Cherry Tree Harvesting: How And When To Pick Cherries

Cherry Tree Harvesting: How And When To Pick Cherries

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By: Amy Grant

Cherry blossoms herald the onset of spring followed by the long, warm days of summer and their sweet, juicy fruit. Whether plucked straight from the tree or cooked into blue ribbon pie, cherries are synonymous with fun in the sun. How then do you know when to pick cherries?

When to Pick Cherries

Both sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and tart cherries (Prunus cerasus) can be planted in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 8. The variety of the cherry tree, weather, and temperature all determine when cherry picking is nigh. To get the maximum production from a cherry tree, it should also be planted in moist, well-draining and fertile soil in a full sun exposure of at least eight hours a day. Sweet cherries bloom earlier than tart and will be ready for cherry tree harvesting prior to their cousins.

Also, as with any fruiting tree, cherries must be properly pruned to ensure optimal production. Cherry trees must also be watched for any signs of disease or insect infestation which will drastically affect the quantity and quality of the fruit. It’s not only insects that feed on cherries, birds adore them just as much as you do. Either make the decision to share with the birds, or cover the entire tree with plastic netting or use scare tactics like hanging aluminum tins or inflatable balloons dangling from the tree branches to deter the birds.

Once you have covered the basics and a plentiful cherry tree harvesting is imminent, we still have the question of how to harvest cherry fruit.

Harvesting Cherries

One mature, standard sized cherry tree will generate an astounding 30 to 50 quarts (29-48 L.) of cherries a year, while a dwarf cherry produces about 10 to 15 quarts (10-14 L.). That’s a lot of cherry pie! The sugar content rises significantly in the last few days of ripening, so wait to harvest the fruit until it is completely red.

When the fruit is ready, it will be firm and fully colored. Sour cherries will come off the stem when they are ripe enough to be harvested, while sweet cherries should be tasted for maturity.

Cherries will not ripen once removed from the tree, so be patient. You will likely be picking cherries every other day for a week. Harvest as quickly as possible if rain is imminent, as rain will cause the cherries to split.

Harvest cherries with the stem attached if you are not planning on using them right away. Be careful not to tear off the woody fruit spur, which continue to produce fruit each year. If, however, you are picking cherries for cooking or canning, they can just be pulled off, leaving the stem behind on the tree.

Cherries can be stored at cool temperatures such as 32 to 35 degrees F. (0-2 C.) for ten days. Place them in perforated plastic bags in the refrigerator.

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Read more about Cherry Trees

All the Crazy Things Farmers Do to Bring You Their Cherry Crop

Fake birds, balloon innards, and a harvest done entirely by hand—an insider's tour of the Washington cherry scene

A friend told me recently, “cherries are like potato chips, because once you start, you can’t really stop.” That’s perfect, isn’t it? Cherries are one of summer’s greatest luxuries. They’re in season now, and I find them completely impossible to resist at every trip to the farmers’ market, no matter the variety.

And there are so many over 250 varieties out in the world. In the U.S., the 90-day cherry season yields 245,000 tons of sweet cherries, mostly from just nine varieties. And 80% of them are produced by the 2,100 growers in the state of Washington, the cherry-growing capital of America.

In a fit of cherry-induced rapture, I decided to see what this stone fruit mad dash looks like first-hand, from the farm to the shipping container.

Beyond Scarecrows

Growers resort to some interesting tricks to grow the best fruit they can, and to protect their crops from wind, rain, birds, and hail. At one orchard, I kept hearing birds nearby, and asked what kinds of birds were hanging out around nearly-ripe fruit without eating everything. The answer was none: Some growers play recordings of predatory birds in their orchards to stave away the cute little ones that will, if given the chance, ruin a majority of the crops by taking single bites out of every piece of fruit they can.

There’s also a mysterious guy in the region who growers call upon to bring his collection of raptors to their plots when the pesky little birds aren’t fooled or scared by the recordings. Some growers also use sky dancers to keep birds away. Really.

Weather Control

When it rains, growers have to do what they can to dry their crops ASAP. Water left in the bowl of the cherry (at the base of the stem) will cause the fruit to crack, and cracked fruits don’t get past inspection, which means money down the drain. Some growers invest in large panels to cover their crops from above if it’s going to be a particularly threatening year, weather-wise. Others keep protective trellises around their trees to help protect them from harsh winds.

Farmers have to get creative when it comes to protecting their crops, because a lot of the large-scale commercially available methods are insanely costly. “It’s not just our livelihood, it’s the livelihood of our 100 employees who are relying on us to make the correct decisions,” says Leah Eddie, who grows cherries, apples, and grapes on her family’s ever-expanding farm. She was explaining the economics of growing cherries to me (and in case you were thinking otherwise: there’s not much profit in this business you do it because you love it). She has to think about doing what’s best for the fruit, what will keep her employees employed, and her family fed. “When you farm, you can’t think day-to-day, you have to think five years ahead.” In thinking ahead, Leah is converting her farm to certified organic—a difficult (and expensive) task.

Leah showed me a plot of Rainier cherries. Rainiers are those pretty white ones that are extra sweet, and have more delicate skins than sweet red cherries. Elsewhere, I kept seeing single Rainier trees in red cherry plots—the Rainiers are fussier to grow than the red varieties, but are worth it since they’re pollinizers. (What’s a pollinizer? Something that brings the bees to the yard.)

Underneath the Rainiers were long sheets of mylar (an expensive material, it turns out), The sun reflects off the mylar and onto the cherries, and it gives Leah’s Rainiers an extra vibrant kiss of red on the bottom. I tried a few and thought they were perfect, but she said they weren’t ready. She measures their sugar content with a refractometer (all the farmers here do) and doesn’t harvest until they’re exactly right. Unless extreme weather threatens to ruin them, then she might have to harvest a little early, and that’s a decision that could have negative effects on her profits.

But Letting Nature Take its Course

Grower Alfonso Alvarez has 42 acres dedicated to cherries, and produces 400,000 to 500,000 pounds per year. His land was conventionally farmed before he took over, and the first thing he did was convert it to organic. While he shares Leah’s concerns about keeping the business going, he’s committed himself to organic methods, despite the cost.

“I hope everyone goes organic, for the sake of the next generation,” he says. His enthusiasm for organic farming comes from his father, who told him that when you have a plot of land, you have to leave it better than you found it. Being an organic farmer means you have to be even more creative when protecting your crops from pests. “Nature will take care of nature, you just have to help it,” he goes on.

When I asked him about pest-control tricks, he gave me an answer I’ll never forget: “Ladybugs are my best soldiers.”

The Harvest Rush

Growing cherries is tricky enough then there’s harvesting: a huge feat. Cherries have to be picked by hand, and carefully to avoid damaging both the fruit and the tree, which could harm next year’s crop. All the hired hands needed for harvest add up—more than half of the cost of cherry production is in harvesting.

On a 240-acre orchard I visited, the harvest goes on for 25 days straight. 120 workers start picking at 5 a.m. and go on until it gets too hot, a little after noon. The cherries get put into large bins that hold 350 pounds of fruit. In one day, they’ll fill 200 bins. So if we want to average that out, it’s around 580 pounds picked, per person.

From harvest, the bins are sent to a packing facility. During harvest time, packing facilities in the region run pretty much non-stop. One I visited operates 22 hours a day and has 250 people working in it. In the facility, cherries get their firmness and sweetness measured and are sorted by size and appearance. Anything that doesn’t meet the standards of the Northwest Cherry Growers association gets set aside. Then the good ones are packed and shipped, and they make their way onto store shelves usually within two days of harvest.

It’s a whirlwind of a process, and like so many other things, once you see what goes into making them, it’s hard not to think of cherries as little treasures.

When you buy cherries from a farmers market, make sure they don’t have weepy/decaying brown spots. The stems indicate when they’ve been picked: if they’re fresh and green, they were harvested close to when you’re buying them. If they’re dry and brown, they were harvested a little while ago, but(!) those dry stems make no difference to the fruit itself—they don’t draw any moisture from the fruit and vice versa. Once they’re off the tree, they are the way they are.

If you’re buying them in the grocery store—and they’re from the Northwest—the only real decision you have to make is organic or not. Northwest cherries go through very thorough processing with rigorously high standards before they make their way to store shelves.

As for storing, cherries like to be cold, so store them in the fridge. Kept cold and dry (don’t wash them before storing), they’ll keep for up to two weeks, possibly more. But who lets cherries sit uneaten for that long?

Harvesting Cherry Trees

Are you ready to enjoy delicious homegrown fruit? Harvest is the time to enjoy the results of your hard work. Keep a few things under consideration as you reap the fruits of your labor: the best time to pick the fruit from your tree, and how to store the fruit once it’s picked.

NOTE: This is part 11 in a series of 11 articles. For a complete background on how to grow cherry trees , we recommend starting from the beginning.

Sweet cherry trees will start bearing fruit in 4-7 years under normal growing conditons with proper maintenance and care.

Sour cherry trees will start bearing fruit in 3-5 years under normal growing conditions with proper maintenance and care.

When to Harvest

One sure sign that red cherries are getting ripe is when the birds start visiting your tree for breakfast. But when it’s for lunch and dinner too, you’ll probably want to keep these freeloaders away. One way to do this is to cover your tree with lightweight nets. Our Garden Nets keep fruit safe from attack. They are easy to use and last for years. Thin tiny fruits within three weeks after bloom so your tree can produce large fruits you’ll be proud of.

It’s best to wait until just the right time to pick the fruit off your trees. The sugar content increases significantly during the last few days of ripening, so wait to harvest your cherries until they are firm and fully red. Tart cherries will come off the stem when they are ripe sweet cherries should be tasted in order to tell if they’re ready to pick. Neither type of cherry will continue to ripen after it has been picked.

Harvest season for cherry trees in most areas begins in early June and runs through late July, depending upon the variety and growing location.

Annual Average Yield per Tree

Sweet Cherries
Sour Cherries

Storing Cherries

Cool storage preserves cherries for the near-term. Fresh cherries will keep for about 7 days in the refrigerator, stored in perforated plastic bags. They will keep up to 10 days if you leave the stems on them. Don’t wash the fruit until you’re ready to use it or you’ll expose the cherries to quicker spoilage.

For longer keeping, some kind of preserving method will be required: canning, freezing or drying. Prior to any preservation, carefully pick through your harvest and discard any damaged or potentially infested fruit. They could negatively affect the integrity of your finished product and lead to spoilage that could be potentially harmful, or even dangerous to one’s health.

Sweet cherries can be easily pitted with a mechanical cherry pitter and then preserved for long-term storage. They can be frozen, dehydrated/dried, freeze-dried, canned, juiced or made into wine or liqueurs. Sour/tart cherries are most often used for jams, preserves, pies, cobblers, crisps and other desserts. If cooking with frozen cherries, thaw them beforehand for best results.

Sweet Cherry Harvest

Sweet Cherry Maturity and Harvest

For growers, harvest timing is a balancing act between skin color, size, and flavor. Harvesting too early results in small size, poor color and poor flavor. Delaying harvest a few days can darken the color, increase the size, and boost the flavor. Fruit can increase in size 40% from the earliest they might be picked to full maturity. However, leaving unpicked cherries too long on the tree may result in soft fruit prone to injury, increased decay susceptibility, more shrivel, stem browning, and pitting. It can also add the risk of skin cracking from a sudden rain event or crop loss from hail damage. If the destination market is near, one may be able to risk harvesting more mature fruit. There are particular standards (both federal and for Washington state) required to market cherries. Links for the standards can be found below:

In comparison to harvesting apples, the cherry harvest season is fairly short and labor intensive. Color change is one of the most reliable factors in determining maturity for harvesting. Likewise, soluble solid content directly correlates with the color change. As the cherry darkens, the sugar content increases. Unlike apples and other fruits, ethylene does not play a role is cherry maturity. Although color may change slightly, other quality factors do not improve after harvest. A nine-year study on Bing cherries conducted at the Prosser Research Station during the 1980’s found that color change was not effected by temperature, or crop load. For more information, refer to Cherry Quality Research Summary. However, trees with a heavy crop load did have lower soluble solid content. Cherry firmness also correlates closely with skin color and can be used a maturity index. (Link)

Like apples, cherries are also susceptible to injury by compression and impact. Workers must be properly trained in harvesting such small delicate fruit. Picking cherries where the stem attaches to the branch or spur will decrease handling injuries. Because cherries have a high soluble solids content, they also contain a lot of water, which contributes to their firmness, and decreases the risk of compression injury.

Temperature also is a key element in maintaining quality since higher temperatures lead to higher respiration rates and increased fruit deterioration. Keeping the fruit cool will maintain firmness. If cherries are left in hot temperatures, they will soften, which in turns increases their susceptibility to injury. In the field, cherry bins should be kept in the shade to prevent over heating prior to transporting to the packing facility. Harvesting early in the day helps to ensure that fruit pulp temperature does not get too high prior to transport. Field heat should be removed from cherries by a hydrocooler in the field or at the warehouse. The longer the delay in removing the field heat by cooling, the shorter the shelf life of sweet cherries. For fruit destined for overseas markets, it is critical to get pulp temperature as close to 32F before shipping as possible. This is commonly done with forced-air cooling. Finally, Dr. Yan Wang, Oregon State University, has conducted research to demonstrate that the use of both pre and postharvest applications of calcium will improve the quality of cherries shipped by sea. For more information see the 2015 Good Fruit Grower article Calcium improves cherry quality.

For a good review on factors influencing cherry quality (e.g., crop management, harvest date, environmental factors, harvest and postharvest practices), Growing quality cherries, by L. Long, Oregon State University, is helpful.

For a recent article on how to optimize cherry quality during export (e.g. modified atmosphere packaging, forced air cooling), read the Good Fruit Grower article Optimizing cherry quality during export.

WSU scientists are researching new technologies that could substantially reduce cherry harvest labor expenses through mechanical harvesting. Cherry picking is very labor intensive because of the small fruit size. Dr. Matt Whiting, WSU-IAREC, estimates that the current cost of labor harvest per pound is between 18-25 cents. Cost estimates using a mechanical harvester are projected to be reduced down to between 1 to 2 cents per pound, which includes the cost of the mechanical harvester. For more detailed information please refer to:

Preparing the Cherries for the Trip Home

Regardless of how long the trip home is, take some steps to ensure the sweet cherries you meticulously picked remain in prime condition for eating when you get home.

  • First, keep your cherries cool. Make sure your freshly picked cherries stay out of direct sunlight. It is best to place them under the shade of a tree while you finishing picking.
  • For the drive home, place your cherries carefully in the trunk of your car. It is also a good idea to bring a cooler with some ice. Keeping your cherries cool will help them stay fresher, longer.
  • Only wash what the cherries you eat. When you get home, wash them right before you eat them instead of washing them all at once. This also preserves the cherries for longer storage.
  • For longer storage, refrigerate them instead of leaving them on the counter.



  1. Tariku

    Do everyone's personal go off today?

  2. Filmore

    Wacker, what a phrase ... the excellent thought

  3. Goltit

    Science fiction:)

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