How to Grow Acerola Cherries on Heavy Clay Soil: Amend the Soil or Make a Garden Bed
Acerola cherry, also known as Barbados cherry or West Indian cherry, is a tropical fruit tree that prefers light, sandy soils that drain well.
However, many gardeners wonder if acerola cherry can be grown in heavy clay or similar soils. The answer is generally yes, but only if the soil is amended or the gardener should grow acerola cherries in a shallow garden bed.
Published: January 21, 2023.
Acerola cherry is susceptible to root rot caused by waterlogged soil. Also, it prefers soils with a pH between 7.0 and 7.5.
Amend The Soil
In order to grow acerola cherries in heavy clay or similar soils, the soil must be amended by adding generous amounts of aged manure, peat moss, organic compost, sand, worm castings, and similar materials.
Clay is very difficult to work with - if it is too dry, it is very hard, almost like a rock. And when the clay is too wet, it is again rather difficult to work with because it transforms itself into a sticky, lumpy mass.
So, if You have heavy clay in your garden, wait until the clay is easy to work with and dig a hole, one hole per plant, at least 2.5 feet (75 cm) deep and at least 2.5 feet (75 cm) wide - the bigger the hole, the better, although it also depends on the size of the acerola plant.
The goal is to fill the hole with soil suitable for growing the acerola cherry - like growing the acerola cherries in large pots, but at the soil level.
If You plan on growing acerola cherries in a row, depending on the planned plant size, dig holes some 5-6 feet apart (5-6 feet from the center to the center of the holes), with 10-12 feet (3-3.6m) between the rows.
After that, add a 4-inch (10 cm) layer of gravel, small pebbles, or even sand on the bottom of the hole.
This layer ensures good drainage, preventing the root rot from killing the acerola.
Over time, the organic matter will slowly seep through the gravel, it will mix with the clay particles, and slowly transform the clay below the gravel layer into more plant-friendly soil with good drainage.
Some people prefer to add wood shavings on the bottom of such holes. Wood shavings also help with drainage, but they also act as a paper towel, holding the moisture for a longer period of time which can be rather helpful in dry regions. But "wet feet" also increase the risk of root rot.
Should You opt for wood shavings, be sure to use wood shavings of untreated wood (avoid walnut and similar trees). Also, wood shavings leech nitrogen from the soil, but if the hole is large enough, acerola cherries will grow well.
Mix the dug out soil with a generous amount of aged manure, organic compost, sand, peat moss, potting soil, and/or worm castings, and even add some balanced NPK fertilizer with the gradual release of nutrients - aim for at most 25-30% of clay in the finished soil mix. Also, don't forget to add some lime to keep the soil pH neutral.
Note: some gardeners fill the holes only with potting soil mixed with aged manure and other organic fertilizers and avoid adding clay at all. Of course, some lime is also required in order to keep the soil pH neutral to slightly alkaline (7.0 - 7.5 pH). For smaller gardens with just a few acerola trees, this is the best option.
Acerola cherries are not heavy feeders, but it helps if the soil is nutrient-rich, moist, and well-aerated.
Fill the holes fully with new soil and place a strong stake in the middle to support the small acerola plants - since some soil settling will occur over time, it is a good practice to fill the holes with 2-3 inches (5-7.6 cm) more soil.
Now You have a position in your garden where You can plant an acerola cherry - plant it next to the stake and water it from time to time, depending on the local conditions.
Make a Garden Bed
Garden beds are an excellent solution for areas with heavy clay soil, not only for acerola cherries but for other plants as well.
However, when growing acerola cherries and other trees and shrubs in garden beds, be aware of the total height (garden bed height + tree height). Since acerola has relatively shallow roots, strong winds can damage them or even pull them out of the soil completely.
Since acerola lives for 20+ years, it is highly recommended to make a garden bed from concrete, bricks or similar durable material.
The process is rather simple:
- make a garden bed at least 2 feet (60 cm) tall.
- fill it with 3-4 inches of gravel - it will ensure good drainage.
- fill the rest of the garden bed with good potting soil mixed with some peat moss, sand, and organic fertilizers like worm castings, aged manure, organic compost, and similar. Add some lime to keep the pH around 7.0 - 7.5.
- let everything settle for at least a month or two, and then refill the garden bed again.
- place strong stakes where young cherries will be planted and plant the acerola.
When fertilizing the acerola, either use a dripping system that will keep the soil evenly moist but not soggy or use larger amounts of water less often.
Also, be sure to check the pH regularly at various depths and to lime the soil when required.
If the raised bed is made out of concrete, note that fresh concrete makes soil slightly alkaline for a few months, depending on the temperature, moisture level, actual concrete composition, and similar - for short, when checking pH levels, check them on several locations and several depths in the raised bed.
Mulch can help keep the soil moist for a longer period, so during windy and warm days, add a layer of organic mulch. Mulch also helps fight the weeds.
First fruits can be expected after 2 years (planted 1-year-old acerolas) or after 3 years (planted rooted cuttings or air-layered branches).
Few Final Words
Growing acerola and other plants on heavy clay soil is possible, but it requires extra time, effort, and some investment.
Although I am a great fan of raised garden beds, when it comes to small trees and shrubs, growing them in holes with new soil is my preferred method - just be sure to dig the holes when the clay is easy to work with, not too dry, not too moist.
Also, by growing plants in growing holes gives the gardener opportunity to change the soil composition of the whole garden by adding organic fertilizers year after year - as they seep into the ground, they slowly mix with the clay, turning it into lighter, more fertile soil with good drainage.