Top 5 Tips For Harvesting Cherries Like A Pro

Top 5 Tips For Harvesting Cherries Like A Pro

It’s Almost Harvest Time!

You’ve worked all summer to ensure your cherry tree has the best possible conditions for a successful harvest. Once summer is in full swing, you know it’s time to think about cherry picking! While this step may be the most rewarding, there are some tips you can follow to ensure you have a harvest filled with delicious cherries!

Featured Image: Cherry Harvest by M. McDoule

Top 5 Tips For Harvesting Cherries

1. Make Sure You’re Harvesting At The Right Time

The exact timing of cherry harvest can vary based on your geographical location and climate. Depending on the type of cherry tree, harvest season can be anywhere from early spring to late summer. Warmer climates may produce ripe fruit by early summer, while late season cherries will not ripen until late fall. 

In general, best practices are to harvest cherries when they are fully ripe and sugar content is at its highest, as they do not continue to ripen once they are picked. Here are a few signs to look for when determining if cherries are ready to be harvested:

  • Color

Cherries come in different colors depending on the variety. Red cherries, like Bing or Montmorency, should have a deep, rich red color when they are fully ripe. Yellow cherries, such as Rainier, should be golden yellow with a slight blush. Black cherries, like Black Tartarian or Black Pearl, should have a dark, almost black color. Avoid picking cherries that are still green or have a pale color, as they are not fully ripe.

  • Size

Cherries should have reached their mature size before harvesting. The size can vary depending on the variety, but in general, they should be plump and relatively large for their type. Avoid picking smaller fruit, as they may lack flavor and sweetness. The sweetest fruit will be large and plump.

  • Taste

The best way to determine if cherries are ready for harvest is by tasting a few. Fully ripe cherries should be sweet, juicy, and have a pleasant flavor. If the cherries taste slightly tart or bland, they may need more time to ripen on the tree. Remember that cherries do not continue to ripen after being picked, so it’s crucial to pick them when they have the desired taste. Sour cherry varieties will lack the sweetness that sweet varieties have, but these are perfect for pie filling and other baking needs.

  • Stem

 When harvesting cherries, it’s preferable to leave the stem intact. Gently grasp the cherry and give it a slight twist or tug. If the cherry comes off the tree easily with little resistance, it is likely ripe and ready to be harvested. Avoid pulling forcefully, as this may damage the fruit or the tree.

2. Watch For The Birds!

Birds and other animals have an uncanny ability to determine when various types of fruit is ripe and ready to eat – cherries are no exception to this rule! Birds are attracted to the sweetness of ripe cherries and may start feeding on them when they are fully mature. If you observe birds frequently visiting your cherry trees and feeding on the fruit, it can be a sign that the cherries are ripe or nearing maturity.

However, relying solely on bird activity as an indicator of cherry ripeness is not recommended. Birds can begin feeding on cherries before they are fully ripe, and they may continue to eat them even after they have passed their prime. It’s best to use a combination of visual cues such as color, size, taste, and stem looseness to determine the ideal time for cherry harvest.

By monitoring the color development, tasting a few cherries for sweetness and flavor, checking the size, and assessing how easily the cherries detach from the tree, you can have a more accurate understanding of when to harvest your cherries and enjoy them at their best quality.

3. Harvest With Care

Cherries can be fragile, especially when ripe, and will easily bruise if the proper care is not taken. Ripe cherries should be harvested in a specific way to ensure the fruit stays in good condition for consuming or processing. A cherry packing house may have their own harvesting process, but for harvesting individual cherries the process is quite simple. Our best advice for cherry picking includes:

  • Positioning

Stand or position yourself close to the cherry tree, ensuring you have easy access to the fruit. Use a sturdy ladder, step stool, or find a comfortable spot beneath the tree if the branches are within reach.

  • Handle Cherries Gently

Cherries are delicate fruits, so handle them with care to avoid damaging or bruising them. Grasp each cherry gently but firmly between your thumb and forefinger, holding it near the stem.

  • Twist And Pull

Give the cherry a slight twist or gentle tug. Ripe cherries should detach easily from the tree with minimal resistance. If it doesn’t come off easily, leave it on the tree and move on to another cherry. Avoid forcefully pulling or yanking the cherry, as this can damage the fruit or the tree.

  • Use A Picking Container

As you pick cherries, place them directly into a picking container or basket. Choose a container that is lightweight, sturdy, and allows for proper airflow to prevent the cherries from getting crushed or bruised.

  • Be Mindful Of Stems

Whenever possible, leave the stems attached to the cherries. This will ensure best results for picked cherries. The stems help maintain the freshness and quality of the fruit. If a cherry accidentally detaches from its stem, handle it with extra care to prevent any damage.

  • Continue Picking

Move around the tree, selecting ripe cherries from different branches. Take your time and pay attention to ensure you’re picking only the fully ripe cherries. It’s important to be thorough and not miss any ripe fruit.

  • Sort And Inspect

Periodically inspect the cherries in your picking container. Remove any damaged, unripe, or overripe cherries and set them aside. This will help maintain the overall quality of the harvest.

  • Avoid Overloading

To prevent cherries from getting crushed or damaged, avoid overloading your picking container. It’s better to make multiple trips or use multiple containers if needed, ensuring the cherries are not excessively piled on top of each other.

4. Cherry Storage And Processing

Ripe cherries should be stored properly to maintain their freshness and quality. Here are some guidelines for storing ripe cherries:

  • Remove damaged or spoiled cherries: Before storing, inspect the cherries and remove any that are damaged, overripe, or showing signs of decay. This helps prevent the spread of spoilage to the rest of the cherries. Overripe and damaged cherries can still be used as an additive for ice cream and cherry jam, so there’s no need to toss them away!
  • Keep cherries cool: Cherries are perishable fruits and are best stored in a cool environment. Ideally, store them in the refrigerator at temperatures between 32°F and 40°F. Lower temperatures can cause chilling injury, so it’s important not to freeze them.
  • Use breathable containers: Place the fresh fruit in a breathable container or perforated plastic bag. This allows air circulation, preventing excess moisture buildup and helping to extend the shelf life of the cherries. Avoid sealing them in airtight bags or containers, as it can accelerate decay. Place cherries in a single layer to ensure good airflow.
  • Avoid washing until ready to eat: It’s generally recommended to avoid washing cherries until you’re ready to consume them. Moisture can promote spoilage, so keeping them unwashed until use helps maintain their freshness. Depending on the number of cherries you have to process, you can wipe with a wet cloth or rinse in a baking soda bath to wash the fruit.
  • Handle gently: Handle cherries with care during storage to prevent bruising or damaging the fruit. Avoid placing heavy objects on top of them. Use a sharp paring knife or a cherry pitter to remove the pits and reduce damage to the fruit flesh.
  • Consume promptly: Cherries are at their best when consumed fresh. Try to enjoy them within a few days of harvesting or purchasing for optimal flavor and texture. As time passes, cherries may lose their firmness and sweetness.

It’s worth noting that different cherry varieties have varying shelf lives, and some may keep better than others. Additionally, if you’re storing cherries that have been pitted or processed in any way, such as for canning or freezing, different storage methods and guidelines may apply.

5. Prune Cherries For Continued Growth

Once all the cherries are harvested, there is one more step to ensure healthy cherry production for years to come. Pruning is an essential process for encouraging new growth each spring leading to better cherry production down the road. Pruning cherry tree branches is an essential task to maintain their health, shape, and productivity. Here’s our general guide on how to prune cherry trees:

  • Timing: Prune cherry trees during late winter or early spring while they are still dormant. It’s best to prune before buds start to swell or break. Only prune a mature tree, avoid pruning saplings or trees that were just planted. 
  • Tools: Gather the necessary tools, including clean and sharp pruning shears, loppers, and a pruning saw for thicker branches. Clean your tools with rubbing alcohol before use to prevent the spread of diseases.
  • Remove dead, damaged, or diseased wood: Begin by identifying and removing any dead, damaged, or diseased branches. Cut back to healthy wood just outside the branch collar (the swollen area at the base of the branch).
  • Thin out crowded branches: Prune to improve air circulation and light penetration within the canopy. Remove any branches that are crossing, rubbing against each other, or growing inward toward the center of the tree. Aim for an open canopy structure that allows sunlight to reach all parts of the tree.
  • Maintain tree shape: Consider the desired shape and size for your cherry tree. If you prefer a central leader shape, select a strong, upright branch as the central leader and prune to encourage its growth while removing competing central leaders or weak branches. If you prefer an open vase shape, remove the central leader and encourage several well-spaced main branches to form the structure.
  • Manage height: If you have a tall tree is difficult to reach for maintenance or fruit harvesting, you can selectively remove some of the upper branches to reduce the height. However, avoid excessive pruning, as it can stimulate vigorous water sprout growth. Pruning lower branches can also drive energy up to the fruit bearing limbs.
  • Prune for fruit production: Cherries typically bear cherry crop on the previous year’s growth. To encourage fruiting, selectively thin out some of the older wood to promote new growth. Aim for a balance between maintaining fruiting wood and allowing enough new growth for future fruiting.
  • Cut properly: Make clean and precise cuts to minimize damage and promote faster healing. Cut just outside the branch collar, angling the cut slightly away from the bud or branch you are keeping. Avoid leaving stubs or making flush cuts.
  • Step back and assess: Periodically step back and evaluate the tree’s overall shape and balance as you prune. Regularly review and adjust your pruning strategy to maintain an open, healthy, and aesthetically pleasing tree.

It’s important to note that cherry trees can be susceptible to diseases such as bacterial canker. To minimize the risk of infection, avoid pruning during wet conditions, disinfect your tools between cuts, and promptly remove and destroy any pruned branches that show signs of disease.

A ripe batch of bing cherries that were freshly harvested in Michigan.

Harvested Bing Cherries

Grow Your Own Cherries At Home!

Cherry growing can be a very rewarding practice that offers a bountiful harvest for many years. Many consider it to be a labor of love! If you want to learn more about how to grow your own cherry trees, start with our step-by-step guide on growing cherries.

Once you determine if you live in an area with the right conditions for growing cherries, then you’ll want to check out our blog on Which Cherry Tree Variety To Grow so you can choose the best cherries for your region. With these resources, you’ll be prepped and ready to start your own trees for a homegrown cherry orchard!

Black cherries harvested in Michigan in a bowl waiting to be processed.