Friday, September 14, 2012

a brief return to summer

As the days shorten and the sunlight takes on a more golden hue, it is only natural to start thinking about all things autumn – crispy leaves, crackling bonfires, apples and pumpkins and squash. Mmm, squash…. But wait, the calendar says autumn is still eight days away, giving me free rein to talk about summer things a little longer. And today I want to rewind a little, back to June, and talk about….cherries! Tart cherries to be exact – also known as sour cherries and pie cherries.


This season I’ve had the good fortune to work on a new project involving cherries, apricots and plums. And yes, I had to taste all of them. Sounds rough, huh? I’ll admit, I did overdo it on the plums a little, but not enough to suppress my love for them. And now, thanks to said project I get to try 20 varieties of plum jam! I’ve only tasted Alderman and Toka so far, and they are both delish! But I digress…

The cherries were the first to ripen, and being my first close-encounter with tart cherries I was very excited. So excited in fact that I picked about half of them too early. I knew they were supposed to be tart, and once they were a little soft I went for them. I was afraid I would arrive one day to find them all eaten by birds, and I was determined not to let that happen. Like I said, I left half on the trees, and discovered that their color deepened and their flavor became richer, less astringent. So I picked those too, and they were much better: The perfect combination of bright tartness and deep, rich cherryness.






















I had a bag full of cherries to bring home, left over from what we needed for research, and thought long and hard about what to do with them. It had to be something perfectly summery: casual, fun and totally indulgent. Then, as I was paging through a magazine I found it – hand pies! For some reason the name had me giggling as I said it over and over in my head (hand pies….hand pies…), but the concept is one of pure genius. Cherry filling wrapped inside delicious, flaky crust that one can simply pick up and enjoy. No fork. No plate. Just pure, crispy, fruity goodness.

I scoured the Internet, magazines and cookbooks and decided on this recipe from Not Derby Pie, which promised the crust I envisioned and a simple, straightforward filling. What resulted was pretty much exactly what I had hoped for: rich, juicy, sweet-tart cherries enrobed in a heavenly, crispy crust with a glistening amber glaze. I need to work on my crimping and venting to make them look a little better. Nevertheless, they were sublime, and I will freely admit to eating more than one as they emerged from the oven. They were small, after all.

So, what about the trees, you ask. Can I grow them at home? Will they look nice in my yard? My answer to you is a resounding YES. I’ve been spending a lot of time with the trees this season, and I have rarely seen such a lovely, easy-going fruit tree. Tart cherries are generally self-pollinating, meaning you’ll get fruit by planting just one tree. But, as with most fruits, you’ll likely get an even better yield if you plant more than one variety. Tart cherry trees are quite a bit smaller than their sweet cousins, rarely growing taller than about 15 feet. The trees have a charming, rounded crown and shiny, deep green foliage. They’re really just lovely little trees.


Tart cherries are great for Northern gardens because most varieties are quite hardy (most to Zone 4) and prefer shorter, cooler summers. Because the trees bloom early in the spring (usually early- to mid-April in Minnesota), frost can damage flowers in some years and reduce yield. This was a big problem in Michigan in 2012, where about 75% of the US crop is grown, and commercial growers suffered a lot of fruit loss. But keep in mind that on the scale of a home garden, the occasional freeze isn’t such a big deal, when you’ve got a beautiful tree that is very productive most years.

Borrowed from Landscaping by Bachman's
Speaking of flowers, I’ll say just one word…spectacular!

Our research trees rarely have problems, are rarely sprayed, and require very little maintenance. We had very slight trouble with powdery mildew this season. It never became too severe, and was limited to just a couple trees of one variety. Cleaning up all debris, and pruning to open up the canopy (to improve air circulation) should help for next year. Pruning every winter is important to remove dead wood, keep the canopy open and maintain a great looking tree.

Fresh, tart cherries are pretty rare at the market (unless, of course you live in Michigan during a bumper crop year), so why not grow your own on a couple of cheerful little cherry trees.

Here are a few helpful resources for planting, care and pruning.

Iowa State University Guide to Growing Cherries in the Home Garden
Stone Fruit for Minnesota Gardens
Growing Apricots, Cherries, Peaches and Plums in Wisconsin
Penn State Stone Fruit Pruning Guide

Your state might have info on growing cherries; so try Googling “Growing tart cherries in (your state)”.

Have fun!

Ooh, I almost forgot...varieties! Look for North Star, Evans Bali, Meteor, Mesabi and Suda. There are others out there, but these are the ones I've tried, and I like them all!