It wouldn’t be summer in Adelaide without cherries.

They adorn our Christmas tables and holiday fruit bowls and, while you can buy them all year round, there’s nothing like our locally grown ones for flavor. Phillip Marriott is a South Australian cherry grower who know all about it!

Growing over 5000 cherry trees on his Montecute farm, there’s a lot to grow top cherries.

How do you pick a cherry?

It is a flicking action – it is very important to keep the stem attached to the cherry as this makes the cherry last a lot longer.

If a home gardener has a cherry tree without much fruit. What’s likely to be the problem?

Cherry trees need “chill” over winter to produce fruit. Older varieties need a lot of chill (up to 1200 hours below 9 degrees C). Some of the newer varieties need a lot less – so ask your nursery if they will grow in your area. We have plenty of chill here in the Adelaide Hills.

Many cherry trees need to be pollinated by a cherry tree of a different variety to produce fruit. Even the varieties that are “self-fertile” do much better if they are pollinated by another tree of the same variety. Ask your nursery and plant more than one cherry tree so that correct pollination occurs.

If you have a small yard get together with your neighbours and get your pollination right. Bees are also very important in this process.
Weather must play an important part in getting the harvest right

What pests do cherry trees get?

Our main pests are Cherry slug and Aphids.

Our main diseases are bacterial canker (an infection of the wood) and fungal outbreaks.

What about birds?

Two choices – you either agree to share your fruit with the birds or you cover your trees with nets.

You are in the process of Organic Certification – what does this mean?

It means changes to the way we look after our trees. We mow the grass between the rows and we will continue to do this.

But, previously, we managed the grass under the trees by using herbicide – now we use a combination of Shropshire Sheep and Geese to manage the grass – the bonus is they turn it into fertilizer which they spread around the orchard in their travels.

But don’t the sheep eat the trees?

Conventional wisdom says don’t put sheep in orchards because they eat the trees. We use a heritage breed of sheep called the Shropshire – they are very popular in Europe and are used extensively in Apple orchards and Pine plantations

Sadly there are less than 300 left in Australia – and we, with the help of a network of breeders, are trying to build up their numbers. They have short necks and legs, big bodies, and have difficulty lifting their heads (they look like rugby players) so they mainly eat the grass in front of them and leave the trees. Geese are vegetarians and love grass and weeds and they help out the sheep.

What about insect pests?

We used to spray insecticides but now we are trialling Ducks and Chickens in the orchard – their job is to eat the insects that hide in the leaf litter during winter. Oh and ladybirds eat the aphids so we no longer kill them with pesticides.

How do you prune a cherry tree?

There are a number of different ways – we use a variation of the Spanish Bush technique in this orchard. The cherry tree wants to be a tree with a central trunk – we turn it into a vase shaped bush – so that it can absorb the maximum amount of sun (growing fruit is all about “harvesting the sun”), so all of the fruit buds are in sunlight otherwise they die in the shade.

We have to keep pruning it each year because it wants to turn back into a tree, so we are always cutting out the thick wood and promoting new branches. The best cherries grow on 3-5 year old wood so old wood is unproductive.

We prune twice a year. If a tree need to be “revved up” to produce more wood we do early spring cuts.

If a tree needs “calming down” to remove old wood we do summer cuts. We always “go in hard” and are never timid with our pruning. Our tool of choice is the chain saw followed by the lopper and hand saw – rarely do we use secateurs.

Look at the base of the tree when pruning and never the top – because if you get the base right the top mostly looks after itself (but not always so reluctantly you are allowed to trim the top a little bit).

Also if you adopt a pruning system – stick to it.

What advice would you give on how to grow a healthy cherry tree at home?

Focus on the soil, keep the organic content high (carbon) – use mulches and manures (and gypsum if the soil is clay) – water well over summer but make sure the location is well drained – cherry trees hate having “wet feet” – that’s why the steep slopes here on the farm work so well.

The most important time to fertilise is in summer – that is when the tree sets itself up to produce fruit. Fertilising in Spring is too late and does little to help the cherries grow.

Seasonal eating always give you the best flavours. The only problem with Phil’s delicious Adelaide Hills cherries…. is knowing when to stop.


About The Author

In the Garden is an exciting new local South Australian TV program on Channel 9 this Summer & next Autumn showcasing the best ‘green’ stories this state has to tell. Check out the latest in garden trends, new plants and top tips to keep those gardens blooming.