Best cherries for summer fruit in Canberra

Owen Pidgeon
Treat time: A bountiful crop of cherries this year.
Treat time: A bountiful crop of cherries this year. 

There is a wonderful crop of cherries for many growers this summer. So many potential problems with getting to the harvest, such as too much rain, hail, bird attacks means that the saying ``don't count your chickens before they hatch" applies as much to cherry orchardists as to poultry breeders.

There are just a few main cherry growing centres in Australia and the district of Young is probably the biggest of them all.  In Canberra, we have a small harvest which is close to three weeks later than Young. The colder winters and lower temperatures during the spring months has  a big impact on timing. 

Our crop is also looking pretty good and we have many large clusters of cherries on trees that have been producing only a small random handful in recent years. Some trees have yielded 20-25 kg. We are now into the harvest of the mid season varieties, such as Supreme and Van with our two current Italian helpers, Sara Bigatti and Chiara Cattaneo who come from the city of Bergamo. All the overseas young people find it very strange to be picking cherries when the snow is beginning to fall in their countries prior to Christmas.

Yummy treat: Danish cherry cake.
Yummy treat: Danish cherry cake. 

Our modest crop is destined for the Capital Region Farmers Market in Canberra. We join several large growers from Young selling at this market. We have the distinction of being the only local grower and the only certified organic grower at these markets.

To grow your own cherries is a real possibility even in your backyard but you do require four aspects to be perfect (or near perfect). Cherries need a good, cold winter as they are have high chill hours rating for bud and flower setting the following spring. 

As well, along with other stone fruit, cherry trees do not like to have ``wet feet". You need to provide good drainage or else trees will die off one late winter when they become waterlogged. 

The third requirement is adequate space. Cherry trees can grow to 6-8 metres tall and they can spread to more than three metres in diameter. And as all cherry trees need cross pollination, apart from the self pollinating Stella, then you will need to have sufficient space for a minimum of two or three trees.

Of course you can restrict the overall size of the tree by strategic pruning but as cherry trees are very prone to infections around pruned wood, you should restrict all pruning of cherry trees until mid summer, after the crop is harvested. This allows the cuts to dry out quickly andseal themselves naturally. Cherry trees are also prone to bacterial canker in wet seasons. This can cause major die back in the trunk. 

The one major pest problem is the slimy black pear and cherry slug. This pest does not eat the cherries but munches through copious numbers of cherry leaves, leaving skeleton leaves. This can be managed by an application of the natural pyrethrum spray.  

In home gardens there is one other major issue: visiting birds. The joy of birdlife in the wooded suburbs of Canberra is a real challenge for backyard cherry growers. There is really just one solution: netting. Good rural supply places, such as the Hall Stockfeeds and Rural Supplies, keep rolls of the white bird netting that is used by orchardists and vignerons. Buy a sufficiently large length of netting to allow you to not only drape over the entire tree but to leave a reasonable amount lying on the ground around the perimeter of the tree. Some pesky birds, like starlings, seem to manage to crawl under netting if it is just touching the ground. 

Specialist nurserymen have brought into Australia, through the quarantine system, a wide selection fruit trees, including cherries, from other fruit growing countries.  It is part of being in a global village these days. The importing nurseries have undertaken trials to validate their success when grown under Australian conditions.  

Ferprime is an excellent early maturing variety from Bordeaux in France. It complements our early Burgsdorf cherry that came originally from Switzerland. 

The standout mid season variety is the large, sweet Bing cherry, from Oregon in US. We have a number of Bing trees planted 20 years ago and they make up the bulk of our mid December harvest.  Black Star and Grace Star are two mid season large, juicy cherries that have been brought into Australian in recent years. They come from the Arboriculture department at the University of Bologna in Italy. Merchant is a sweet tasting cherry from Norwich, England. 

Late season cherry varieties that have become available include Regina from the Jork Experiment Farm in Germany and Kordia is another excellent dark red cherry from Techlovice in the Czech Republic. 

Summerlands in British Columbia has bred a number of excellent varieties of cherries, along with its apple breeding program. They include the self pollinating Stella, the mid-season large dark flesh Salmo cherry and the late season Lapins.

Danish cherry cake

250g pitted fresh cherries
200g butter
2/3 cup sugar
3 free range eggs
1¾ cups S.R. flour
1 tsp baking powder
50g almonds
2 kiwifruit

Preheat oven to 175C. Grease a 23cm round cake tin. Chop the almonds quite finely. Pip and cut the cherries into halves. Peel and chop up the kiwi fruit into small pieces. 

Warm the butter and beat it, adding in the sugar gradually. Beat until creamy then add in the eggs, one at a time. Sift the flour adding in the baking powder. Slowly add the flour to the mixture. Mix in the almond pieces, two thirds of the cherries and the kiwifruit. Pour the cake mixture into the cake tin and then place the remaining cherry halves on top. Bake for 40- 50 minutes. 

This week in the garden 

• Remember to water deeply in the early morning or late evening. A good thick layer of sugar cane or pea straw mulch or chopped up lucerne hay will  help wonderfully with moisture retention.  

• Plant out some dwarf beans, beetroot and lettuce and bok choy if you will be staying around Canberra. Otherwise wait until you return from holidays to get new vegetables started. 

• Hill up around potatoes and keep them well watered, so the plants will become bushy and stay strong.

• Keep picking tip leaves off basil plants to promote ongoing growth. Plant basil next to tomato plants as they are very good companion plants.

• Turn over the stems of onions that are close to being fully mature. This will prevent the plants producing top heads and help keep the nutrients for the heart of the onion.  Harvest when the stems have dried out.

• If you have apple trees, take time to check your apples for any signs of the codling moth burrowing into the fruit. The little piles of ``sawdust" are the giveaway sign. Remove and dispose of any infected fruit.

Owen Pidgeon runs the Loriendale Organic Orchard near Hall.