February Plant of the Month: Bush Cherry

Part of creating a sustainable garden is looking for ways to grow your own food. It puts less stress on our global food systems, fewer food miles on our food, and gets us all closer to what we eat.

I’m fortunate that a lot of edibles grow in my climate and I’m always trying to squeeze in another plant that provides food as well as beauty. Last year, I planted a new variety of fruit in my yard with the addition of two Bush cherries - Prunus fruticosa x Prunus cerasus 'Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’. These two are also February’s Plant of the Month.

I’m sure I’m not the only gardener who has dreamed of having a cherry tree or two in my yard. Am I the only one who has dreamt of making a scrumptious cherry pie with homegrown cherries? But, my suburban yard is not quite big enough. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say I only had so much room so I had to force rank the fruit trees and apple, pear, and fig were higher up on the list :) Regardless, I was ecstatically happy when I discovered cherries also come in bush form!!

If you are planting them for ornamental or wildlife purposes only, you definitely won’t be disappointed. As I mentioned above, the deer, birds, and bees love these bushes. In spring, their new leaves have a soft, velvety texture I love. Their white to pink flowers are a beautiful addition to the spring garden and attract the pollinators like crazy! In summer, the leaves keep their rich green color, and in fall the leaves turn a gorgeous rainbow of colors from yellow to orange to red.

The bushes mature at about 5-6’ tall and wide, a much more manageable size for urban gardens. At that height it also means no ladder required for picking fruit! You could even grown them in pots like the picture below! They do require a minimum of six hours of sun to do their best. Plant them in rows away from walls or fences because you’ll want to be able to access all sides of the plants for fruit picking and pruning. They are adaptable to many soil types. If you do decide to fertilize them, do it early in the season. Water consistently throughout the growing season.

These plants are exciting because they have three-season interest, plus edible fruits! These ornamental edible bushes can yield up to 25 pounds of fruit each and the fruit has a sugar content that is above that of sweet cherries! The fruits are a bit smaller than those on a pie cherry tree, but pack a very sweet punch. Fruits ripen between late July and early September, depending on the specific variety and the weather.

There are several varieties of bush cherries. They were developed in Canada in the 1940s, but have been relatively rare in the nursery trade until further development was done in the 1980s, resulting in a cross between a Mongolian cherry and a dwarf tree form. The result was a smaller, sweeter, hardier plant called 'Carmine Jewel' that soon gained popularity amongst homeowners. In 2005, the Romance series of bush cherries was released and included five different varieties: ‘Valentine’, ‘Cupid’, ‘Crimson Passion’, ‘Romeo’, and ‘Juliet’. Although it is difficult to find all five of these varieties at your local nursery, the ‘Romeo’ and ‘Juliet’ varieties seem to be the most readily available here in the U.S. If you aren’t able to find them, ask a nursery employee if they can order some for you.

They do well all they way down to zone 2 so are extremely cold hardy, and have very few insect or disease problems. The only pest I have had to tackle is deer. They love the tender leaves in spring and the fruits in summer. I have only occasional grazing in the spring and so far have not had them do more than eat a few of the tender leaves off the top. The deer do, however, take more than their fair share of the fruits! Birds are also a challenge once the fruits have set. Somehow the birds always know just when those fruits are ripe!! I cover the bushes after the flowers are pollinated to retain as much fruit as possible. So far the fruit has been very little but I was honestly surprised to get any the first year I planted them. I expect more fruit each year and based on my research, expect somewhere close to the 25 pounds advertised by the third or fourth year.

These plants require minimal pruning, mostly just removing branches that are crossing each other or a dead or diseased branch if needed. Pruning should be done in late winter or early spring, after freezing temperatures are over. You can also prune in the summer after fruiting for size and shape. Use techniques similar to pruning blueberry bushes for best results.

Give bush cherries a try in your yard. They are a gift that keeps on giving! Happy sustainable gardening!

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