I have a new bing cherry tree and I’ve heard many cherry tree growers get leaf drop throughout the year. So, I did some research to find out more about cherry tree leaf drop and how to fix it. Here’s what I found.
Cherry trees are deciduous and normally lose their leaves in the fall and winter. However, they can lose their leaves in the summer if they’re not getting the proper watering, nutrients, or disease prevention. If all goes well, your cherry tree will regrow its leaves in the early spring, after the last frost.
So, how can we identify what’s causing our cherry tree to lose its leaves, and what can we do to fix it?
Some fruit trees, such as citrus, are evergreen and keep their leaves year-round. Other trees like apple, peach, and cherry trees are deciduous and shed their leaves in the fall to help ensure the tree survives in winter. By shedding less vital parts, the tree can use more resources for its trunk and roots.
Shedding leaves, blossoms, and fruit in the winter is a survival technique deciduous trees have developed to preserve their resources to make it through the winter. Think of it like how bears store energy with extra fat and hibernate during the winter.
On the other hand, evergreen trees either don’t normally deal with harsh winters or have developed other techniques to survive the winter. An example of this is pine trees, which have adapted to produce a type of anti-freeze in their needles.
While preserving resources during the winter explains why cherry trees naturally lose their leaves, when exactly can we expect this event to happen?
When Do Cherry Trees Naturally Lose Their Leaves?
It’s normal for cherry trees to lose their leaves in the fall, starting in late September. However, cherry trees can lose their leaves earlier if they’re stressed. The tree will come out of dormancy and grow new leaves in early spring, after the last frost. This is typically in early March, depending on the region.
But what if our cherry tree isn’t losing leaves naturally? What if it’s developing leaf loss early or has curling, yellowing, and browning leaves?
Let’s take a look at why cherry trees can become stressed and lose their leaves early.
Over or Under-Watering
Cherry trees can lose their leaves early when the tree is stressed from over-watering or from drought. As a general rule, cherry trees should only be watered when the first 2-4 inches of soil are dry. If the soil stays sopping wet, more drainage is needed. To combat heat and drought, provide shade, compost, and mulch.
Watering can be a tricky practice, but it doesn’t have to be. Many times, cherry trees lose their leaves early simply because they’re over or under-watered.
Since cherry trees need different watering based on soil, climate, tree size, and more, the best rule to follow is to only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil are dry.
A good way to measure when to water cherry trees is to push a finger, up to the second knuckle, into the soil under the canopy. If it’s dry, provide water. If it’s sopping wet an hour or more after watering, hold off on the water and consider amending the soil for better drainage.
Additionally, clay soils are dense and can hold too much water. Sandy soils are loose and can have too much drainage. This is why rich, loamy soil is a great medium for growing cherry trees. It has enough drainage, but it retains moisture to keep the plant’s roots cool and hydrated.
If you need to provide your planted cherry tree with better drainage, you can amend its soil with compost or sand or relocate it to an area with better drainage. Elevating the ground with a mound or raised bed are some good examples. Potted cherry trees can have better drainage from more drainage holes or by repotting with fresh soil (more on transplanting later).
Cherry trees can greatly benefit from compost and mulch, no matter the climate. Compost improves the soil’s richness and water retention, while mulch reduces evaporation and weed growth. Compost can also reduce and remove the need for chemical fertilizers (more on this later).
Simply add 2 inches of compost under the canopy and 2 inches of mulch on top of the compost. Keep a distance of at least 3 inches from the tree’s trunk to prevent mold from spreading.
Some good mulches to use for cherry trees are leaves, bark, grass clippings, straw, and pine needles.
If you live in a climate that gets hot and dry, you can also provide your cherry trees with some shade. Some ideas are using umbrellas, shade sails, or other trees. Generally, it’s better to provide the cherry tree with partial shade from the afternoon sun since it’s much hotter than the morning sun.
If you’ve recently relocated or repotted your cherry tree, and its leaves are falling off, there’s a good chance it’s stressed from the move. This can often be due to damage to the root ball. Generally, the tree’s roots need time to recover and establish a new root system. This can take up to one year.
I’ve recently potted my new bing cherry tree, and fortunately, it didn’t seem to get too bothered. Generally, I follow a few quick tips to help make sure plants don’t get too stressed:
- Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
- Remove as much of the tree’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
- Grab the base of the tree’s trunk and wiggle lightly
- Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
- Lightly place the tree in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
- Make sure the soil is at the same level on the trunk as before
- Apply 2 inches of compost and mulch to the top of the soil (at least 3 inches away from the trunk)
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
Overall, avoid transplanting your cherry tree if possible. However, if you need to transplant it, such as to promote more drainage or provide it with a larger pot, following the tips above should help ease the process.
If you need to repot or plant your cherry tree and would like a visual on how to do so, check out this helpful video below by Our Little Homestead.
Lack of Nutrients
Cherry trees can lose their leaves early if they don’t have sufficient nutrients to provide their leaves. Generally, cherry trees do best with a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as an NPK of 5-10-10. Alternatively, you can use 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months. Avoid fertilizing in the winter when the tree is dormant.
To see which cherry tree fertilizers I recommend, you can visit my recommended fruit tree fertilizer page.
One of the best ways to provide your cherry trees with nutrients is with compost. Not only does compost provide everything that cherry trees need, but it also improves the richness of the soil. This in turn drastically helps to retain water and support the beneficial soil life.
Beneficial soil life such as mycorrhizal fungi provides the tree’s roots with nutrients that it normally couldn’t reach in exchange for sugars from the tree’s photosynthesis. This symbiotic relationship is extremely helpful for the health of trees. This network between fungi and trees can even warn neighboring trees of pests and provide nutrients and water to trees that are struggling.
Chemical fertilizers can often short circuit this nutrient exchange and potentially cause long-term harm to the tree.
So, healthy soil generally means healthy trees!
But nutrients are only part of the picture.
Even if a cherry tree has plenty of nutrients in the soil, when a cherry has soil that is either too alkaline or too acidic, it’s unable to properly absorb nutrients.
This is why keeping a balanced soil pH is so important. So, what pH is best for cherry trees?
Sweet cherry trees prefer a soil pH of 6.3-7.2, while sour cherries prefer 6.0-7.0.
A good way to measure soil pH is with pH strips or a pH meter. I prefer using a pH meter since they’re affordable and easy to use. To see which pH meter I use, check out my recommended tools page.
You can also make your own compost and fertilizer at home. For more information about this, check out my recent post: Create an Amazing Homemade Fertilizer for Your Fruit Trees!
Moving on from natural causes, watering, and nutrients, let’s take a look at some of the most common bacterial diseases cherry trees can develop and how to treat them.
Bacterial Canker is a bacteria that can grow on cherry trees during wet and cool weather. Most often, this occurs in spring. While it can take a while for it to set in, the bacteria can turn leaves yellow and drop them from the trees. You can spot Bacterial Canker by the large yellow/brown spots spreading across leaves.
Prevention and recovery 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.
Bacterial Spot is caused by another bacteria species, only this time you can see small holes developing in the leaves. The affected leaves will be yellow and have small spots that are brown or black in color along with holes that have a red outline.
Eventually, the leaves will drop. During wet and windy weather, the bacteria can also spread to the cherry fruits, which causes dark spots and shriveling. You can limit the spread of Bacterial Spot by avoiding high nitrogen fertilizers and using a copper-based fungicide.
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.
Another fungal disease, Verticillium starts from the tree’s roots, which is why it’s important to use a healthy rootstock that’s resistant to fungus. This fungus will turn the leaves pale and drop them (usually in the summer).
Infected branches can transmit the fungus to other branches and if not managed over 1-3 years, the cherry tree can become stunted. You can help prevent Verticillium by limiting weeds, avoiding high nitrogen fertilizers, and watering properly. Recovery is possible if you prune the infected branches and provide proper watering and nutrients.
Root Rot is a fungus that is usually caused by overwatering and stagnant water. The fungus can cause yellowed and stunted leaves that quickly drop off the tree.
You can manage Root Rot by checking for proper drainage and amending the soil if it’s been soaked for an extended period. You can also temporarily remove some of the soil around the tree to improve aeration and allow it to dry. Just be careful not to leave the shallow roots exposed.
Overall, it’s perfectly normal for cherry trees to lose their leaves in the fall and winter. It’s also common for them to have naturally wilted leaves.
After researching and writing for this post, I’m much more comfortable treating my cherry tree if it gets early leaf loss.
If your cherry tree has leaf loss in the late spring or summer, then it’s probably stressed. Reference the above sections to see if you can identify the cause of stress. From there, you can apply the appropriate solution.
Pro-tip: If your cherry tree has no leaves, and you’re not sure if the tree is still alive, you can prune a small tip off of a branch. If the branch has any green inside, the tree is still alive.
If you do find that your cherry is dying, my recent post might be able to help you out: 3 Quick Steps To Revive a Dying Cherry Tree.
I did my best to cover the most common reasons cherry trees lose their leaves, but there are other possible causes. So, if you get stuck, and need more information specific to cherry trees in your region, consult your local professional orchard, nursery, or county extension office.