Fruit production: An introduction to growing cherries

Question: I’m interested in producing cherries. Do you have any advice?

Cherry production is a high-risk enterprise as it is a complex crop to grow and there is limited available expertise.

There are two kinds of cherries; the sweet cherry and the sour, tart or pie cherry. Only sweet cherry trees are, for instance, grown in South Africa. Cultivars include Bing, Stella, Lapins, Giant Heidelfinger and Van. Van and Sweet Ann are used as cross-pollinators.

The following factors should be taken into consideration when choosing a cultivar:

  • Chilling requirement
  • Growth habit
  • Rootstock
  • Pollination (self/cross)
  • Fruit size and flavour
  • Resistance to diseases (bacterial canker and powdery mildew)
  • Regular or high yields
  • Earlier returns on capital investment
  • Input costs
  • Storage ability, shelf-life of the fruit and suitability for processing
  • Size of the tree (is important when cultivated under nets)
  • Drought tolerance


  • Don’t try to cut costs when it comes to soil preparation. Thorough soil preparation will be repaid with higher yields in the long-run.
  • Soil samples should be sent to a reputable laboratory where they should be analysed to determine the nutrient content and water-holding capacity of the soil, as well as the incidence of diseases or pests such as nematodes.
  • The results of such soil analysis will indicate whether the soil is suitable for cherry cultivation and if so, which kind – and how much – fertiliser to use.
  • If the soil analysis indicates a nematode problem, the soil could be fumigated, but expert advice should be obtained.
  • Herbicides should be applied with care as traces of herbicide residues in the soil could have a negative effect on young trees.
  • Soil with a high water-table should either be drained or avoided. Shallow soils can be ridged.

Also read:
How to test soil life and health
Do it yourself: Making your own basic soil pH test
How to lower the pH of your soil
How to increase the pH of your soil

Cherry rootstocks differ in their ability to grow at different pH-levels:

  • Optimal pH (H2O) levels of 5.5 to 7 should be established before planting.
  • Dolomitic lime should be applied if the soil pH level is below 5.5.
  • Any basic phosphate should be applied to acidic soils.
  • However, super phosphate should be applied to alkaline – so-called ‘’sweet’’ soils – or soils with a high lime content.


  • A fertilisation programme, based on results of the leaf and soil analysis, should be followed.
  • Leaf samples should be taken annually, while soils samples could be taken every third year.
  • These samples should be representative of the orchard.
  • Soil and leaf samples should be sent to a reputable laboratory that will provide fertilisation recommendations based on the results of the soil and leaf analysis.


  • Trees should be pruned correctly from the start.
  • Pruning is usually done during July and August.
  • Cherry trees are shaped within the first and second years after planting.
  • This is done to obtain an improved spreading of scaffold branches, to eliminate weak crotches (the part of the tree where it forks into two branches) and to prevent the branches from rubbing against each other.
  • Dead branches should be pruned throughout the year and removed from the orchard. Branches affected by bacterial canker are removed in the process, helping to limit future infections.
  • Corrective pruning should be done during the third year after establishment and onwards. Summer pruning entails the removal of all water shoots.
  • Large pruning wounds should be sealed with a sealing compound, and secateurs regularly disinfected.


  • Irrigation is one of the key elements in the production of cherries.
  • The specific minimum water requirements of cherries vary for the different cultivation areas and are not well documented.
  • However, it would be sensible to apply water to a soil depth of at least 600 mm.
  • The orchard should be irrigated during the spring before bud break if the soil water content is low.
  • The trees need large quantities of water during October to November as shoot growth and fruit ripening take place during this period.
  • The trees should not be allowed to suffer from water stress during this period as this will negatively affect fruit size.
  • Continue with irrigation after harvest to enable the trees to accumulate reserves for the winter months.
  • The volume and number of irrigations during the season will depend on the size of the trees, the irrigation system used, the soil type and soil depth as well as the amount of rainfall that occurred.
  • The type of irrigation system that could be used will be determined by the slope of the plot, availability of water, the necessity for protection against frost and the costs.
  • The estimated water consumption for cherry trees is indicated in the table below.
  • These estimations are based on Class A pan evaporation sensors as well as the use of a micro-irrigation system and are only applicable to fully grown trees.
  • These figures should only be used as a guideline.
  • Rain during the ripening of cherry fruit on the tree is detrimental as cracking can occur, lessening the fresh fruit value.

  • This article was written by Odette Beukes and Ina Clark and first appeared in Farming SA.

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