A few of my readers have been asking why their cherry trees aren’t growing. While I had an idea, I did some more research and put together this guide. Here’s what I found.
Cherry trees often stop growing when they’re stressed. Most commonly, this is from improper watering, extreme weather, and improper nutrients, as well as transplant shock, pests, and diseases. For best results, only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry and provide quality fertilizer or compost.
Remember, cherry trees are deciduous trees, so they lose their leaves and go dormant in the fall and winter. If they’re healthy enough, they’ll start growing again in the spring.
So, while cherry trees stop growing for several reasons, how can we tell which issue is causing it, and from there—how can we fix it? Let’s take a closer look.
1. Improper Watering
The best way to water cherry trees is to only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil is dry.
I check this with the “Finger Test”, by pushing my finger into the soil, under the tree’s canopy. If the soil is wet, hold off on watering. If it’s bone dry, water it.
The goal is to have soil moisture similar to a wrung-out sponge.
The finger test is the best way to prevent both under and over-watering.
However, there are times when the cherry tree’s soil is holding too little or too much moisture. In this case, we’ll need to do more than the finger test.
If you do the finger test and find your cherry tree’s soil is drying within 1-2 days of watering, it’s likely draining too fast. Common symptoms of under-watered cherry trees are leaves curling, drying, browning, and dropping.
Here’s how to fix soil that’s draining too quickly:
- Provide 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months. Compost greatly improves water retention, essential nutrients, and beneficial soil life such as earthworms.
- Apply at least 4 inches of mulch. Mulch dramatically decreases evaporation, regulates soil temperature, and prevents erosion. It also adds nutrients and prevents weeds. Use mulches such as bark, straw, leaves, and pine needles.
For more context, every 1% increase in the soil’s organic matter (compost) leads to an additional 20,000 gallons of water held per acre.
For potted cherry trees, I’d also apply the 2 inches of compost. I do still recommend providing mulch around the base, but you may have to use less depending on how much room is left in the pot.
For indoor cherry trees, mulch can create too much moisture as you don’t have the sun and wind to help dry the soil. In this case, I’d use the finger test to see how often the soil gets dry and either only apply 1 inch of mulch or avoid mulching entirely.
You can tell if your cherry tree is over-watered if its soil stays sopping wet for more than 1-2 days after watering. The best way to confirm this is with the finger test.
Common symptoms of over-watered cherry trees include yellow and dropping leaves and root rot (more about root rot later).
Here’s how to fix over-watered cherry trees:
- Apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months. Interestingly, compost also fixes over-watering. This is because compost not only retains soil moisture but breaks up the larger clumps of soil, allowing proper drainage.
- Avoid mulching your cherry tree. At least until the soil is draining properly. In this case, mulching decreases evaporation and can make over-watering and poor drainage worse.
For potted cherry trees that are over-watered or waterlogged, the best way to amend the soil is to repot them with fresh potting soil.
2. Extreme Weather
For best results, grow cherry trees in USDA hardiness zones 4-7. This is between -30ºF and 90ºF. Normally sweet cherry varieties do better in warmer climates (zones 5-7), while sour cherry trees are more hardy (zones 4-6).
Even though cherry trees can tolerate temperatures slightly above and below these ranges, this guideline will help them grow best.
Recommended: How to Find The Best Fruit Trees For Your Climate
Also, keep in mind that cherry trees are deciduous, so it’s normal for them to lose all of their leaves in the winter. If you have a late frost or extended winter season, your cherry tree might not grow leaves until mid-spring or even early summer.
Let’s take a look at the climates that cherry trees prefer.
As cherry trees are temperate plants, they generally do best in cooler climates. However, some varieties such as Bing do well in warmer areas.
When cherry trees are exposed to temperatures of 90ºF and above for extended periods, their leaves get too hot which stresses the plant and hinders the growth of leaves and fruit.
In this case, the plant can’t send moisture from its roots to its leaves fast enough, which causes the leaves to dry, droop, curl, brown, and drop.
Here are some ways to keep your cherry tree cool:
- Provide 2 inches of compost for water retention
- Apply 4 inches of mulch for insulation
- Provide at least 2 hours of partial shade in the afternoon. You can use shade sails, structures, or other trees
Since cherry trees are temperate plants, it’s difficult for them to get too cold. For example, most varieties can survive down to -30ºF (zone 4).
To get a proper estimate, I recommend doing a quick search for your variety of cherry tree and it’s hardiness zone.
Here are some tips if temperatures fall below your cherry tree’s minimum temperature:
- Provide 4-12 inches of mulch for insulation
- Wrap the canopy with a bedsheet to reduce windchill and ice buildup
- Wrap the trunk with cardboard or another insulating material
Keep in mind, most cherry trees still prefer chill hours (hours under 45ºF) in the winter. These chill hours help the tree go into a dormant state, reserving nutrients until the spring. There’s a big difference in the growth and fruiting of cherry trees that have chill hours and those that don’t.
More specifically, the majority of cherry tree varieties prefer between 700 and 1200+ chill hours (about 30-48 days). However, sweet cherry varieties are closer to 700 chill hours while sour cherries prefer closer to 1200+ hours.
Not Enough Sunlight
As with most fruit trees, cherry trees require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day. While some cherry trees can grow with as little as 4 hours per day, you’ll often see reduced growth the fewer hours the plant receives.
Sunlight is critical for plant and fruit growth as it encourages photosynthesis, or how the plant gets its food.
Here are some tips to boost the sunlight for your cherry tree:
- Plant on the south side of your property for maximum sunlight (if you live in the southern hemisphere, this is the north side).
- Place the tree near a south-facing wall to allow heat and sunlight to reflect onto the tree (you’ll likely need to provide it with more water than usual)
- Prune any trees above the cherry tree to allow for more sunlight. You can also prune the cherry tree’s excess and overlapping branches to increase sunlight and airflow into the canopy (and reduce pest and disease exposure).
Recommended: 10 Expert Tips to Prune Fruit Trees
If your cherry tree’s leaves are curling or browning, it could be a sign it’s getting too hot and could use some shade from the afternoon sun. In this case, use the shade from other trees, structures, or items such as shade sails. 2+ hours of daily, partial shade from the western sun will work.
3. Improper Nutrients
Excess nutrients (over-fertilizing) chemically burn the cherry tree’s roots, causing stress and leading to poor growth as well as decreased flowering and fruiting. Normally, fast-release chemical fertilizers are the cause of over-fertilization as organic fertilizers and compost aren’t potent enough.
Lack of Nutrients
|Nutrient Deficiency||Leaf Symptom|
|Nitrogen||Entire leaf is pale or yellow|
|Iron||Dark green veins, rest of the leaf is yellowing|
|Manganese||Broadly pale leaves, foliage color looks mottled or smeared|
A lack of nutrients also stresses cherry trees, leading to conditions such as stunted growth and little to no flowers and fruit. This is commonly caused by poor soils, leaching, and other conditions such as improper pH.
Nutrient leaching occurs when the cherry tree is over-watered or has too much drainage (common with sandy soils). This causes the nutrients to seep too deep into the soil, out of reach of the plant’s roots, which are about 2-3 feet deep.
Fortunately, most of these issues can be resolved by properly fertilizing cherry trees.
The Best Way To Fertilize Cherry Trees
Cherry trees (and most plants) require three main nutrients.
- Nitrogen (N): The most important nutrient, vital for canopy and root growth.
- Phosphorus (P): Essential for flowering and fruiting
- Potassium (K): Maintains the overall health of the tree
Generally, cherry trees prefer a balance of all three nutrients. When shopping for fertilizer, aim for one that says something similar to 10-10-10 NPK (the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). The closer you can get to a balanced figure the better.
There are also a few different kinds of fertilizers you can use:
|Chemical Fertilizers||Organic Fertilizers||Compost|
|Quantity > Quality||Quality & Quantity||Quality & Quantity|
|Can dry soil||Great for soil||Great for soil|
|Can damage soil||Not as fresh as compost||Great for water retention|
Even though chemical fertilizers might be sufficient over the short term, over the long term they often short-circuit the nutrient exchange between the tree and its beneficial soil life (such as mycorrhizal fungi). This leads to dry and dead soil (AKA dirt) and overall decreased plant health.
Mycorrhizal fungi promote many aspects of plant life, in particular improved nutrition, better growth, stress tolerance, and disease resistance.Department of Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
For my fruit trees, I use both organic fertilizer and compost. I find that organic fertilizer provides significant nutrients while compost fills any gaps in the nutrient profile and amends the soil.
Compost provides more than sufficient nutrients, increases water retention, and promotes healthy soils. Many gardeners are even finding that compost is replacing their fertilizers.
If you choose to use compost, select one with the highest quality and freshness if possible as its beneficial organisms will still be alive.
Either one you choose—you can see my recommendations for both compost and fertilizer on my recommend fertilizer page.
Cherry trees do best with a soil pH of 6.0 to 7.0.
While nutrients are important, they’re next to useless if the soil does not have a proper pH. This is because a slightly acidic pH is necessary to dissolve the nutrient solids in the soil and make them accessible for the plant’s finer roots.
Fourteen of the seventeen essential plant nutrients are obtained from the soil. Before a nutrient can be used by plants it must be dissolved in the soil solution. Most minerals and nutrients are more soluble or available in acid soils than in neutral or slightly alkaline soils.Donald Bickelhaupt, Instructional Support Specialist, Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management
Two good ways to check your soil’s pH are either by using a pH strip 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 and recommend, check out my recommended tools page.
If you find that your cherry tree’s soil is too alkaline (above 7.0) you can add acidic amendments such as coffee grounds, sand, and peat moss. On the other hand, if your cherry tree’s soil is too acidic (below 6.0), add alkaline materials such as wood ash, charcoal, or lime.
Additionally, cold and/or wet soils are not good at promoting nutrient uptake as the cherry tree will either be dormant during the cold or too stressed in wet soils.
4. Transplant Shock
If your cherry tree was recently planted or repotted, and its leaf growth has slowed or stunted, it’s likely due to transplant shock. Transplant shock occurs when a plant is exposed to a new environment and has to establish a new root system.
In this case, the cherry tree is stopping its canopy growth to instead regrow its roots.
Avoid transplanting cherry trees unless necessary as it can take up to 1 year for recovery.
To help avoid transplant shock, I like to plant with the following steps in mind:
- Have the new ground (or pot) prepared
- Remove as much of the plant’s current topsoil as possible, without damaging the shallow roots
- Grab the base of the plant’s stem and wiggle lightly
- Using your other hand, scoop up and support the rootball
- Lightly place the plant in the new ground (or pot) and fill it in
- Make sure the soil is at the same level on the plant as before
- Apply 2 inches of compost and 4-12 inches of mulch to the top of the soil
- Water generously and add more soil as needed
Aphids are small bugs that suck the sap from underneath the cherry tree’s leaves. This loss of sugar and moisture causes the leaves to curl, discolor, and drop. Aphids also deposit honeydew, which attracts ants.
If left unchecked, aphids can damage the cherry tree’s health and potentially stunt or kill it.
These bugs come in multiple colors including white, yellow, or black, and usually are found hiding underneath the leaves. Typically, aphids won’t cause damage to the fruit, but because they suck sap from the plant, they can compromise its health and therefore reduce fruit size and yield.
The best ways to get rid of aphids (and mites) on cherry trees is by spraying the infected leaves with water or neem oil, or releasing ladybugs (a natural predator of aphids and mites). Most often, a jet of water is enough to knock them off and kill them, but neem oil is a good second option.
For example, when my potted Kaffir lime tree had aphids, I found that a jet of water was sufficient to blast them off and prevent them from coming back. All I did was remove the hose nozzle and use my thumb to increase the pressure. Just keep in mind that too strong of a blast can damage the leaves.
Spider mites are similar to aphids, except they’re part of the spider family. They also feed on cherry trees and cause stunted growth as well as leaves turning yellow, red, and dropping.
The main difference in appearance between aphids and spider mites is the spider mite’s ability to spin webs. These webs can cause damage to other parts of cherry trees such as the twigs and fruit.
So, if you see small dots on your cherry trees, see if they’re depositing honeydew or webs and you’ll likely identify if they’re aphids or spider mites.
Again, use the same methods as aphids to get rid of spider mites on your cherry trees.
Root rot kills off the cherry tree roots, which stresses the plant and causes symptoms such as fruit, flowers, and leaves yellowing, browning, and dropping. If not addressed, it leads to stunted growth or a dying cherry tree.
You can typically tell if your cherry tree has root rot if the soil is staying sopping wet and starts smelling. Allowing the soil to dry out or repotting cherry trees with fresh potting soil are the best ways to amend this disease.
For example, I noticed my potted Kaffir lime tree had root rot as its soil smelled swampy and was staying wet for many days at a time. In this case, I repotted it with fresh potting soil, and the tree quickly recovered.
Verticillium wilt is a fungus that is similar to root rot in that it usually occurs in soils with excess water. Additionally, over-fertilizing can also cause it.
The most susceptible fruit crops that contract verticillium wilt are nightshade (tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants), but other fruiting plants such as cherry trees can also be infected. Symptoms of this disease include leaves wilting, yellowing, and dropping, and potentially branch dieback.
Prevent and treat verticillium wilt by pruning infected branches, avoiding excess water and fertilizers, and following best gardening practices.
Need More Help?
You can always ask us here at Couch to Homestead, but you should know the other resources available to you! Here are the resources we recommend.
- Local Cooperative Extension Services: While we do our best with these articles, sometimes knowledge from a local expert is needed! The USDA partnered with Universities to create these free agriculture extension services. See your local services.
- 7 Easy Steps to Grow Fruit Trees (Free Guide): Need more fruit tree help from the ground up? See our free guide to make growing fruit trees a breeze.
- Ask the Free Community: Join The Couch to Homestead Community and connect with other members discussing gardening, homesteading, and permaculture.
- 30-Day Permaculture Food Forest Course: Learn how to turn your backyard into a thriving food forest in just 30 days with our online course.