When planning our new cherry orchard three years ago, I considered several factors. First in importance was to control tree size. Until five years ago, this was not possible. The only cherry rootstocks available were vigorous in the extreme. In fact, the Queen Anne cherry tree on the farm when Pam, Reuwai and I came here in 1975 was over 30 feet tall! Our tallest ladder was only 28 feetâ€”it took two very strong men to put it up and picking from the top of that ladder was really “exciting.”
Such ladders were made from basswood, used for its strength and lightness. We bought our ladders from the Seelye Ladder Company in upstate New York. Twenty-five years ago they were still able to find some tall basswood trees. It is almost impossible to find them today. Most orchard ladders today are made of spruce that is heavier and not as strong.
We picked Queen Annes for a few years, but the annual race with the birds usually ended up with us the losers and the birds full of ripe cherries. With such a large tree, protective netting was out of the question. Hence, controlling the size of the new cherry trees was a major consideration for us.
About three years ago, size-controlling rootstocks became available. These were developed in Germany and are now called “Gisela” rootstocks. Consequently, it is possible to plant a cherry tree that is easily covered with bird netting and stays short enough to be picked without the use of ladders.
Second in importance was to choose cherry varieties resistant to cracking. Unfortunately, many cherries such as Bing and Ranier can absorb water through the skin when a rainstorm occurs during the seven to ten day period before harvest. This causes the cherry to swell rapidly, the skin to crack, and the fruit to decay. Because of this problem, most cherries in North America are grown in the desert-like climates of the State of Washington and British Columbia. Most of the time, the dry climate allows the cherries to get to harvest without cracking.
My friend Jake Van Westin of Penticton, British Columbia, grows about 35 acres of cherries. Even though rain is infrequent, he hires a helicopter pilot to remain on standby for the two-week period prior to harvest every year. If rain occurs, the helicopter flies slowly back and forth over Jake’s cherry orchards, blowing raindrops off the fruit to save the crop. And, if another shower comes along, the pilot goes right back over again!
But, alas, this technique just does not make sense for our one acre of cherries. Instead, we planted crack-resistant varieties of cherries. They absorb less water and are less affected by rain.
A final factor is that cherry season is short and sweet. Each variety of cherry is ready to be picked in the space of about three days. To spread out the harvest time a little, we have planted eleven varietiesâ€”Ulster, Lapins, Somerset, Hedelfingen, Hudson, Hartland, Chelan, Schmidt, Regina, Rainer (yellow blush) and Montmorency (tart variety for cooking and baking) â€”each with a slightly different maturity date. In this way, we were able to lengthen the picking season. Keep in mind, though, that cherry season goes by fast. If you wait until “next weekend” to pick cherries, you may be too late. And, this June, towards the end of the month, picking will be “ready, set, go,” because the season is still “short and sweet.”
Don’t forget to check out our cherry recipes.