Planting more than one cherry pit is the best practice because not all of the pits germinate. If you want to grow sweet cherry trees, then save pits from two sweet cherry varieties that bloom at about the same time -- such as "Bing" and "Rainier," which are hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9, or "Black Tartarian," perennial in USDA zones 5 through 7 -- so the resulting trees will be able to pollinate each other when they become mature. You need only one sour cherry tree variety, such as "Montmorency" or "Early Richmond," both hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9, because sour cherries are self-pollinating. Clean the pits thoroughly to remove all traces of fruit pulp. If you can't plant the pits directly afterward, then spread them on a paper towel. Once they are thoroughly dry, store them in a paper envelope or covered jar until you wish to plant them. If you plan to begin stratification of the pits right away, soak the pits overnight first.
You can plant the fruit pit, or seed, from a cherry tree (Prunus spp.), but the tree that grows from it will differ from the one that supplied the fruit. Because most grocery stores' fruits from sweet cherry trees (Prunus avium) and sour cherry trees (Prunus cerasus) are harvested from hybrid orchard cultivars, trees that grow from the pits of those fruits aren't true to the parent trees. Also, a cherry seedling may take seven to 10 years to fruit while grafted trees generally fruit in three to seven years. Orchard cherry trees vary in hardiness from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9.
The pits of sweet cherries require both warm stratification and cold stratification to sprout. If you live in an area that experiences chilly winters, you can plant sweet cherry tree pits outdoors in early summer to provide four months of warm stratification. Four months of cold stratification will naturally follow during late autumn and winter. The pits should then germinate in spring. Pits of sour cherry varieties need only four months of cold stratification. So you can wait until fall to plant them outdoors if you prefer.
Outdoor Stratification and Planting
After their overnight soak, cherry pits that will be started outdoors should be planted while they are still damp in an open, sunny, outdoor area with fast-draining, sandy loam. First, however, apply 1 bushel of compost for every 40 square feet of planting ground to supply nutrients for the seedlings that will develop from the pits, and incorporate the compost into the soil to a depth of 1 foot. Then plant sweet cherry tree pits 3/8 inch deep or sour cherry pits 1 inch deep in the ground, spacing them about 12 inches apart. Preventing the pits from being bothered by rodents such as chipmunks requires covering the planting area with hardware cloth and pushing the cloth's edges and ends several inches into the soil to discourage the animals from digging under it. Remove the hardware cloth in spring when the seedlings begin to emerge, and keep their soil lightly damp. The seedlings can be left in place for at least one year but eventually need to be transplanted to stand 20 feet apart if they are standard-size sour cherries and 20 to 25 feet apart if they are standard-size sweet cherries.
Indoor Stratification and Planting
If you prefer to start your cherry pits indoors, drain them after their overnight soak and place the moist pits in a zipper-type plastic bag or covered jar along with one or two handfuls of damp sand or peat moss – or a mixture of those two mediums. If the pits are sweet cherry varieties, then zip the bag shut or cap the jar, place it on a warm shelf for four months and then at the back of a refrigerator for an additional four months. The shelf step is skipped when stratifying pits of sour cherry varieties; their zipped bag or capped jar simply needs to be put in a refrigerator in early winter and left there for four months. After the cold stratification period ends, plant the pits in individual tree pots filled with damp seed-starting mix, covering the sweet cherry type with 3/8 inch of the mix and the sour cherry type with 1 inch of it. The pots need to be on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights at a temperature near 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If you keep their mix moist, the pits may begin to germinate as soon as two weeks after being sown.
- Woody Plant Seed Manual; U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service
- Penn State Extension: Growing New Fruit Tree Plants from Seed
- University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service: Growing Illinois Trees from Seed
- Sheffield's Seed Co.: Prunus
- Dave Wilson Nursery: Cherries
- Stark Bro's: How Many Years Until Your Tree Bears Fruit?
- New Mexico State University Extension/Outreach: Southwest Yard and Garden, July 14, 2001, Issue
- Arbor Day Foundation: Fruit Tree Spacing Guide
- Second Supplement to Seed Germination Theory and Practice; Norman C. Deno
- Photo Credit MarenWischnewski/iStock/Getty Images
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