Commercial cherry growing is increasingly popular in Scotland as later harvests and new varieties help give home grown fruit an edge.

The UK cherry market estimated to be worth around £125m, with 6500 tonnes of fruit imported each year. Customers are increasingly looking to find local food and the health benefits of fresh fruit is also pushing demand for the stoned fruit.

So, The Scottish Farmer spoke to Dr Susan McCallum, of the James Hutton Institute, to find out more about the exciting new sector.

“In theory, anywhere that can grow a cherry blossom tree can grow cherries,” explained Dr McCallum. “But our commercial growers here are using dwarf varieties which are kept in polytunnels, creating the perfect microclimate and helping to prevent birds and late frosts from damaging crops.”

Historically, Scotland’s nice long summer days meant we grew many cherry trees but these were large species which often needed ladders to harvest and much of the fruit was eaten by birds.

In most peoples’ gardens, the trees are grown for their spectacular spring blossom as the labour requirement and predation from birds means a commercial crop has been hard to achieve. But in the last decade or so, new varieties and techniques have been developed which allow commercial crops to succeed.

Nowadays, the trees used in Scotland are dwarf varieties and grown in polytunnels to a height of around seven feet, so hand harvesting is easier. The new varieties, such as Kordia, Lapins and Sweet-heart are grafted on to root stocks which keep them at a manageable size and give a potential yield of between 20-30kg per tree.

The first harvests are expected between three and five years after planting. With the tree not fully grown until seven years, growers need to invest for the long term.

Today’s Scottish grown cherries will have been grown on trees planted around a decade ago. It is expected that the trees will continue to successfully crop for at least 20 years before yields start to drop or new varieties are developed to replace them.

The robust trees need a dormant period through winter and can survive cold temperatures in the tunnels. However, it is spring when the greatest risk to the cherry crop appears.

Varieties usually flower at the end of February and March and start the year's fruit crop. It is after this that the trees need to avoid spring frosts to ensure a successful yield. Spring frosts from March to May can devastate the number of cherries grown on a tree.

To combat this, growers can heat the tunnels, or use a sprinkler system to keep frosts at bay and protect the fruit. The trees also need protected from cherry aphids and bacterial cankers which affect the plants during the growing season.

Read more: James Porter's Farmer's View: Soft fruit growing unsustainable

Some of the early varieties will start to be ready for harvest in July, however most Scottish growers are aiming for their cherries to be later in the season. Later harvested fruits in August and into September offer a greater premium in the marketplace.

The bulk of Europe’s cherry harvest is complete by mid-summer so any cherries coming to market after that can command a premium due to reduced continental supply.

The last few years has seen around 650 tonnes of UK grown cherries heading to the continent as the European crop dries up. Most farms will conduct at least two pickings of the fruit by hand, then send the punnets on to retailers, or exporters. Prices in the retailers are around £4/kg, with little premium offered for home-grown cherries.

“We started growing cherry trees in 2019 here at the Hutton,” explained Dr McCallum. “The fruit has fantastic quality and flavour. I certainly think the cherries grown here are brighter and bigger than the imported ones.

"The demand is huge, with consumers are recognising the benefits of fresh fruit. We have the infrastructure to expand cherry growing off the back of our soft fruit sector, so all the ingredients are there for success.

"A lot of our raspberry growers' crops have suffered with root rot and cherries are fast becoming another income stream,” she said.