Sunday, July 11, 2021

A Lightbulb Moment? Getting to the Cherries before the Birds.

 

About a year after we moved here, we planted a cherry tree beside our house.  At only 4' tall, it was a tiny thing but it was nonetheless a very exciting moment as this, together with a plum tree, were the first edibles that I planted in our garden.  My kids were toddlers at the time, but we needed the mandatory stand beside the cherry tree pic.  I obviously picked the worst time of day as is evidenced by my son's "the sun is so bright, I can't open my eyes!" squinting, lol.

We tasted the first cherries that year

By 2017, while the tree had grown, the harvests had not.  We were lucky to enjoy even a few cherries in any given year.

In 2017, the tree was now a teenager
(and was a little lopsided...nothing a good pruning couldn't fix, though)

Fast forward 4 more years and here we are - the cherry tree is now a full-fledged adult and stands at around 15' tall and wide.

I'm standing much further back here than in the 2017
photo where you can just barely see the birch that's on the left.


For a little more perspective, here's a pic of the tree when I was harvesting - note the large bowl and the grabber (for reaching some of the higher branches) on the ground:

It's all grown up

Sweet cherries are not 100% reliable in our area as late spring frosts may result in no fruit and this has happened quite a few times.  But frost is not the only culprit when it comes to cherries.  As anyone who has a cherry tree will tell you, more often than not, the birds are the main reason for cherry-less years.  The combined effect of late frosts and birds means that, after all this time, we have only had one small (i.e. more than a handful) harvest, which was about 3 or 4 years ago.  And when I say small, I mean small - as in a small bowlful.

Most years, practically all of the cherries end up eaten or with bird damage,
like the ripe cherry in the middle

Birds will descend just before the cherries are fully ripe.  Each day you go out to see the progress. "Almost there" you think, as the pink blush starts to deepen.  Then the next day, most of the nearly ripe cherries are either gone or pecked at.  I came to realize that you really don't stand a chance without netting of some kind.

A few years ago, I tried to do just that and net the tree, but it was a dismal failure.  The tree was much too big & it was a right pain to do as I had to "sew" two large sheets of netting together, get it over the tree with the help of hubby and a ladder, and then peg it to the ground.  Even with this huge, double sized net, though, there were still numerous gaps.  The birds ended up getting in and eating all the cherries so we essentially had no harvestable fruit.  I still wanted to try the old "hang a bunch of CD's" trick (which I've always been skeptical of) but at this point, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would get few, if any harvests from this tree and it would be relegated to ornamental status.

And here we are in 2021 and I don't know what happened, but the tree was absolutely loaded.

Bunches upon bunches of cherries - it was crazy!

I had never seen so many cherries on the tree before - easily 4 or 5 times more than anytime in the past 10 years.  It really bothered me that we would lose such a large crop to the birds, so I started to think.  What would happen if I didn't wait but picked the cherries when they were half ripe, before the birds were overly interested.  I went out and tasted a half-ripe cherry - it was no longer green, but yellow with a pinkish blush (like those pictured above).  Yum!  I really enjoy fruit that is on the tart side - I'll take a Granny Smith over a Red Delicious apple any day of the week - so this was definitely my jam.  The half-ripe cherries had a sweet/tart flavour with the same juicy texture as a ripe cherry.  I would have no problem eating them this way...so a-picking I went.

Even if the harvest had stopped with this one large bowl,
it still would have been a record

Then I though of something else - would the cherries continue to ripen after they were picked, like other fruits such as bananas and tomatoes.  It was time for a Google search.  What I found was that most sites indicated that cherries were "nonclimacteric", which means that they will not continue to ripen once off of the tree.  But I also saw the odd site that contradicted this and claimed that, so long as they were partially ripe, cherries would, in fact, continue to ripen off the tree.

A little experiment was in order.  I picked a yellowish/pink cherry pair and took a photo.  Then left it on the counter for a few days.  And lo and behold...it did continue to ripen.

Ripening experiment:  Day 1, 3 and 5

I left the stem on as the cherry may continue to draw from it as it ripens.  Also, removing the stem could damage the cherry flesh which would lead to rot instead of ripening.

The other thing about picking cherries before they are ripe is that you have to be extra careful not to damage the fruiting spurs on the tree.  If cherries are fully ripe, they come off the tree easily.  If they are harvested before this stage, however, they do not come off as easily so I didn't pull them off but simply cut them off, by using my fingernail at the top of the stem.

Freshly picked cherries vs. those left in the bowl for a couple for days

So I could harvest the under-ripe cherries before the birds were interested and still end up with a bowl of ripe cherries on the kitchen counter - another revelation!  You don't want to overdo it though - I left the cherries out for 4-5 days max, until they were just red, otherwise they tended to start softening.

Back to the the harvest - each day I picked a bowl or two and the following day, there were more to harvest.

They just kept on going...

The cherries were on the underside of the branches and it was always a thrill when you lifted up a branch and found it to be especially full:

....and going, and going.

At one point, I graduated from a bowl to a bucket:

Had to pull out the 5 gallon bucket

I quickly gave each cherry a once over before picking it, so that I could avoid picking those that were already damaged; may as well leave those for the birds, no? 

The clincher, though, was that all of the harvesting was done with my feet firmly planted on the ground - I didn't use the ladder once.  About 80% of what we harvested was within easy reach (I would say perhaps 50% of the tree limbs), but I wanted to get some of the bunches that were higher up too.  At first, I used one of those grabber thingies (pictured earlier in the post) but the soft tip didn't "grab" the branches well enough so I switched to a long-handled cultivator, which was much more effective.

The long-handled cultivator was a great tool
to gain access to some of the higher branches

To avoid damaging the tree I only used the cultivator on lower branches that were long and flexible enough to easily pull down to harvest.  This allowed me to add another 3' or so to my reach - it was pretty darn awesome.  The branches near the top of the tree or those that were too thick for me to easily bend down were left untouched - with a bumper crop within easy reach, there was no need to even attempt going higher up.

So what was the final number, I hear you ask 😃.  Well, here it is:  We harvested just under 27 lbs of cherries and, in fact, we could have kept going.  By that point, however, we were pretty much harvested-out and decided to leave whatever was left, which was still quite a lot, for the birds.

The rest was left for the birds

As much as we love fresh cherries, however, 27 lbs is a bit much for out of hand eating so most of the harvest was preserved.  This, in turn, meant that I spent hours (literally), pulling stems off and pitting (yet another reason why we didn't keep harvesting!).

Initially, I started off hand pitting but as the harvest increased, that was no longer an option, so I purchased something I never thought, in a million years, I would - a cherry pitter.

Cherry pitting operation, much more efficient than hand pitting
but still hours of work, hence the tv remote 😁

And there you have it.  I'm obviously beyond happy with our harvest and can only hope that this isn't a one-off.  Now that I have a few cherry picking "tricks" in my back pocket, I have a feeling that cherries will no longer be as elusive a crop as they have been in the past, even if we don't end up with a bumper crop each year.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things” ~~ Robert Brault

10 comments:

  1. Congratulations! I'm very impressed by your harvest, and the fact that you left some for the birds to enjoy. There was a very small, clearly recently planted, cherry tree here when we moved in. I left it in place for 3-4 years, ignoring it for the most part while I focused on other parts of the garden. It never produced more than a few cherries but I really couldn't blame that on critters. Although I assume the prior owner planted a low-chill variety, it still didn't get the required hours of chilling temperatures so eventually it came out. However, we face similar critter challenges when it comes to our navel oranges ;)

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    1. That's too bad about the cherry tree. Fruit trees can be a challenge no matter where you live. The plum that I planted at the same time as the cherry is slowly but surely succumbing to black knot & my efforts at pruning it off are only delaying the inevitable. I can imagine that your oranges are very attractive to many a critter!

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  2. Wow, that's a lot of cherries. It's the same here, the birds get our cherries before we do, though to be honest our tree is only a tiddler, I bought it on dwarf rootstock to keep it small, and it doesn't produce much fruit. What a great discovery though, that you can pick the fruit under ripe and allow it to continue to ripen off the tree.

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    1. I'm hoping to, one day, set aside a spot for a mini-orchard with dwarf trees using the lessons I've learned over the years :)

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  3. I'm envious of your cherries. The wood pigeons strip the leaves off our small tree before it has a chance to produce fruit.

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    1. We don't have wood pigeons, thankfully - the closest we get are mourning doves and they stick to ground foraging around our feeders and in the perennial beds.

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  4. That is an amazing story Margaret ! .. Funny enough I just bought cherries today (I couldn't resist them as they looked so enticing ) .. and to find out there is a way to ripen them after all ? BONUS ! .. No wonder you are excited about this crop of cherries .. I would be too ! Congratulations, well done !

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    1. Thanks Joy :) Little discoveries like that in the garden are always so satisfying.

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  5. Good thinking! Cherries fresh ad dried - yum!!!

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    1. At the rate their going, I don't think they will last long!

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