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Cherry Tree Help

Posts: 19
Location: Michigan, Zone 6a, Clay soil, 0.5 acre suburban yard with downwards-sloped hill to a wetland border.
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I'm working my way through the litany of mistakes to learn to grow fruit trees. I've had some good beginners luck or I'm finally learning my way around plants in general better but I have a couple cherry trees that are struggling.
The trees were ordered bare-root from Stark Bros (I really like them).
I have three Stark Bro sweet cherry trees and one cherry tree from a local nursery in my yard.

Two of the bare-root trees were planted last spring in an area that had been sheet mulched the year before. There's about 10-12" of nice black dirt and then clay in that area.
Both of these trees put out some leaves before their leaves turned brown and crumbled off a month or two later. At the time it was hypothesized to be from our huge spring rains that year.
One of these trees kept a few leaves but the other showed less and less signs of life until this spring where it was clearly dead (no green in scratch tests, so I started "pruning" it down looking for green until I was convinced it was dead).
I replaced the dead tree this spring--the other tree came back and has a fair amount of leaves on it but still very little new growth (as in branches starting rather than just leaves poking out from the trunk).
The newly replaced tree had put out a few clumps of leaves but they have just recently turned brown and died (starting from the top of the tree).

In a separate location (but only some 20' away) I planted the other two cherry trees this spring (one from the local nursery, one bare-root from online). They are planted on a gradual hill. I dug their holes 2' deep and 30" wide and replaced all the clay with nice black dirt. These trees are doing well--lots of leaves with new branches forming.

I'm in zone 6, Michigan.
Also, possibly relevant, I planted two bare-root peach trees in the same general location and conditions as the first two cherry trees (the ones that are struggling). These peach trees are very happy.

Does anyone have any experience or advice here on what I'm doing wrong with the two struggling cherry trees?
My hypothesis is they're not getting enough drainage with the 1' of nice dirt on top of all the clay. Today I dug out the tree that's struggling the worst (the browning one) and dug its hole some 26" deep and replanted it there with black dirt.

Also, in general, is a bare-root tree signaling something when it only grows a few leaves on the trunk rather than putting out new branches?
...Better phrased, I suppose what I'm asking is what should I be doing when a tree does that--I have that other cherry tree doing this and a plum tree that's doing that same.

Thanks so much for any advice!
Posts: 140
Location: 48°N in Normandie, France. USDA 8-9 Koppen Cfb
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Hi Greg, As no-one's had time to reply yet, thought I'd offer words of commiseration and a link I found.

We are fortunate to have three very old but productive cherries one of which we rejuvenated purely by chance when I grew paulownia tomentosa from seed and planted one next to the cherry that carried its fruit too high to reach safely. It was sad we could get our hands on so few, but the birdlife benefitted. Back then, in 2004 I had no idea about permaculture, pioneer plants and nitrogen fixers, and I planted it simply because it was a pretty tree! In 2009 we left, returning in 2016 to find lots of new growth with low branches laden with cherries. I love grazing them and we spit out the stones, wherever we are in the garden and of course, some germinate and grow on till we find them and move them, so I have never actually planted a bare root cherry. Michigan, I have heard of but I doubt I'd find it on the map, but I did find this link for you. That might flag up something you've missed?

Here in France, (the cooler North West): We have put bare-rooted shrubs/trees in a bucket of water before planting (it's often for a few days as we try to make time for planting) used a square, not a round hole bigger than the size of the root ball,  filled hole with water and let it drain away, added a stake on the upwind side for support (which is taken out once the tree's established, it has to adapt to the wind whilst young or it'll get too wimpy),  added good compost to bottom of the hole, planted at a depth so the soil level will be the same as it was in the nursery, made sure the graft was above the surface and allowed for the the level of soil dropping as everything settles in, firmed the soil without compacting it, added a thick mulch layer, but not right up to the stem, watered it as the weather dictated. Talked to it. Kept fingers crossed it survived the transplant shock.

This spring we planted an almond and a chaste tree (vitex agnus castus) in different locations. Both were bare rooted. Both took what felt like a long time to show any signs of life and were well behind everything else in the garden. They are now settled in and showing good growth, for now. I hope that continues. It's a real shame and time lost when plantings fail. Last year, we planted 8 bare root apples along a berm, 4 each side of the spillway. Four were planted on one side,  each with a ceramic pot for water, they leafed out. Then died. The four we'd planted on the other side a couple of days later, no water pots, all survived. Overwatering? not sure. We replanted with peaches from kernels that had germinated in the bottom of a pot. They are all thriving, with the water pots in place. I think Paul is right in encouraging direct sowing of plants be them trees shrubs or veggies. They are stronger and will likely last much longer. Our excuse is we're getting too old to wait for almonds grown from a nut we planted!

As you're planting trees, I can truly recommend Peter Wohleben's "The hidden life of trees" the audible version is well narrated if you dont have time for reading a paper book. It changed my thinking about trees and all my plants.

Best of luck with your food forestry
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