After Anya goes to bed, Lopakhin brings up the matter of the orchard, which is to be sold at auction on the 22nd of August in order to pay Ranevsky's debts. Lopakhin proposes a way to avoid selling the land: cut down the cherry orchard as well as everything else on the property and build summer cottages in their place, which Ranevsky can then lease out at a sizeable profit. But as soon as Ranevsky realizes that Lopakhin's proposal entails cutting down the cherry orchard, she refuses his idea. He points out that the orchard produces nothing but cherries, which have to be thrown away because there is no use for them and that there is no other way to avoid the estate being sold. Gayev notes that the orchard is in the Encyclopedia. Firs remembers out loud that there was a time when the cherries were made into jam and sold, but that now the recipe has been forgotten.
Lopakhin says that while until recently, no one lived in the countryside except for peasants and nobles, nowadays there are many "holiday-makers", townspeople, rich merchants and professionals, who make their summer homes in the country, and that their number is increasing. Ranevsky's brother begins to insult Lopakhin, who then leaves, but not before offering a loan of 50,000 rubles with which to buy their property at auction should the Ranevskys change their minds. Before he leaves, Varya gives Ranevsky two telegrams that have arrived from Paris. Ranevsky tears them both up.
As soon as Lopakhin leaves, Simeonov-Pischik asks Ranevsky for 240 rubles in order to pay interest on a mortgage the next day. Ranevsky protests that she doesn't have any money. While Firs fixes Gayev's trousers, Ranevsky goes to the window to gaze lovingly at her cherry orchard, as she did when she was a child. She tells everyone that she can see her dead mother walking amongst the trees; after everyone reacts with shock and concern for her mental health, she realizes she was looking at a tree which has leaned over and looks like a woman.
Peter Trofimov, Grisha's former tutor, enters, and there is a tearful reunion between him and Ranevsky. Trofimov brings back painful memories of Grisha and his drowning five years earlier. Ranevsky soon goes to bed, but not before demanding that Gayev pay Pischik his 240 rubles. When she is gone, Gayev complains about his sister's lavish spending habits and her "loose" way of living, implying that she is the reason the Ranevskys are now in dire straits; he stops when Varya lets him know that Anya is in the door listening to him. He apologizes to Anya for his "silly speech" and is forgiven. He then lets everyone know that he has a plan, involving a loan from some bankers, that might let them keep the property and the Cherry Orchard after all. The act ends with Varya informing Anya that tramps have been moving in to the old servants' quarters, which are now mostly empty. But Anya's reaction to the distressing news is muted because she falls asleep before Varya has finished speaking. As the act ends, a shepherd's pipe plays from the other side of the orchard, and Trofimov sees Anya as Varya leads her off. He exclaims with joy "Light of my being! My springtime!"
This section contains the entrance of the most important facet of the play: the cherry orchard. The first thing to note is that it is gargantuan, much larger than any cherry orchard anywhere in Russia; Lopakhin implies it is nearly 2,500 acres in size, large even to the point of absurdity. The orchard is a monolithic, beautiful relic of the past, and it thus comes to symbolize the past, where the past can be either Ranevsky's individual past or Russia's national history. In the symbol of the orchard, both historical and personal memories are intertwined. Lopakhin begins this process by referring to the orchard as the "old cherry orchard". Firs then remembers a time, "forty or fifty years ago", when the orchard's cherries were made into jam; but the recipe is now lost. Firs's memory is one of a bygone age, and his figure of forty to fifty years is not coincidental: with the action of the play taking place in the early 1900's, it puts the orchard as being profitable before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Serfs were peasants who were owned by their masters, and their liberation marked a turning point in Russian society. Through Firs's memories the orchard—and its beauty—becomes identified with a specific bygone historical era, which is the time before the serfs were freed.
The orchard is also identified with Gayev's and Ranevsky's personal memories. Gayev asks Lyuba if she remembers how the orchard's avenue "gleams on moonlit nights you can't have forgotten?" Ranevsky literally sees an emblem of those memories—her dead mother walking through the orchard—before she realizes it is an illusion; merely "a little white tree which has leant over, and looks like a woman." Ranevsky shows herself, and will continue to show herself, to be someone willing to believe in pleasant illusions, such as the illusion of security provided by her childhood home.