Spring is the kickoff to gardening season. It is also the time of year when we all have questions about our gardens.
Last week, a friend from Chicago emailed me the following questions about planting a sour cherry tree:
“My neighbors have a mature sour cherry tree, which produces wonderful fruit. Under the tree on my side of the fence, I’ve noticed some cherry seedlings, no doubt from fallen cherries. I want to transplant one of these seedlings to my front yard, but I’m wondering a few things.
“Is it likely that this seedling will grow into a tree that produces fruit of the same quality as my neighbor’s tree? Or am I more likely to get good fruit production from a tree from a nursery? The seedling is small — at the base about the thickness of my pinky finger. Would I be waiting years for fruit production, and be better off getting a 2-inch tree from a nursery? I’d like to plant the tree close to my house in front. How close is it prudent to plant a cherry tree to a century-old masonry foundation? My 10- by 15-foot front yard faces southwest and is shielded from the north by a two-story masonry building.”
The answer to the first part of my friend’s question is a bit hard to answer precisely. First let’s start with the fact that it is very likely that the seedling, if transplanted in early spring before it has broken dormancy, will grow just fine for him provided it is planted in a sunny location in well-drained soil.
Cherries do not like to grow in heavy, wet soil, nor do they grow well in shade. However his seedling may or may not produce fruit of the same quality or in the same quantity as his neighbors’ tree. This is because most fruit trees grown for production are varieties that have been selected specifically for their abundant fruit.
Nurseries specializing in producing fruit trees then take cuttings of these varieties and graft them onto either dwarf or full-sized rootstock. Grafting is a process in which a branch tip from the desired tree is spliced into the trunk of another tree. This splicing is done when the trunk of the rootstock tree is about the thickness of a pencil.
While the “parent” tree is chosen for its ability to produce abundant fruit, the “host” tree is chosen for its roots’ ability to produce a large tree (for those with a lot of space) or for its ability to grow a dwarf tree (for those with a limited amount of space).
My friend’s seedling is neither a selected variety nor one that is grafted onto a specific rootstock. He might end up with a tree that produces little to no fruit, one that produces the same amount as his neighbors’ tree, or if he is extremely lucky, one that produces more fruit. However, he will have to wait on average five to seven years to find out, and in all likelihood his tree will end up growing larger than the space he has for it.
His best bet would be to buy a sour cherry tree from a local garden center or an online nursery such as Stark Bro’s (www.starkbros.com/ ) or Gurney’s Seed and Nursery (www.gurneys.com). He would then be able to choose from a selection of different sour cherry varieties and would be purchasing a tree that is already several years old — considerably cutting down the wait time before baking his first cherry pie.
He would also be able to purchase a tree that was grafted onto dwarf rootstock, which would be a much better choice for his urban garden.
Regarding placement of the tree, he should locate it so that the tree receives as much sunlight as possible. In my opinion it is OK to plant trees near a house as long as they are kept pruned so that branches do not rub up against the house or do not grow over the roof. I have several large trees growing very close to my home but judicious pruning reduces the risk of damage from falling limbs. A tree’s roots, if given the choice, will grow out into soft soil rather than into a solid foundation.