How to Grow Bing Cherry Trees in Arizona
In the cherry blossom's shade there's no such thing as a stranger.
- Kobayashi Issa
Difficult, but Not Impossible
Though I have attempted to grow cherries in Southern Arizona, my Bing planted at two years old died at age six of a rot. I was able to get two cherry crops. Follow the notes on fungus control with dormant oil, and you shouldn't have that problem. The fruit is one of my favorites (especially Bing), and I can never get rid of the picture in my mind of the beautiful pink flowers of the cherry trees along the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. It is fruit bearing and beautiful, like the gorgeous blossoms of the peach tree which I have successfully grown for many years in Superior, Arizona (3000 feet). Cherry trees are grown in upper Arizona, and some have had success in the Phoenix valley, but they require a frost. Sour cherry (Montmorency) and sweet cherries (Bing) are reported to be the best varieties to plant to maximize chances of success.
The cherry does enjoy the warmth, but the extreme heat of the desert makes it difficult to grow the cherry. When a designation of upper Arizona is made for success in growing, that would be north of Maricopa County. The Southern Arizona heat is just too much for easily raising cherry trees. However, there are reports of people successfully growing these trees in the south in their yards. Further, I would assume that the trees have been planted in a way to be exposed partly to the noon sun or are planted in a shaded area that is a bit cooler. One last cherry tree type recommended is the Cherry of the Rio Grande. This tree is reported to grow well in the Phoenix valley.
Soil Alkalinity or Acidity
One of the reasons cherry trees may need extra care in planting in Southern Arizona is that they need a specific ph (acid or alkali) in the soil. Many areas of the desert southwest are very low in acid content. Indeed, many gardeners add lots of manure and other agents to decrease the pH. Sweet and sour cherries are reported as successful in the desert climes of Arizona including Montgomery and Bing. They can also be difficult to grow.
I have brought up a Bing Cherry in Superior, Arizona (altitude 3000 feet and only a few degrees cooler than the Phoenix Valley, which is HOT!). The tree was six years old and appeared to be thriving with a small crop at age four and five. The trees like full sun, although even farther south than Superior, perhaps the Tucson area, the heat might be such that the tree would need a bit of shade before the end of the day. On this point, I am not certain, but the difficulty reported as far as raising cherry trees in the desert is probably ph or extreme heat. The heat is often called "Hellish." And also, cherry trees need a cold winter. They also do not like a late frost. Arizona can give the cold winter, and the likelihood of a late frost is slim. We get an average of 2" of snow a year in Superior, but we are in the middle eastern part of Arizona. Judge accordingly.
Stone fruit trees in Arizona are susceptible to fungal infection. One must not let one's tree stand in pooling water. The water must be absorbed, so roots do not sit in water. In my experience, the only plant that has been infected by fungus has been a large Oleander which has wilt. A disease called verticillium wilt is caused by the Verticillium Albo-atrum Fungus. This particular fungus clogs up the roots which inhibits the absorption of water; hence the wilt. I am pretty certain that if you do not soak the cherry to the point of sitting in a pool of water that cannot be absorbed, you will be ok.
The best recommendations I have found for hole size is two to three feet deep. I refer to recommendations because as a gardener in Arizona, my six-year-old cherry tree passed, but I thoroughly enjoyed two small crops of about 30 cherries each before its demise. Hole diameter should be up to two feet. Take into consideration the age of the tree and the planting directions coming with the plant. One reason I shop at Wal-Mart for plants is not just because of the price, although that is important, but because all the plants have directions for best planting and sun requirements. Common sense dictates that if the tree is two years old (like mine was), you will want to protect it from extreme wind by staking it.
I have had much trouble with birds eating my peaches. I have used netting successfully but with one downfall. It is true that birds can be injured with the netting. Alternatives to netting to discourage birds are available. Cherry trees are reportedly just as susceptible. At the same time, thankfully, I have not had that much trouble with insects, although I use an all-season emollient (oil) after the leaves have fallen off as a safeguard. I did the same with the cherry tree. Insect infestation tends to be less of a problem, according to experts than other places due to the heat of the desert. So far, that has held true for my stone fruit trees, but as I have said, I am now reporting what I have learned from others, not necessarily from experience (which I do have with apricot and peach, and to some extent cherries). The two types of cherry trees listed above (Bing and Montgomery) seem to be the best for Arizona.
The Importance of Soil/Nutrition
As far as nutrition, bone meal applied to the bottom of the hole works. I use steer manure. One must be careful to mix it up with the desert soil; otherwise, the material in the hole may be too organic, hold too much water too long, and lead to rot. When reading the literature on stone fruit, you will often read about them not liking wet feet. Without any scientific facts to back me up, I customarily apply two (2) heaping shovelsful of composted steer manure to the bottom of the hole. Then, I mix the natural desert soil about 1/3 manure and screened 2/3 natural soil. At this point, you have to take my word for it as this hasn't seemed to hurt the peach or the apricot and they are growing well. In all honesty, I use the same formula for planting trees in Arizona that are not native to the desert southwest. As far as nutrients required, cherry trees need nitrogen. I use ammonium nitrate, and ammonium sulfate purchased at the garden store and scratched into the soil beneath the tree. Follow the directions on the bag. If you want a much more exact way to gauge how much nitrogen is applied, see http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07612.html. Cherry tree fertilization should be at a rate of 2 oz. of nitrogen per inch of trunk diameter, measured 12 inches above the surface ground.
One must also be cognizant of the fact that some cherry trees are cross-pollinating. Inquire at your nursery about your type of cherry.
In general, pruning cherry trees is not recommended, especially in desert climates, during the summer. Younger foliage can actually get sunburnt. In addition, growth is inhibited at this time. Pruning stone fruit trees, including the cherry, is very important. It in part determines fruit yield and growth. The trunk of a cherry tree grows straight up; it is the main trunk with limbs coming out the side, no doubt about it. Between limb, levels should be a space of two feet. For the tree to stay healthy and produce fruit, it must get enough light. The two-foot requirement assures this. Later in the winter is the proper time to prune. I believe that the first level of branches should be about a yard from the surface of the hole. Growing to the side provides more light and hence, nutrition, which will mean greater fruit production. Some experts encourage tying the branches down to encourage outward growth. That is more than I want to do but may give better yields. The key here is that you do not want the branches growing parallel to the main trunk. Consider pruning those or pulling them down to train to grow horizontal to the main trunk.
Insects Can Bug You
As for insects, the bugs that attack the cherry in the desert are peachtree borer or cherry fruit flies. Malathion or Sevin will deal with the fruit flies. Follow the directions on the bottle. I use a dormant oil (all season oil, too) to repel aphids, mites, and scale. My favorite choice is Ortho's Flower, Fruit & Vegetable Insect Killer. It is particularly effective on caterpillars, aphids, and thrips. I don't know if thrips are a problem in Arizona, but caterpillars and aphids are. In 2012, we seemed to have a plague of small butterflies laying eggs on plants. The caterpillars suck the leaves dry, this Ortho product solved the problem, and the foliage has come back green and healthy. I haven't had the problem with my stone fruit trees, but the aforementioned caterpillars were small and black. They also left waste product on the stems. The product is fruit tree safe. Follow the bottle directions. Endosulfan 50W is reported to control peach borer, an insect that also attacks cherry trees.
There are also many "home remedies" for repulsing insects. I have heard that putting chewing tobacco in a tub of water and letting it form a tea and then spraying will repel aphids. Though I have not tried it on the cherry tree, it did work on my squash one season in Arizona. If you want more information on natural remedies just Google "natural repellents that are homemade miticides." Based on my searches for information to maximize my chances of success with cherry blossom trees in Arizona, the sour cherry varieties of trees seem most susceptible to bacterial infections. Do not spray off the cherry tree leaves with water even if it seems there is an accumulation of dust from spring through summer. Allow water on leaves to dry.
Viral infection mainly occurs in sour cherry yellows. This infection is common, but I am not sure of the probability of occurrence in Southern Arizona. Fruit gets spoiled, and leaves turn yellow when this attacks. My personal unscientific belief is that a routine application of all-season oil can't hurt and might help prevent this infection. Viral infections are difficult to fight with chemical applications, the best way to relieve yourself of the worry of viral infection is to grow a hearty tree using all the recommendations above to maximize growth, health, and fruit production, and use dormant oil.
Flowering cherry trees can be a natural draw to the eye in a yard. The blossoms are hard to beat as far as a focus for beauty. In addition to all the other flowering trees in Arizona in your yard, you have this springtime flower and the prospect for delicious cherry fruit throughout the summer.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2014 John R Wilsdon