I’m looking at adding cherry trees to my homestead at some point, but I’ve heard they can sometimes die for seemingly no reason. So, to better prepare my future self, I did some research to find out why cherry trees die and what can be done about it. Here’s what I found.
Cherry trees typically start to die because of improper watering, environmental stress, a lack of nutrients, or disease. However, the two most common issues are overwatering and environmental stress—such as temperature swings or transplant shock. Once the source of stress is reduced, the tree should recover.
So, while these are the most common reasons why cherry trees start to die, what exactly do these look like, and what are some steps to fix them?
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Can Dying Cherry Trees Be Saved?
Cherry trees that are dying can be saved if you find the primary issue and employ the right solution. Typically, it takes several weeks or months for a cherry tree to completely die, depending on the issue. To see if your cherry tree is still alive, prune a small branch and see if there’s any green inside.
The Top 4 Reasons Why Cherry Trees Die
1. Over or Under-Watering
Watering is a tricky practice with any plant, and this is especially true with cherry trees.
The best way to measure how much water your cherry tree is getting is to check the first 2-4 inches of soil. If the soil is bone dry, it needs either more water or water more frequently. On the other hand, if the soil is sopping wet two or more hours after watering it, it’s overwatered.
The good news is that both of these conditions (and most of the other issues covered in this post) are reversible.
But first, you’ll need to determine if the tree is over or under-watered.
If your cherry tree’s soil is still holding water and is sopping wet two or more hours after watering, it will need to be amended. You can amend the soil with compost, sand, or perlite to break up the clumps in the soil and allow for more drainage.
If a cherry tree is over-watered, its roots become too saturated with water and can lead to diseases such as root rot (a fungal disease). When this happens, the tree’s leaves start to yellow and fall off. After a couple weeks or months, the cherry tree’s health will decline to the point where it can’t be revived.
Most often, cherry trees get overwatered from a lack of soil drainage. This is especially true with clay soils as their particles are more densely packed than loamy or sandy soils. Clay soils are also more alkaline (more on this later).
On the other hand, when cherry trees are under-watered, their leaves will likely begin to curl to retain the little moisture that’s left. Additionally, the cherry tree will use most of the water to survive, meaning it won’t have much to provide its fruit. For this reason, you might see little to no fruiting.
If you find that your cherry tree is under-watered, there are a couple of effective things you can do.
First, apply 2 inches of compost around the drip line of the tree every 1-2 months. Aside from providing nutrients (and potentially replacing fertilizer), compost helps build the soil’s richness. And the soil’s richness directly impacts how much water it can hold. For example, every 1% increase in a soil’s organic matter can help it hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre (source).
Second, apply 4 inches of mulch, also around the drip line of the tree. Mulching is extremely effective at protecting the soil from the elements while also reducing evaporation. Some good mulches to use for cherry trees are leaves, bark, straw, and pine needles. This can be done every 3-6 months or as needed.
So, not only will the soil hold more water, but you’ll find that you won’t have to water your tree nearly as often.
For both compost and mulching, make sure they’re at least 3 inches away from the trunk of the cherry tree to avoid mold or disease from being spread.
2. Wrong Climate
While it would be nice if we could grow our favorite fruits in any region, the truth is that these trees are native to certain environments. For example, citrus trees grow best in tropical or subtropical climates (zones 9-11).
Cherry trees, on the other hand, grow best in zones 4-7. More specifically, sweet cherry varieties grow in zones 5-7, while the more hardy, sour cherry varieties grow in zones 4-6.
Some signs that a cherry tree can’t handle a certain climate and is getting stressed are if its leaves are drooping, curling, or falling off.
So, if your cherry tree has any of these symptoms, and you’ve checked the above map and found that you’re outside of these recommended zones, it’s likely that your cherry tree might be having trouble surviving in your climate.
If you’d like more information about how much cold cherry trees can take, feel free to check out my recent post: Can Cherry Trees Survive Winter (What Temperature)?.
While certain climates can be limiting, there are some ways you can stretch their zones.
For example, you can grow cherry trees indoors, get more hardy varieties, or even create your own microclimate. For more information on microclimates, check out the video below by Gardener Scott.
3. Lack of Nutrients
A lack of nutrients is one of the first things that come to mind when a cherry tree is dying. And while it’s not the most common issue, it’s definitely one that should be considered.
When a cherry tree has an over or under-abundance of nutrients, you could see several issues, including:
- Poor growth
- Poor fruiting or flowering
- Leaves yellowing or dropping
- Dying trees
So, how can we make sure that our cherry trees get the proper nutrients?
Like all plants, cherry trees need three main nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (commonly abbreviated as NPK). However, cherry trees usually prefer fertilizer with lower nitrogen than phosphorus and potassium.
A good NPK ratio to use for cherry trees is 1:2:2 or half the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium (source). For example, a 5-10-10 fertilizer would work nicely. This is especially true for cherry trees that are fully grown as nitrogen is primarily used to grow foliage.
For cherry trees that are still growing, stick to fertilizers with a bit higher nitrogen, such as Down to Earth’s Organic Fruit Tree Mix on Amazon.
On the other hand, for cherry trees that are fully grown and are now focusing on fruit production, aim for a fertilizer with less nitrogen, such as Down to Earth’s Acid Mix or their All Purpose Mix (both also found on Amazon).
Most good fertilizers will also include secondary, or trace nutrients, so you shouldn’t need to worry about these.
Keep in mind that cherry trees also need a slightly acidic to neutral soil pH, such as 6.0 to 7.0 (source).
Even if the soil has sufficient nutrients, if your cherry tree’s soil pH falls outside of this range, it won’t be able to properly absorb the nutrients. A common example of this is if your cherry tree has clay soil (which is typically alkaline).
The good news is that soil pH is easy to check.
Most often, you can either use pH strips or a pH meter. I prefer using a pH meter since they’re easy to use and affordable. To see which pH meter I use and recommend, you can check out my recommended tools page.
While diseases aren’t as common as the issues above, they can still occur, especially if you are only growing cherry trees. This is because growing a single crop makes it easier for pests and diseases to spread, as if they can infect one cherry tree, they can likely infect others with the same method.
The most common issues that kill cherry trees are:
- Bacterial Canker
- Black Knot
- Brown Rot
- Cherry Leaf Spot
- Powdery Mildew
- Silver Leaf
If I covered all of the diseases, symptoms, and solutions here, this post would be tens of thousands of words. And I don’t think that would be a good experience for you.
So, if you believe your cherry tree has a disease, and you’d like more information about identifying and resolving common diseases, check out this article by Plant Village.
Keep in mind that the two best defenses that trees have from pests and diseases are:
- Good Soil Health
Soil health is vital for cherry trees as the bacterial and fungal layer (mycelium) provides the tree with nutrients that are located further down in the soil (90% of cherry tree roots only grow 2 feet deep). In exchange, the tree provides these microbes with sugar.
This microscopic life also immensely benefits the tree’s immune system and can even warn nearby trees of pests or disease before it reaches them. This gives these trees enough time to prepare and produce different chemicals to repel the threat.
This is why chemical fertilizers and tilling are harmful practices—it kills the beneficial life in the soil, leaving the tree to fend for itself. Essentially, the soil dies and becomes dirt.
Biodiversity is equally important as a pest or disease might be able to harm one tree, but once they reach a different type of plant, they’ll run into different chemicals and other plant defenses. This greatly limits the spread and can even completely stop the pest or disease.
So, for best results, employ both of these practices for your cherry trees if possible.
How To Save a Dying Cherry Tree
3 Quick Steps To Save a Dying Cherry Tree
1. Identify the Possible Issues
The first step in reviving a dying cherry tree is identifying the possible issues. After all, the process of elimination wouldn’t work if we didn’t know which options we were eliminating!
If you haven’t seen it yet, for more information on the most common cherry tree issues, you can reference the above sections.
2. Isolate the Actual Issue
Once you’ve checked the specific symptoms your cherry tree has, now you can cross off potential issues from your list.
Try to get it down to 1-3 potential issues that best match the symptoms your cherry tree is exhibiting. This will give you the best chances to provide the right solution for it (you don’t want to spray the tree with neem oil if the problem is a watering issue).
If you’re still not sure about the issue your cherry tree has, that’s okay! Call up your local nursery and get their opinion on what’s happening.
You may need to talk to a few people to get their experience, but there’s a strong chance they’ve seen it before and can point you in the right direction (or even provide you with the solution!).
3. Test Solutions
Now that you have a narrowed-down list of the potential issues, it’s time to try the solutions one at a time.
Start with the least invasive and work your way up to the most invasive. For example, providing less water is much easier than going through the process of repotting the tree—try to save that option for last.
Continue testing the treatments you believe are most likely to fix the issue. Hopefully, one of them sticks.
Worst case scenario, start from step one on this list and make a new list of possible issues. There’s a chance you might have missed something or notice something new the second time around.
Stay persistent! It’s easy to say, “Dumb plant, why don’t you want to live?”, but there’s always a reason why plants act the way they do. Keep the course and see if you can uncover it.
More Tips to Keep Your Cherry Tree Alive
- Water cherry trees every 1-2 weeks, depending on the weather. The best way to gauge if a cherry tree needs to be watered more often or more deeply is by checking the first 2-4 inches of soil with a finger. The soil should be as wet as a wrung-out sponge. Any wetter, and it needs less water (or more drainage). Any drier, and it needs more water (or more compost and mulch).
- Plant your cherry trees in a south-facing direction to maximize warmth and sunlight. Additionally, planting next to a south-facing wall will help reflect sunlight and warmth, even into the night.
- Plant companion plants around your cherry trees to maximize soil nutrients, pollination, and pest reduction. For more about cherry tree companion plants, you can check out my recent post on the best companion plants for cherry trees.
While we dove in pretty deep on why cherry trees commonly die, I feel I’m better prepared once I get some cherry trees on my homestead.
Keep in mind that cherry trees are deciduous trees, normally losing their leaves in the fall and regrowing them in the spring. However, if your cherry tree is dying or losing leaves during other times of the year, it’s likely suffering from an issue.
The best way to determine and resolve the issue is by using the three steps above. After, you should have an idea of what’s causing it and can provide the proper treatment.
If all else fails, remember to contact the seller or your local nursery and see if they have any experience with the specific issue!
Before I leave you, I’d like to provide you with two of the most helpful videos I found in managing cherry trees and their diseases.
Stefan Sobkowiak – The Permaculture Orchard has a great video on a safe, homemade, and most importantly—effective fungicide (hint: the secret ingredient is whey).
Also, check out how Mark Shepard uses a method called STUN (Sheer-Total-Utter-Neglect) to help his berry plants, fruit trees, and nut trees THRIVE.