You can still sow most of the vegetables I have mentioned in previous months (e.g. radishes, spinach, lettuce, courgettes, spring onions…) but here are some new ones that you have to wait until April for:
Cherries are fleshy drupes (stone fruits). There are sweet cherries (Prunnus avium) and sour/acid (Prunus cerasus). The English word ‘cherry’ derives from the classical Greek through the Latin cerasum, which referred to the ancient Greek place name Cerasus, today the city of Giresun in northern Turkey in the ancient Pontus region.
The harvesting of cherries extends through most of Europe, western Asia and parts of northern Africa, and the fruit has been consumed throughout its range since prehistoric times. A cultivated cherry, as well as the apricot is recorded as having been brought to Rome from northeastern Anatolia, also known as the Pontus region, in 72 BC. A form of cherry was introduced to England at Teynham, near Sittingbourne in Kent (Kent cherries are the most famous in the UK) due to the orders of Henry VIII who had tasted them in Flanders. There were once vast numbers of cherries grown in the UK but the manpower shortages during the world wars started a slide that was exacerbated by cheaper imports. As a consequence, we have lost 95% of our cherry orchards in 60 years. However, cherry trees are becoming a major growing market in the Middle East, Europe, North America and Austrailia, Turkey being most productive producing 480,748 of sweet cherries in 2012 and 187,941 sour ones in the same year. In France since the 1920s, the first cherries of the season come in April or May from the region of Ceret, where the local producers send, as a tradition since 1932, the first crate of cherries to the French president. In Australia, the New South Wales town of Young is called the ‘Cherry Capital of Australia’ and hosts the National Cherry Festival.
Over the last few decades, plant breeders have succeeded in developing smaller self-fertile trees, ideal for our back gardens as it dispenses then need for giant ladders and endlessly extendable tools like lopers.
Our sweet cherry trees we bought last winter are:
‘Stella’: A self-fertile, Canadian bred variety producing large dark fruits with an excellent sweet flavour. Highly recommended and popular. Large fruit in a blood red hue. Very productive but sensitive to cold. Harvested from mid-July -August.
‘Sunburst’: A late season eating cherry which produces large almost black fruits. Supposed to be very productive. Self Fertile. Crops earlier than ‘Stella’, from mid-July.
‘Merchant’: A large black, red early-season cherry with a good flavour. Self-sterile – requires a pollinator for a crop.
‘Hertford’: Requires a pollinator, self-sterile. Black coloured fruit, crops late-mid summer.
The sour cherry tree we own and harvested from for the first time this year since we bought it last January 2015 (and is probably the most famous, popular brand of sour cherry to purchase) is the ‘Morello’. For 400 years it has been the people’s favourite. The ‘Morello’ is self-fertile too and very popular for pie-makers. Harvesting often happens from late-August onwards. Sour cherries have twice as much vitamin C as sweet varieties, the trees are more likely to be ‘laden’ and are happy to face north or east.
All cherries are a target for feathered friends but sweet cherry’s Latin name, avium does mean ‘for the birds’. Net your trees with insect-friendly netting as soon as you see fruit starting to form after the blossoms. We had a couple of sweet cherries on our ‘Sunburst’ and the birds found them too quickly this year. We only got to net the ‘Morello’ and fortunately enjoyed all of the harvest for ourselves.
Sweet cherries love full sun while sour cherries do not mind a shady spot. Cherry blossom tends to form early and can be susceptible to frost damage so be prepared to carefully fleece their delicate blossom or to grow them is a sheltered position. Do remove or peg up the fleece during the day time to allow the insects to pollinate the blossom. Cherries like fertile, well-drained soil. Plant cherry trees in a a hole you have dug and fed with very well-rotted manure, compost and Blood, Fish and Bone or Bonemeal. Gently put the tree in the hole, up to where the knob is on the trunk, no higher. Firm the soil in very well around it by stamping with your feet. For dwarfing root-stocks plant them 2.5m from each other, for large ones 6m. Once planted, water well through dry periods. Put a ring of well-rotted manure, Blood, Fish and Bone and a layer of mulch around them in late winter/early spring (around March) to fertilise these shallow-rooting trees and to set them up for the fruiting season ahead. Do not let the manure touch the trunks of the trees, give them some space or it will wither burn the bark or encourage growth at the bottom of the tree which you don’t want, you want it all to be higher up.
Prune and train cherry trees like you would for any other stone fruit in the summer months. Aim for a goblet shape. They fruit in clusters at the base of year old stems and older wood so limit pruning of freestanding cherries to taking out dead and diseased or crossing branches after you have harvested. The disease silver leaf is common amongst cherry trees and finds its way in most easily on pruned branches. This can be reduced by pruning in summer when the rising sap prevents this disease from taking hold. Sour cherry trees are pruned like sweet cherries until the third year. They crop along the length of stems that grew the previous year so cut out a good amount of the older wood that is unproductive and this removal will encourage new growth that will fruit the following year.
Cherries naturally thin their fruit, dropping excess they feel incapable of carrying so you will not need to do any thinning out as you would with apples, plums or pears which feels heartbreakingly difficult. Do net them when they grow or the birds will swoop in at the first sign or ripening.
Bacterial canker and silver leaf are two diseases to be wary of, other than root rots so do be wary not to over-water the trees who detest being too wet (useful for England, yes?). Blackfly or black cherry aphid is another possibility which I had on my cherry tree leaves last year. Try wiping them of if you can as they cause the leaves to curl and promotes fungal growth on the fruit. At the fruiting stage in June and July, the cherry fruit fly may try to lay its eggs in immature fruit, causing fungal infection in the fruit after a rain shower.
Cherries are usually ready for eating in the second half of the summer season, depending on the weather and type of cherry tree. Pick them by their stalks in fry weather. Be careful to avoid bruising the fruit as it is so delicate. Cherries may keep in the fridge for up to a fortnight by the flavour will deteriorate and it is best to eat your sweet ones as soon as possible and to either cook your sour ones immediately or to freeze them. There is no need to remove the stones – unlike plums, once frozen cherry stones come out really easily. When defrosting them, remove them from the freezer for a few hours before cooking them and leave them to drain all of the excess liquid through a sieve into a bowl or cup. This juice can then be drank as a cherry aide.
Cherries don’t have a particularly high nutritional content. Dietary fibre and vitamin C are present in moderate content while other vitamins and minerals each supply less than 10% of the Daily Value. Sour cherries have a high content of vitamin C and A than sweet varieties. Despite this, science has proved that eating cherries is very good for you. Studies published suggest that drinking cherry juice is as good as taking prescribed drugs for lowering blood pressure. People who drank 60ml of cherry concentrate, diluted with water, saw their blood pressure drop by 7% within three hours, according to scientists at Northumbria University. This was enough to reduce the risk of a stroke by 38%or heart disease by 23%. Tart cherries contain two powerful compounds, anthocyanins and bioflavonoids. cherry consumption reduces several biomarkers associated with chronic inflammatory diseases, like gout and arthritis. There is even some scientific studies implying that eating cherries can help memory loss, reducing the symptoms of Alzheimers. Cherries are a natural source of melatonin, a hormone that helps control sleep. Studies suggest that particularly tart cherry juice can help one with insomnia sleep.
As I said, we only harvested our ‘Morello’ sour cherries this year, no sweet varieties available for trying out. I froze a couple of small bags worth and have used one so far. There are plenty of yummy ways to eat sweet cherries raw: think mixing them in fruit salads, yoghurts, ice cream sundae toppings, chocolate fondue or alongside some cheese and walnuts in a salad for a starter or main meal. You would be surprised how many ways there are to use sour cherries that need to be cooked to be eaten. Clafoutis, a batter with cherries and a dash of kirsch thrown in makes a delightful French pudding my mum loves. Stew them with brown sugar to make a compote to eat for breakfast, dessert or as a snack, or even alongside trout, I have read of before. Or use the compost to mix into homemade ice cream to make cherry ice cream or mix in with yoghurt to make frozen cherry yoghurt. For my first adventure with our homegrown sour cherries, I went for the inevitable: cake.
Yoghurt cakes have an amazing texture and the slight sour taste really does accompany the cherries brilliantly, giving the cake flavour. Everyone was very complimentary at the result. I was a little stingy on how many cherries I used, 150g, but feel free to add in more. You can probably change the fruit as well. I can imagine blueberries, perhaps pears or plums or another stone fruit like apricots or nectarines being complimentary with the cake. I have used this recipe before with a bag of frozen cherries bought from Sainsbury’s a couple of years ago which did work after a long time of defrosting so it does not have to specifically be sour cherries, it can be sweet – sour will just give you that extra magic flavour.
Preheat the oven 180C. Grease and line a 20cm deep cake tin with baking parchment.
In a bowl, beat the butter and the sugar together until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs together and then gradually add them to the butter mixture, whisking well to thoroughly combine them.
Mix in the Greek yoghurt followed by the flour and baking powder.
Pour the mixture into the cake tin and scatter the fruit on top (do not press them into the mixture otherwise they will sink to the bottom of the cake during the cooking process. Scattering them allows some to sink a little and some to remain on the top). Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre leaves clean. Leave the cake in the tin for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool.
Serve in slices either plain, with a large dollop of Greek yoghurt, ice cream or cream. Store in an air-tight container for up to three days.