Today is George Washington’s 282nd birthday, and my thoughts turn to cherry trees. Growing cherries for fruit is not an easy task in the Tennessee Valley region, as hot summer weather stresses the trees and leaves them susceptible to disease. Nevertheless, for the gardener willing to expend some extra effort, cherry trees will produce a delicious crop for a decade or more.
The most popular cherry variety in North America is ‘Montmorency,’ named for the region of France where this cultivar originated. Trees are available on dwarf rootstock, an important consideration for the home gardener because you will need to cover them with bird netting when the fruit begins to ripen. Otherwise, your feathered friends will get the lion’s share of the crop. Although Montmorency is self-fertile, plant two if you have the room, as cross-pollination will increase fruit set.
Sweet cherries are even less accommodating than sour varieties, but can be grown here with diligence. Care is the same as for sour cherries. Many varieties of sweet cherries exist.
Cherries need full sun and organically rich, well-drained soil. Waterlogged soil will kill them quickly. A layer of mulch around the base of the tree, extending to the drip line, is beneficial. Make sure you do not pile mulch at the crown of the tree, which encourages bark damage. Mulching the base helps to prevent bark damage from lawn mowers and string trimmers. Keeping the tree’s bark intact prevents infections.
Plant cherry trees anytime after fall dormancy and prior to spring bud swell. February is your last chance, in most years. After your cherry trees have been in the ground one full year, you should begin an annual pruning program. Prune during winter, and before the buds have broken dormancy. Aim for horizontally spreading branches with space between them. This promotes good air circulation and allows sun to penetrate into the canopy. Each year, prune out any drooping or weak branches. These won’t produce good fruit, anyway.
Brown rot is a fungus disease that is a problem for all types of cherries. Control is possible using sulfur sprays, which must be applied multiple times during the spring season. Brown rot is an important pathogen of all types of stone fruits, and numerous chemical controls are also available. Managing brown rot also means removing all unusable fruit from the trees at harvest time, rather than leaving it to drop, and scrupulously cleaning up plant debris and fallen leaves in the winter. Cherry debris should be burned, not composted, to help control the brown rot fungus.
Onion sets and cool season transplants are appearing in garden centers now. Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, along with onion sets, scallions, and leeks can go into the ground any time over the next month. The earliest plantings may be threatened by late cold snaps, so it is good idea to have a row cover available to toss over them, in case of severe cold. A light frost does no harm to established plants.
Sow pea seeds now for the earliest crop. Snow peas, snap peas and shelling peas all produce excellent crops in the Tennessee Valley, when planted early. Make sure to provide a sturdy trellis. Some varieties can grow over six feet tall.