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How To Fix Brown Leaves on Cherry Trees

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I have a dwarf bing cherry tree and recently, a few of its leaves are turning brown. I wanted to find out what’s causing it and how I could fix it, so I did some research. Here’s what I found.

Cherry tree leaves usually turn brown from improper watering, weather stress, or diseases such as leaf spot. The easiest way to tell what’s causing the brown leaves is to check if they’re solid or spotted brown. If they’re solid, it’s likely a watering or weather issue. If they’re spotted, it’s likely a disease.

So, while cherry trees can get brown leaves from several different issues, how can we tell exactly what’s causing it, and how can we fix it? Let’s check out some more details.

a blooming cherry tree with brown leaves

Over or Under-Watering

Over and under-watering cherry trees are common reasons why they get brown leaves. Compared to other causes, watering is also the easiest to test. For best results, check that the soil is well-draining, only provide water when the first 2-4 inches of soil are dry, and apply 2 inches of each compost and mulch.

Over-Watering

Over-watering a cherry tree is fairly easy to do, especially in areas that have poor soil drainage. Poor drainage is common with heavy clay soils and flood zones.

If your cherry tree is left in the waterlogged soil for too long, its roots will start to drown and rot. Nutrient uptake in the roots will become blocked, and fungus will spread in the wet soil. Over days to weeks, the fungus (also called root rot) will eat the roots and the tree’s health will decline. Leaves will then begin to droop, turn brown, and finally fall off.

The good news is that over-watering isn’t too difficult to prevent and treat. And a good way to tell if your cherry tree is over-watered is by using the finger test.

The best way to water cherry trees is to first check the soil. Push a finger into the soil, up to the second knuckle. If the soil is dry, water it. If the soil is sopping wet 1 or more hours after watering, the soil likely needs to be amended.

Another way to check the soil’s drainage is to dig a hole near the cherry tree (dig outside of the tree’s canopy to avoid damaging its shallow roots). The hole should be 1-foot in diameter and 1-foot deep. Fill the hole with water and see how fast it drains. If there’s still a puddle after 1 hour, the soil needs to be amended for better drainage.

If you do find that the soil is draining poorly, you can amend it by applying 2 inches of sand on top of the soil, under the tree’s canopy. Over time, the sand will work into the soil, breaking up the larger clumps of soil and promoting drainage.

You can also elevate the tree by planting it on a mound, hill, or raised bed. By being higher than the rest of the ground, gravity will assist in pulling the excess water out of the soil.

On the other hand, potted cherry trees will generally already have good soil drainage if you use a good potting mix. I prefer using Espoma’s organic potting mix for my fruit trees. You can find Espoma’s organic potting mix on Amazon.

However, if you’re unable to amend the soil in time to save the cherry tree, you can always relocate it or repot it with fresh soil. For example, I repotted my Kaffir lime tree when it had root rot (which was easily noticeable from the wet and swampy-smelling soil) and the tree started recovering immediately.

Keep in mind that moving or repotting your cherry tree can likely result in transplant shock, which can cause more stress to the tree. Because of this, keep transplanting as a last-resort solution.

Under-Watering

On the other hand, under-watering cherry trees cause leaves to curl to retain moisture. If the tree isn’t watered soon, the leaves will dry and turn brown before falling off. Under-watering is common in hot and dry areas such as California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona.

On some hot and dry days, the tree will begin to get drought-stressed even if you watered it that same day. You can tell if the tree needs more water if you use the finger test and find the soil is bone dry.

Because of this, some best gardening practices can help the soil retain water and assist the tree in being more self-sufficient.

Composting greatly increases the soil’s richness which leads to more water retention. Specifically, each 1% increase in a soil’s organic matter can help hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre. Compost also provides amazing nutrients (often eliminating the need for fertilizers) and feeds beneficial soil life, such as mycorrhizal fungi.

Mycorrhizal fungi provide the tree’s roots with moisture and nutrients that it normally couldn’t reach in exchange for sugars from the tree’s photosynthesis. The fungi also promote better pest and disease resistance for the tree. This symbiotic relationship is extremely helpful for the tree’s overall health.

Mulching dramatically reduces evaporation from the soil and protects the beneficial soil life from drying out and dying. Strong sunlight and high winds can act as a blowdryer, quickly drying out the soil. Some good mulches to use on cherry trees are leaves, bark, pine needles, straw, and grass clippings.

Compost and mulch should be used for all trees, regardless of the climate. This beneficial practice goes a long way and greatly supports the tree’s health and water management.

Once the soil is well-draining, apply 2 inches of each compost and mulch on top of the soil, under the canopy. Keep the compost and mulch at least 3 inches from the tree’s trunk to prevent mold and disease. Reapply the compost every 1-2 months and the mulch every 3-6 months.

Remember that before applying compost and mulch, the soil should be well-draining. Otherwise, the compost and mulch will hold more water and make the drainage even worse.

Once your cherry tree has well-draining soil, sufficient compost and mulch, and proper watering whenever the soil is dry, it will have a much easier time thriving in most weather conditions.

Environmental Stress

Extreme Weather

USDA hardiness zone map
USDA Hardiness Zones, Source: USDA

Cherry trees can develop brown leaves from extreme weather. Generally, cherry trees prefer USDA growing zones 4-7 and climates with cold winters, moderate summers, and medium-high humidity. However, cherry trees are fairly flexible and can tolerate temperatures ranging from -40ºF to 100ºF.

I’m in Austin, Texas, and I can tell you from experience—growing cherry trees is DIFFICULT in the south. The heat can quickly kill these temperate-loving fruit trees.

If cherry trees are exposed to temperatures around 100ºF for consistent periods, the leaves can burn, dry, brown, and finally—fall off. Even though it’s the root’s job to send moisture to the leaves to cool them, it won’t make a difference if the sun is too hot.

Still, composting and mulching the base of the tree can help it survive more extreme temperatures.

You can also shade the tree from the afternoon sun (it’s much hotter than the morning sun). Because of this, shade your cherry tree from the west side. You can shade it with an umbrella, shade sail, or other trees. If you have a potted cherry tree you can simply move it to the shade of your patio or bring it indoors.

Cherry trees actually do better in the cold than they do in the heat. They also require about 1200 chill hours each year to grow and fruit properly.

Sweet Cherry Chill HoursSour Cherry Chill Hours
1100-1300 hours1200 hours
6-8 weeks7 weeks
Source: University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Because they need chill hours, avoid bringing potted cherry trees indoors for the winter.

This can do more harm than good since the indoors usually don’t get cold enough to maintain the tree’s chill hours and dormancy (below 45ºF). Central heat can also quickly dry out the tree and its leaves (this happened to my potted Meyer lemon tree this past winter).

If you’d like more information about identifying and preventing winter injury on cherry trees, you can check out my recent post: Can Cherry Trees Survive Winter (What Temperature)?.

Transplant Shock

Transplant shock can occur when the cherry tree is relocated or repotted. This causes extreme stress to the plant, especially if it was handled roughly, which leads to drooping leaves. For best results, only transplant cherry trees when needed and avoid damaging the rootball. Water generously after transplanting.

If you’ve recently planted or moved your cherry tree, and you noticed it starting to get drooping and brown leaves, chances are it’s a bit stressed from being transplanted.

Generally, I follow a few quick transplanting tips to help make sure my plants don’t get too stressed:

  1. Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
  2. Remove as much of the tree’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
  3. Grab the base of the tree’s trunk and wiggle lightly
  4. Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
  5. Lightly place the tree in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
  6. Make sure the soil is at the same level on the trunk as before
  7. Apply 2 inches of compost and mulch to the top of the soil (at least 3 inches away from the trunk)
  8. Water generously and add more soil as needed

After transplanting, one of the biggest energy focuses for the tree is to establish a new root system. Because of this, it can take most trees up to one year to completely recover from transplanting.

With sufficient watering, nutrients, and care, your cherry tree should recover fairly quickly from transplant shock.

Lack of Nutrients

A lack or excess of nutrients is not too likely to cause brown leaves on cherry trees, but it shouldn’t be ruled out. Improper nutrients can cause several growing issues, such as leaf drop, fruit drop, and browning leaves. cherry trees should be fed a fertilizer once per growing season or compost every 1-2 months.

Cherry trees prefer a fertilizer NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) of 1:2:2 or half the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium. For example, a 5-10-10 fertilizer would work nicely. Providing less nitrogen is especially helpful for cherry trees that are mature and already have full canopies (since nitrogen is the main nutrient for leaf growth).

You can provide cherry trees with an organic fertilizer every 3-6 months, or as directed on the manufacturer’s label.

If you’d like to see which cherry tree fertilizers I recommend, you can visit my fruit tree fertilizer page.

Alternatively, you can provide cherry trees with compost. For best results, apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months. You can also craft your own homemade cherry tree fertilizer.

Avoid fertilizing cherry trees in the winter as the tree is dormant and the nutrients will largely go unused. Fertilizers with high nitrogen or fast-release qualities can remain in the soil and chemically burn the tree’s roots, leading to brown and dropping leaves.

However, while nutrients are important, they aren’t the entire picture.

Cherry trees also need a balanced soil pH. Without this, the cherry tree’s roots will be unable to absorb nutrients from the soil, causing leaves, blossoms, and fruit to wilt, yellow, brown, and fall off.

ph scale couch to homestead

For best nutrient uptake, keep the cherry tree’s soil between a pH of 6.0-7.2.

More specifically, sweet cherry trees prefer a soil pH of 6.3-7.2, while sour cherries prefer 6.0-7.0.

If you haven’t done it before, determining your soil’s pH can seem difficult. Usually, gardeners check their soil’s pH with pH strips or a pH meter. I prefer using a pH meter since it’s affordable and easy to use. To see which pH meter I recommend, visit my recommended tools page.

Pests and Diseases

Pests and diseases such as tent caterpillars, leaf spot, and bacterial canker can cause brown leaves on cherry trees. You can usually identify infected trees if the leaves have holes (caterpillars) or brown spots (disease). For best results, use natural predators for the pests and organic fungicides for the diseases.

Tent Caterpillars

tent caterpillars eating holes in the tree's leaves

Tent caterpillars are native to North America and typically hatch around March—the time that cherry trees start to blossom. They’re commonly found on apple, crab apple, cherry, hawthorn, maple, peach, pear, and plum. Insecticides are largely ineffective, but parasitic wasps will help reduce their numbers.

These caterpillars eat the tree’s leaves, make silken nests, and can quickly overwhelm the tree in numbers. The leaves have been seen to be eaten partially (leading to brown and dropping leaves) or entirely. Some trees can be nearly defoliated. However, the tree usually grows new leaves the following season.

While insecticides typically won’t work with mature larvae, promoting natural predators such as parasitic wasps and removing eggs from trees in the winter brings the best results.

Cherry Leaf Spot

Cherry Leaf Spot is a fungus that creates yellow and brown spots on the top of the leaf and occasionally has a white fuzz underneath it. If left unattended, it will cause leaves to drop. The peak time for this disease is spring and early summer due to the heavier rains and wet conditions.

If left unattended, the cherry tree might not have any leaves by the time summer comes around. The best way to treat Cherry Leaf Spot is to use an organic fungicide and prune off the infected leaves.

Bacterial Canker

Bacterial Canker is a bacteria that can grow on cherry trees during wet weather, usually in the spring. While it can take a while for it to set in, the bacteria turn leaves yellow and brown and drops them from the trees. You can spot Bacterial Canker by the large yellow and brown spots spreading across leaves.

Prevention and recovery of Bacterial Canker are possible if you prune the infected areas carefully. If possible, avoid pruning in the hot and wet seasons (spring and summer) due to the increased bacteria.

When pruning, cut above the infected area and seal with a pruning sealer or wax. Disinfect the pruning shears after each cut to reduce the chance of spreading the bacteria to other branches or trees. You can use bleach, but vinegar works just as well and isn’t toxic.

If you’re looking for a good, organic fungicide to use for your cherry trees, check out this homemade, non-toxic fungicide by Stefan Sobkowiak – The Permaculture Orchard.

Final Thoughts

Cherry trees commonly drop their leaves before the tree’s dormancy in autumn, so it’s normal for them to be yellow and brown at this time. However, if you’re noticing the tree’s leaves browning in the spring or summer, or odd symptoms such as holes or spots on the leaves, then something is likely affecting it.

If you’d like more information about identifying and treating your cherry tree’s symptoms, feel free to reference my recent post: 3 Quick Steps To Revive a Dying Cherry Tree.

You can also consult your local nursery, professional orchard, or cooperative extension service.