Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Fruit & Nut Trees

Short and Sweet

by Jack Ruttle

Gardeners who dream of planting fruit trees usually have sweet cherries right at the top of their list. The plump, glossy fruits are sweet and luscious. They ripen early in summer, when we are good and ready for a change from store-bought apples, oranges, and bananas. And cherries are so tender that really great ones are hard to get in the store.

For most of us, however, those bowls of sweet homegrown cherries have had to remain a dream because raising them has presented problems. The trees grow huge - 40 feet tall or more. Big trees are hard to pick, difficult to spray safely and impossible to net from birds. What's worse, to get cross-pollination, you needed to plant two of these giants, unless you restricted yourself to 'Stella', the only readily available self-fertile cherry variety, and even one 'Stella' tree is too big for most yards.

But suddenly, cherries have gotten a lot easier, This year there is very good news for anyone who wants to try his or her hand at sweet cherries. Finally, there is a rootstock that will keep the trees really small. "We're talking about trees that will be around 10 feet tall after 15 or 20 years," Bob Anderson, a sweet cherry breeder at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, told me recently. "You'll be able to pick and prune standing on the ground for a good part of the lifetime of the tree."

The relatively new rootstock is named Damil from Belgium. It's the first in a new wave of cherry root- stocks developed in Europe in the '60s and '70s that have been tested in the U.S. and Canada for the past 10 years. Darmil (technically called GM 61/1), available to gardeners this year, bears its first appreciable crops in its fourth and fifth seasons, a year or two earlier than standard cherry rootstocks do. The Gisela (ghee-se-la) rootstocks from Germany also produce trees that can be held to 10 feet or less. These rootstocks have commercial cherry growers even more excited because they bear so heavily and so quickly - in their third and fourth seasons.

Rich as Chocolate

You'll probably want to consider trees with more exotic fruit quality than the standards - 'Bing' in the West and 'Hedelfingen' in the East. That's not to say that those two varieties aren't excellent fruits, but there are richer flavors available.

Among connoisseurs, 'Lambert', a western variety, is a favorite. For the East, 'Kristin' and 'Ulster' have a similar flavor. Eating cherries like these is somewhat like eating chocolates. The strong cherry flavor and the tartness that goes with it, sometimes fatigue your tongue. A dozen of these high-powered cherries can taste like a lot.

What makes a variety suitable for the East versus the West, by the way, is its tendency to crack in rainy weather. This happens when moisture enters through the skin of the fruit, not the roots. Very sensitive varieties can split in the slightest drizzle or mist. Even in the relatively dry cherry districts in British Columbia and the western states, a bit of rain sometimes ruins part of the crop. The firm- and crisp-fleshed varieties are most likely to crack; soft-fleshed varieties resist cracking. In the East, you should grow only the most crack-resistant varieties. Westerners can grow pretty nearly anything they want.

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