The Complete Guide to Growing Cherry Trees in Australia

Including planting, pruning, harvesting, and everything inbetween!

They say a cake isn’t complete without a cherry on top – and frankly, we agree! And it’s not just cakes – pavlovas, cherry pies, and fresh cherries are adored like no other. Every Aussie knows what a cherry tastes like, yet not many of them know how to grow one! PlantNet® offers home gardeners a special opportunity with our Cherry Celebrations®, a collection of four dwarf cherry trees that are self-pollinating and have an excellent flavour – PLUS, we’ve written this guide to tell you all about growing them!

10 minute read

1- Where to plant your cherry tree

 

Cherry trees require full sun to thrive and produce a good number of delicious fruit. Afternoon shade is ok, provided your cherry receives sun for the rest of the day. Avoid gullies and other sites exposed to late spring frosts which may damage flowers. If planting near other trees or shrubs in a line, try to plant in a north/south aspect so that you reduce the amount of shade they will receive.

 

Planting in the ground

Your soil should drain well and be free from known soil issues. You should not plant your cherry tree in the same space that other fruit trees have died in without first treating the soil. Flat or sloped protected areas are perfect for cherry trees, and for best results you should improve your soil at least 6 weeks before planting. Avoid areas that experience high winds which could blow your hard-earned cherries off the tree!

2- Five steps to planting your cherry tree

 

1. Test your soil. Remember: your soil is unique. Ensure you test your soil before changing anything! A simple ribbon test to determine your soil structure, and a pH test to determine soil acidity, are a good start. NSW DPI has a helpful article on soil structure tests. We suggest you do this six weeks before planting – and respond to the results as listed below:

  • Clay based soil: Dig clay breakers such as gypsum into your soil with compost or consider creating a mound. We strongly recommend a mound as filling your planting hole with well-draining soil mixes from a store will create a dam where water will accumulate and create root issues. Creating a mound will reduce this affect greatly.
  • Sand based soil: Sand based soils need regular amendments to improve water and nutrient retention. Dig organic matter such as composted manure, compost, or soil conditioners – or, consider creating a mound or using pots.
  • Silt based soil: Silt based soils can compact quickly and need amendment to reduce this effect. Dig organic matter into the soil and in very compacted silt-based soils you may like to add sand alongside organic matter – or, consider creating a mound.
  • Loam soil: This is ideal – continue to nurture your healthy soil by adding organic matter.
  • Acidic soils (low pH): To raise the pH of soil, amend with garden lime.
  • Alkaline soils (high pH): To lower the pH of soil, amend with sulphur.

Consult a local horticulturalist for more specific advice, and always follow product directions of use. Otherwise… Move to step 2!

2. Work with your soil. For general soil conditioning, use organic material, such as composted manure and compost. Dig the organic material into your soil before letting the site rest for six weeks. Some sites require more time to prepare than 6 weeks; sometimes working with your soil means that you should plant your cherry tree in a pot instead of planting!

3. Get digging. Dig a hole twice as wide as the root system. Ensure you loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole. If planting a bareroot cherry tree, create a mound at the base of the hole to splay the roots over.

4. Place your plant. Place your cherry tree in the hole and backfill the hole with well-draining soil (see above for clay soils). The soil should come up to the height of the pot or soil line from the nursery, or 5-10cms above the roots (if soil line is washed off) and always below the graft. Stake your cherry tree to ensure strong, upright growth.

5. Mulch your tree and pull out a hose! Mulch the surface of the soil with straw-based mulches, such as sugar cane, barley, or pea straw. Water your plant in well with a seaweed solution to promote healthy root growth in Spring.

a young bareroot plum tree ready for planting

The end result – a delicious crop of well earned cherries!

3- Do cherry trees need fertiliser?

Yes! However, cherries are not heavy feeders as some other stone fruit. A balanced fertiliser with low nitrogen will work well in most soils – however, if you see lots of vigorous growth without fertiliser you may like to stick to organics such as manure, compost, and mulch. Follow the packet instructions for application rates.

PlantNet® has created a great guide for fertilising deciduous fruit trees, including cherry trees, in pots from trial work completed by PlantNet® over a 3 year period. Please note that these recommendations are specific to apples, pears, and peaches but will apply to cherry trees also.

All fertilisers should be watered in well after application.

4- Watering cherry trees

 

In winter a small amount of water once a week is all that’s needed to prevent the soil profile from drying up too much.  For planted trees spring rain is usually sufficient for cherry trees. In areas with low soil water retention or for potted trees, twice a week will suffice. After harvest in summer, water 2 to 3 times per week in a hot period to encourage new growth for next seasons fruit.

For pots, the best practice is to use your hand to measure the moisture level of your potting mix. When digging into the top 5cms of potting mix you should look for any sign of moisture – if you see moisture, don’t water; if the potting mix is completely dry, water well.

Using wetting agents, mulch, and drip lines are all good ways to decrease the amount of time you need to spend outside with a hose.

5- Common cherry tree pests and diseases

 

PlantNet® has developed a comprehensive list of common pests and diseases for fruit trees in our article – Common Fruit Tree Pests and Diseases.

Timing of pest control is extremely important with cherry trees and deciduous trees in general, as tree dormancy influences which pests will attack at what time. Spray cherry trees with organic Bordeaux sprays as you would other stone fruit; at autumn and again just before bud burst. These will assist with overwintering pests and diseases (including brown rot) and will help to prevent bacterial canker/gummosis.

The main pests of cherry trees in home gardens are the pear and cherry slug, aphids, and birds. For control of pear and cherry slug, simply throw wood ash over the tree to dehydrate the slugs when you first see them. There are also chemicals available to control them. Aphids can be controlled with a blast of water or horticultural oils. Finally, birds should be considered early on – cherries must be netted otherwise you will be competing with every bird in your neighbourhood! Consider our netting options, which are also useful against QLD fruit fly.

Pear and Cherry Slug will gradually damage every leaf on your tree in large populations!

A mild example of gummosis/bacterial canker which usually occurs around the graft site or main trunk, but can occur elsewhere.

Birds have a particular knack for knowing exactly when cherries are ripe, and beating us to the punch. The best way to deter them is by using netting!

6- Pruning cherry trees

 

Pruning cherry trees is a good way to promote a healthy tree and tasty fruit. The best time to prune is when your cherry is dormant in winter. Ensure that you account for netting requirements when you prune! Our dwarf cherry trees fruit from spurs, meaning you don’t want to remove them as they can fruit for multiple years. Therefore, you should initially focus on shape when you purchase your cherry tree, and after 2-3 years focus on keeping fruiting wood and removing dead, diseased, and inward facing branches.

 

There are several systems to use when pruning a cherry tree – these are our recommendations:

 

Open Vase

Using an open vase pruning system works well for most home gardeners, as this is an easy method to achieve and allows ample airflow for cherries to thrive.

This method involves the removal of the leading branch and selecting four or five evenly distributed outwards facing branches. The aim of this method is to produce a shorter, wider tree. This system can be more difficult to control than the others if left unmanaged when older, and it requires more space. It is, however, more intuitive for beginner gardeners and provided you have the space, is a great method to get started.

 

Espalier/Palmette

Using the espalier/palmette method of pruning creates a fantastic feature while having the advantage of being able to hang a net over them easily.

Espalier is one of the most popular methods of shaping fruit trees and involves the training of limbs to grow horizontally from a leading branch along a flat surface/wires.

A better and more specific method for cherry trees is to train them in a palmette style. This involves training limbs to a 45-degree angle on a flat surface/wire rather than the traditional 90-degree angle of espalier. Palmette training produces more fruiting laterals on cherries trees than traditional espalier.

Vase pruning system

Open Vase

Espalier training system

Espalier

Palmette Training System

Palmette

7- Seven tips for growing dwarf cherry trees in pots

 

  1. Choose a pot with a diameter greater than 55cms. Avoid pots that taper towards the bottom. Ensure the pots have drainage holes.
    • The larger your pot, the happier your cherry tree will be.
  2. Our recommended potting mix is 70% premium potting mix and 30% coir peat.
    • If you don’t have access to coir peat, the highest quality potting mix will suffice.
  3. Always mulch the top of the pots.
  4. Use soil wetters or water crystals to assist with moisture retention, particularly over dry, hot periods.
  5. Take note of the lifespan of the controlled-release fertiliser in your potting mix – it will expire, and this is when you will need to reapply fertiliser to your cherry tree again.
  6. Maintain potting mix quality with organic materials like compost, worm juice, seaweed, and rock minerals but keep in mind your application rates and how they may affect your fertiliser regime.
  7. Avoid allowing the potting mix to dry out completely between watering – this will eventually create hydrophobic soil. Try to check your cherry tree once every two days, even if you don’t water for 6 days!

8- Cherry Harvest Guide

 

Expect all the PlantNet® exclusive dwarf cherries to be ready for picking between December and January. Cherries gain much of their fruit size in the last week leading up to harvest. The best method for picking when fully ripe is to taste fruits daily when you suspect they’re ready – you’ll know when they’re ripe! Ensure you pull the cherry stem gently from the fruiting spur, so to avoid damaging the spur.

Cherries are susceptible to cracking if rain occurs the week of harvest. To minimise this problem if you live in a summer rainfall dominant area, opt for Dwarf Sir Don™ Cherry or Dwarf Stella Cherry, which have better resistance to rain cracking than other varieties.

If your forecast isn’t looking good, you can also cover the tree with a tarp or move it undercover – but ensure you remove it as soon as possible to avoid excess humidity around the tree that could cause brown rot on the fruits.

Sour cherries (IE Dwarf Morello Cherry) should be cooked almost immediately upon picking or, if storage is a must, cut through the stem when you pick your cherries.

References

Glowinski, L, 1991. ‘The complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia’, Lothian Publishing Company PTY LTD, Melbourne, Australia.

Lines-Kelly, R. (1992). Check your soil structure. <https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/soils/guides/soil-structure-and-sodicity/check#:~:text=Place%20a%20cup%20of%20dry,particles%20settle%20within%20five%20minutes.>. First accessed 23rd June 2023.

Persley, D. (1994) Diseases of fruit crops Vol 1. Brisbane, QLD: Department of Primary Industries.