Growing cherries is one of the true tests of your mettle as a gardener. The list of potential pitfalls is long –birds stealing the fruit, canker, fruit split, birds, pollination issues, vigorous growth, frost damage… oh, and did I mention birds, who will take great delight in stealing the fruit just before it is ripe enough for you to pick?
But time and time again we will persevere and try again because the fruit when it arrives is magnificent, a heady mix of sugary sweetness balanced with a tang of acidity, packed in a shiny globe of the deepest red. Henry VIII was so taken with them he set aside more than 100 acres in Kent for their production and ordered his gardeners to ‘propagate with greater vigor’ so he could enjoy more of the fruit he loved. Thankfully, today we don’t have to set aside that amount of land to be able to enjoy fresh cherries, and the range of varieties available means there is a viable option for every garden.
The most popular of the cherry types for growing at home these days is undoubtedly the sweet cherry. The past 50 years have seen huge advancements in both rootstock development and variety choice, so where once it was only possible if you had enough space for two 10m (33ft) tall trees, now you can taste your own home-grown cherries in a normal garden, allotment or even in a pot on a patio. The most dwarfing rootstock is Gisela 5 (or the slightly more vigorous Gisela 6), which is good if space is really tight, but the tree will need deep, fertile soil and a sheltered position to do well. Colt is more vigorous, but will tolerate a wider range of soils and colder, more exposed sites.
Acid cherries are the fruit of Prunus cerasus – thought to be a naturally occurring hybrid between two other Prunus species, which has then been selected and bred from over the past 2000 years. They were certainly grown by the Greeks and Persians, and like a lot of fruit were introduced into the UK by the Romans. They became a very popular crop, especially in Kent where they flourished in the chalk soils and enjoyed the proximity to the London markets. Up until 1930, there were more than 50 types of sour cherry in cultivation – with names such as ‘Kentish Red’, ‘Amarelles’ and ‘Flemish’. These days you will be lucky to find three varieties for sale – the ubiquitous ‘Morello’, the German variety ‘Rheinische Schattenmorelle’ and the newer introduction ‘Nabella’.
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