Cherry trees can be an excellent food crop for the backyard or small-farm setting. The most important decision when planting cherry trees is whether to plant the sweet cherry (Prunus avium) or the tart cherry (Prunus cerasus). By knowing the differences between the two species you can determine which will be right for you.
The Sweet Cherry
Sweet cherries are more challenging to grow. Sort of the Goldilocks of fruit trees, they require everything to be “just right”—excellent drainage and a drier climate but not too hot—in order to thrive. Standard-sized sweet cherry trees reach 20 to 40 feet tall, while dwarf or semi-dwarf trees reach 8 to 15 feet tall. The sweet cherry requires at least two different cultivars for cross pollination.
Sweet Cherry Varieties:
- Bing: large, dark-red, meaty fruit commonly seen in stores; prone to cracking in wet weather
- Black Tartarian: juicy, sweet black cherry with an early ripening season
- Emperor Francis: yellow skin with a red flush; among the sweetest of cherries; tolerant of various soil types
- Kristin: sweet red fruit; resistant to cracking in wet weather; cold-hardy
- Stella: dark-fleshed fruit; prone to cracking in wet weather but is self-fertile
The Tart Cherry
The tart cherry is more widely adaptable to various climates. It prefers well-drained soil but can tolerate a rainier, more humid climate than the sweet cherry. Tart cherries grow best in hardiness zones 4 to 8.
Tart cherries, aka pie cherries, are not as tart as the name implies and can be quite enjoyable eaten straight off the tree. Those with a penchant for sweeter fruit will find that cooking them for just a few minutes on the stove with a tablespoon of water will mellow their flavor and turn them into something akin to pie filling without the added sweetener.