The beginning of July means that sour cherry season is almost here. Sour cherries are bright red, jeweled fruits that are exceptionally tart and acidic, yet delicious when made into jams, jellies, syrups, ice creams and baked goods.
When ripe, the juicy fruit practically falls off the tree into your hand, making it easy to fill many pints without making a dent in the tree’s crop. The most difficult part is finding a stable raised surface to reach these stone fruits.
Sour cherries are self-fruitful, so if you are interested in growing one, you only need one tree to start. Pick a site with sun for 6 to 8 hours that is well-drained and has good airflow. The best time to plant is in the spring before budbreak.
Varieties that grow well in Vermont include Montmorency, North Star and Meteor. If planting more than one tree, space them 15 to 25 feet apart, depending on the variety size.
As the cherry trees get older, they should be pruned in early spring while they are still dormant. Pruning helps the tree maintain a healthy branching structure and helps allow light to reach the fruit.
The technique of pruning can be tricky to learn at first. The Cornell Guide to Growing Fruit at Home is a great place to learn more about pruning fruit trees and includes diagrams that illustrate pruning concepts.
Sour cherries make spectacular pies and jams. The tartness of the cherries is tamed with sugar and fat, creating a unique, enjoyable tasting experience. The most difficult part is removing the pits from the cherries.
The cherries are acidic, so I like to wear disposable gloves while pitting them to protect my hands. Using a paring knife or a cherry pitter tool, carefully remove the pit from each cherry. This is important to do carefully.
This task will take the bulk of your time working with sour cherries, but it is worth it in the end. The cherries can be used immediately or frozen for up to a year.
Many orchards in Vermont offer u-pick sour cherries. This is a great way to get to know the fruit and see how you like it. Farmers markets may have pints of sour cherries for sale as well.
Interested in growing your own sour cherry tree? Check out local fruit nurseries for these and other unique fruiting trees and shrubs, many of them native.
(Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a University of Vermont Extension master gardener and landscape architect from central Vermont.)