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Oregon orchardist Marcus Morgan is amazed at the difference that five months makes in tree growth. The larger, more leafed Skeena cherry trees were planted in late fall; the smaller ones were planted in spring.

Oregon orchardist Marcus Morgan is amazed at the difference that five months makes in tree growth. The larger, more leafed Skeena cherry trees were planted in late fall; the smaller ones were planted in spring.

Fall planting is gaining attention from a number of tree fruit growers in the Pacific Northwest as a way to bring sweet cherries into full production earlier.

Orchardist John Morton of The Dalles, Oregon, has been planting in the fall since 2002. He first planted half of a Sweetheart/ Gisela 6 block in the fall and the other half in the spring. The sweet cherry block was trained to the Vogel spindle with 300 trees planted to the acre.

By splitting the same block into two different planting times, Morton was able to measure yields to compare the fall and spring plantings side by side. In the third leaf, trees planted in the spring averaged 7 pounds of fruit per tree, compared with 17 pounds of fruit per tree from the fall planting.

This year will be the block’s fourth leaf, he said, adding that more fruit is already observed on the fall-planted trees.

When planted in the fall, trees have time to “overcome the transplant shock” and take off growing as soon as the soil temperatures warm up in the spring, he explained.

In Morton’s newer cherry blocks, he changed his orchard training system to the Kym Green Bush system, a training system known as the KGB that was developed by Australian orchardist Kym Green. The switch, combined with fall planting, has resulted in full sweet cherry production by the fourth leaf instead of the fifth, he said.

“Under the KGB, I don’t get any production in the third leaf, but by the fourth leaf, I’m getting ten pounds per tree,” Morton said. “With 520 trees per acre, that’s a real jump on cash returns, and I can recoup my planting costs quicker.”

Morton has 50 acres of sweet cherries planted to the varieties of Bing, Regina, Sweetheart, Skeena, and Royal Ann.

Marcus Morgan, who grows cherries with his father, Bob Morgan, said they are also finding success with fall planting. Their 100-acre orchard of mostly fresh, sweet cherries is located in The Dalles.

“We’ve only done it once because that’s when the trees were available,” said Morgan, who noted that their fall planting in 2004 of five acres of Skeena on Gisela 6 was spawned by Morton’s successful fall planting.

Morgan added that by planting the trees in November, four to five months earlier than traditional spring planting, they have gained a year’s worth of growth.

“You can see a whole year’s difference in the fall-planted trees. It put us a year ahead. When I first saw the difference, I said, ‘Holy cow, let’s do more of that.”

Tree availability

But fall planting is not without its down sides, Morton noted.

“The biggest issue is tree availability,” he said. “You’re at the mercy of the nursery, and they’re at the mercy of the weather. It is difficult to find a nursery willing to dig and grade trees in the fall.”

Morgan agreed that tree availability is the biggest issue. “That’s the key to fall planting—having the trees available from the nurseries. We’d be doing it more often if we could get the trees.

“But it’s not something that the nurseries are used to doing. It’s different than their normal process, like a cherry grower going from picking in buckets to picking in bins. It can be done, but it takes a different process.”

Both Morton and Morgan plant the fall trees in mid to late November or early December because that’s when they are dormant and available from the nursery.

One year, Morton ordered 2,000 trees, but was only able to receive 500 in the fall, with the balance received in the spring.

Nurseries in California are unable to supply fall trees because their stock doesn’t go dormant until January, he said, adding that he has had luck in receiving fall trees from Biringer Nursery in Mount Vernon, Washington.

The Morgans bought their fall trees from C & O Nursery, which is based in Wenatchee, Washington.

In the last five years, Morton has been able to plant in November four times. One year it rained so much that it got too late before he could get into the orchard. But spring planting can be a gamble, he said, especially when there is extended rainy weather like this year.

He explained that cold winter temperatures have not been a problem because the trees are already dormant.

Getting the ground ready in time for fall planting can also be challenging. Morton, who has been taking out his old orchards and replanting to higher density systems, fumigates the old ground in the fall before replanting. The soil must sit for two to three weeks after fumigation before replanting.

“It’s a push to get it all done and ready for planting,” he said. “But fall planting does take a lot of the pressure off in the spring when there are so many other orchard activities going on. Not planting in the spring is one less thing to worry about.”

Morton noted that in the 1960s, before irrigation came to The Dalles, fruit trees were all fall planted and hand watered. Back then, however, trees were planted 60 to the acre.

Growing interest

Greg Johnson, another orchardist from The Dalles, has observed the fall-planting successes of Morton and Morgan. Though he’s not had the opportunity to plant in the fall, he hopes to try it in a few years.

“I’m planning on a huge planting in 2009,” Johnson said. “I’m going to see what I can get regarding the number of trees for the fall.”

He said a number of growers in the area are watching the fall-planted orchards with interest.

Morton has been so pleased with the results of fall planting that he wishes he could do more and was not limited by tree availability from the nurseries.

“I don’t know why it wouldn’t work elsewhere in the Northwest,” he said.

Morgan believes more growers would follow in their steps if nurseries had trees available in the fall. Many growers have visited their fall-planted block and were “shocked” at the results. The one-year advance in production brings welcome revenue to the farm.