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Northeast: Cherry Harvest

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BY ROGER B. SWAIN / Monadnock, New Hampshire, Zone 5

Eight quarts to the peck, four pecks to the bushel—these are the dimensions of this year's sour cherry harvest. The branches within reach of the ground have been cleaned of fruit, and still the tree is a haze of red. The individual cherries are so ripe that they are translucent—think of sunlight passing through a glass of claret. By now it is easiest to pick them simply by pulling, leaving the stems on the tree. This is a wet and sticky business, and the fruit has to be dealt with immediately. Pitting has become second nature; a metal hairpin inserted at the stem end deftly plucks out the seed. An hour of picking, then an hour of pitting, and still the trees glow red.

One ‘Montmorency’ cherry tree would be enough. We have two, a pair planted 20 years ago in the middle of an empty sheep pasture. Their trunks are eight inches in diameter, their crowns 16 feet high. They'd be taller still if we let them grow, but each has been pruned to fit inside four poles joined by crossbars that hold the curtains of black bird netting.

Standards have never been easy to maintain, and nowhere is this truer than trying to keep full-size cherry trees bird free. Putting the netting on these trees each year, I'm sure, qualifies us for a Christo Environmental Wrapping Award of some sort. Standing on the very top step of a 12-foot, three-legged orchard ladder and stretching to reach the tree's top, I can't help wondering why it is that cherrypickers don't often have access to the tool that bears their name.

The bird netting is not optional. Flocks of cedar waxwings would otherwise pick the whole crop. But the netting is only one of the labors of cherry raising. There is also the yearly pruning, the mulching and fertilizing, the mowing. There are the porcupines to deal with—animals able to chew off whole limbs in their quest for tender branch tips. And there are the smaller pests—the bacterial twig blight, brown rot, cherry fruit flies. Poets like to celebrate cherry blossoms. No one rhapsodizes about the stretch of time between branches “hung with snow” and that life-defining bowl of cherries.

Ours isn't a profit-making operation. Nor do crop failures mean we lose the farm. This orchard is fueled by hope and sustained by harvests like this one, when the freezer fills with cherries packed in nothing but their own juice. Cherry pies, cherry cobbler, and cold cherry soup—these are the rewards of growing your own.

At first we pick for ourselves, not trusting our good fortune enough to go public. But then we realize that we can't possibly pick them all. Such is the attraction of cherries, even sour ones, that friends will show up the day you call. Green beans simply don't have that draw. Friends come and pick, flocks of them. Ladders lace the branches, arms reach skyward. A red tide flows into buckets on the ground. So many cherries, so many voices. Embraced in richness, I find myself doing something most uncharacteristic. Stretched out on my back in the clover under the tree, I let the cherries pick themselves.

To do in the garden

  • New blackberry and black raspberry canes should be tipped-have the top three inches removed-as soon as they reach three feet. This will stimulate branching.
  • Hang red sticky balls at head height on the perimeter of apple trees to control apple maggot flies. Use one ball for every 50 apples.
  • Renovate strawberry beds as soon as they have finished bearing. Mow off the foliage and till under all but a foot-wide strip of daughter plants. Fertilize and water.
  • Wrap a 24-inch section of galvanized duct pipe around the trunks of fruit trees to keep raccoons, squirrels, and porcupines from climbing them. Remove after harvest.
  • Use forked poles to prop up limbs of peach and plum trees, to reduce the chance of breakage.

Worth growing

Highbush blueberry Vaccinium corymbosum hybrids

The highbush blueberry is lovely in all four seasons-from the pink twigs in winter through spring bloom, summer fruiting, and bright-red autumn foliage. The bushes require a moist, well-drained, acid soil with a pH below 5.5. The fruit should not be picked when it first turns blue, as the flavor won't peak until a week to ten days later. Because blueberries ripen soon after sour cherries, the same piece of netting can be used to keep them safe from birds. Hardy to USDA Zones 3-7.