonderful choice for home fruit growers. They have showy, fragrant blossoms in spring and delicious fruits in late spring and early summer. There are many varieties of ornamental cherry trees, and almost as many varieties of fruiting cherry trees. Though many backyard fruit growers purchase young trees at nurseries, it's certainly possible to grow a cherry tree from seed. This is a much less expensive option, and it's even surprisingly easy! Follow these tips for getting some healthy cherry tree seedlings that, with proper planting and maintenance, will one day bear fruit.
Selecting Cherry Seeds
First you'll want to determine what kind of cherry tree you want to plant. Sour cherries or sweet? Red cherries or black cherries? First consider your growing climate and situation. Cherry trees need eight hours of sun every day in order to produce fruit. They do best in well drained soil with a neutral pH. Cherry trees are part of the Prunus genus like peaches, nectarines and plums. As such, they can be grown in soil without having to test for toxic residue, as any residue will not make its way into the fruit.
You'll want to get fresh local cherries to harvest seeds from, so you know the trees they produce will survive in your agricultural growing zone, also known as the USDA plant hardiness zone. Cherry trees generally range from Zone 5 through 9.
Sour cherries (Prunus cerasus), also known as tart or pie cherries, will grow in USDA zones 4 through 6, so these are best for colder climates. These trees grow up to 20 feet tall. Sweet cherries (Prunus avium) grow up to 35 feet or taller in USDA zones 5 through 7, or in USDA zones 8 and 9 in the Pacific Northwest. Check with your orchardist at the farmers' market to confirm what kind of tree the cherries came from, and if they've had any issues growing them in the area.
Important: use fresh local cherries! Don't get supermarket cherries as they may have been refrigerated after harvesting, and the viability of the seeds may be affected.
Preparing Cherry Seeds
Once you've eaten your fill of cherries (the fun part!), save some seeds and put them in a bowl of warm water. Let them soak for a few minutes and them gently clean them to remove any bits of fruit pulp clinging to them.
Next, spread the seeds out on a paper towel and let them dry for five days. Keep them in a relatively warm area, like a sunny windowsill. After five days, put the pits in a glass jar or plastic food container with a tight fitting lid. Then they'll go into the refrigerator for ten weeks. This is known as stratification and is necessary for the seeds to germinate; it mimics the cold period of winter when the seeds are dormant before spring. Mark the date on your calendar so you won't forget them in the back of the fridge.
Planting Cherry Seeds
After ten weeks, remove the cherry pits from the fridge and let them come to room temperature (this will take about three hours). You can then plant them in a small container with potting soil. Plant two or three pits in each container. Place in a sunny spot and keep them watered so the soil stays moist but not wet.
Once seedlings are about two inches tall, then them so the tallest remains. Keep in a sunny spot; if it's gotten colder out at night, keep them inside in a sunny window. There they will stay until spring, after danger of frost has passed, when you can plant them outside. The seedlings should be a few inches tall by then. Plant them twenty feet apart, and keep the site protected by marking with poles or sticks so they don't get trampled on.
You can also skip the stratification indoors and plant cherry seeds directly outside in the fall, allowing them to go through a natural cold period in winter. You may not get as many seeds to sprout, so plant a few more than you want, in a spot in your garden where the seedlings will be safe from harsh winds or foot traffic (you will be transplanting these trees later when they get a few inches tall). Keep an eye out for them to appear in the spring. You'll want to put a light layer of mulch around them to hold moisture in the soil. Transplant to their permanent spot when they're10-12 inches tall.
Protect Your Cherry Trees From Wildlife
If you have issues with deer or other wildlife that eat plants, such as rabbits or woodchucks, protect young fruit trees in winter. Wrapping loosely in burlap in mid to late autumn is a good way (deer hate chewing through burlap), and it lets sun and rain through. Remove the burlap before blossoming, in early April. You may want to do this every year for the first two or three years to protect the bark, as many critters find young fruit tree bark tasty, especially in a lean winter before spring foliage appears. You chances of having these young trees reach maturity will be much better if you can keep wildlife from eating them.
Congratulations: you have cherry trees! Expect them to start bearing fruit within six or seven years. You can shorten the time to fruiting if you graft a cherry tree seedling onto existing cherry tree stock. Meanwhile, read up on how to prune and care for them, and how to troubleshoot any problems. Good luck and be sure to save a slice of cherry pie for me.