You can buy cherry trees as either potted plants or bare root plants. As their name suggests, potted plants are grown in pots in greenhouses. They are larger and more expensive than bare root plants and a plant may have new growth on it when you receive it. Bare root plants are grown without soil and are dormant, so there’s just the root on the plant when you receive it.
If you buy potted cherry trees from an online seller—the most common source for cherry trees—remove them carefully from their packages. They should have arrived with damp soil from a watering at the nursery, but they still need another drink upon arrival at your home. Be sure the water reaches all of the roots, all the way to the bottom of the container.
Place your potted trees outside in a sheltered, shady spot. Leave them there for three to four hours and gradually increase the time spent outdoors by one to two hours per day. Bring them back indoors each night.
After two to three days of this process, begin transitioning the trees from their shady spot to one that provides some morning sun. Put them back in the shade in the afternoon. If you can’t be home during the day, try putting them in an area that gets less-intense filtered sunlight instead. Again, bring the trees inside overnight.
Meanwhile, you’ll be watering as needed to keep the roots from drying out—if the soil is dry to the touch, it’s time to water. You can also mist the leaves once in a while, as an indoor environment is dryer than outdoor air.
Keep an eye on the foliage every day. If signs of leaf injury or burn appear, start over with the trees in shade, then move on to morning sunlight again when conditions improve.
After seven to 10 days, your trees will be ready for planting in their permanent home, as long as temperatures are forecasted to stay between 50 and 90 degrees F. It’s best if you can plant on a cloudy day.
Most of the potting soil should remain around the tree’s roots. Gently separate, untangle, and spread out the tree’s roots and place it, soil and all, into a prepared planting hole, deep and wide enough to accommodate the plant’s current root system, while leaving room for the roots to spread out and grow.
When digging, keep the nutrient-rich topsoil separate from the rest of the soil. To loosen the topsoil, mix in aged/rotted manure, garden compost, coir, or peat moss (up to 1/3 concentration).
Plant trees with the graft union—a noticeable bump in the lower trunk—a few inches above the soil level. Holding the trunk to keep it straight, backfill the hole with the topsoil near the roots. Water thoroughly and stake the tree to keep it growing straight.
Bare root plants
Before planting a bare root plant, submerge the roots in cool tap water for four to six hours (24 hours maximum). Dig your hole as noted above, again preserving the topsoil so you can put it into the bottom of the hole when backfilling.
Place the tree into the hole on a small mound of soil with its roots down and spread out. Keep the graft union 2 to 3 inches above the ground. The topmost root should have an inch or two of soil covering it. Fill in the soil around the roots, tamping it down firmly as you go to avoid creating air pockets that could damage the roots.
Once the roots are covered, water thoroughly with about a gallon of water. Let the water soak in and finish filling the hole. Mulch both potted and bare-root plants with four to six inches of shredded bark, keeping the mulch a few inches away from the base of the tree. In the fall, double the mulch layer or add a layer of straw for winter protection.
Tip: Keep an eye on the mulch for rodents and other small gnawing creatures that could decide to chew the tree’s bark as a snack.
If you’ve tested your soil and know that you need fertilizer, wait a few weeks after planting to protect sensitive roots. If you plant in the fall, wait until spring to fertilize.
Have you tried growing cherries from bare root plants, potted plants, or both? Which method do you prefer—and why? Please tell us how you get your cherry trees started.