Growing Cherries on the Colorado Front Range
by Jane Shellenberger:
A few days ago it poured during a blustery afternoon thunderstorm. When the sun came out it kept on raining for nearly half an hour, coming in all lit up at a slant. You get to see a lot of sky and weather on the plains because there aren’t many trees; conditions are harsh for them.
Against the horizon a rainbow framed our small mixed orchard where I’ve been picking cherries off and on for weeks, reminding me to get out there again now that the North Star’s branches are drooping with the weight of its plump, red fruit.
Nanking Cherries First come the shrubby, drought-tolerant Nankings planted in a hedgerow for the birds. The fruit is small, too small for most to bother with, but it’s an unusually sweet treat since tart pie cherries are what grow best on the Colorado Front Range. I got a couple of Black Nankings (Prunus tomentosa ‘Nigra’) from St Lawrence Nursery many years ago. I haven’t found any since then, but they have a beautiful growth habit, pretty fall color, and larger, dark cherries though never many here.
Montmorency Cherry Birds love the larger Montmorency cherries that usually ripen by the 4 th of July and will strip a tree bare in a few days of joyful, raucous feasting if left uncovered. It’s an excellent, hardy, tart variety. With spring frosts and hungry birds it’s catch-as-catch-can when it comes to cherries. Most bird netting doesn’t work in my experience; the birds get caught in it, especially young ones, so you have to disentangle them, which is not pleasant. A fine mesh is better. I wrap row cover around the tree and fasten it with clothespins because I have the materials on hand. It’s not especially professional looking but it works; you only need it for a week or two.
Dwarf North Star Cherry By the time the North Star is ready to harvest a couple of weeks later the birds seem less excited. The cherries are more difficult for them to pluck off, though easier for me since the tree is just seven feet high. Maybe the birds have had their fill or don’t like them as well, but there are always plenty for everybody. Left to ripen in hot weather these cherries verge on sweet. And unlike Montmorency, North Star doesn’t need a pollinator.
Erratic Spring Weather The main problem with growing cherries on the Colorado Front Range is our seesawing spring weather. Unlike the more gradual warm-up of gentler climates, even those with cold winters, we have warm to hot weather alternating with spring freezes and temperatures too cold for bees to venture out and pollinate. Here trees are coaxed out of dormancy early only to be hammered by killing frosts. One way around this is to plant fruit trees on the north side of buildings where it remains shaded and cooler early in the season while the sun is still low in the sky. Just make sure they get several hours of sun by mid April. Even so, this is no guarantee. Pie cherries used to be a big commercial crop along the Front Range foothills near Fort Collins and Boulder until 1949 when a severe frost wiped out every single tree. The reports said you could hear them cracking as they froze.
More reliable on the Western Slope Cherries, both sour and sweet, are much more reliable on Colorado’s Western Slope, where fruit orchards of all types abound, especially near Palisade. The sweet cherries, mostly Bing and Rainer, come first, from June 20 to July 10. Pie cherry season is July 15 to 25.
Despite our harsh conditions I keep planting cherries and trying different varieties – Evans (a.k.a. Bali), Juliet, Black Tartarian. They grow quickly. I’ve lost a few and raccoons have ravaged some, but knowing the odds has made me a very satisfied realist.