Brandon Lewis (center) of Columbia Basin Nursery listens to Dr. Matt Whiting (left) and Mark Hanrahan (right) discuss the UFO cherry system.

Brandon Lewis (center) of Columbia Basin Nursery listens to Dr. Matt Whiting (left) and Mark Hanrahan (right) discuss the UFO cherry system.

In the original concept of Dr. Matt Whiting’s Upright Fruiting Offshoots system for cherries, the trees were unheaded at planting.

Traditionally, growers head cherry trees at planting, but Whiting believed that after the nurseries put their resources into growing the tree, it was a shame to whack it back. By leaving the trees unheaded, the space between the trees in a UFO planting could be almost filled at planting, he reasoned. Upright shoots growing from the horizontal leader would quickly form a fruiting wall.

But in practice, most of the UFO plantings now in commercial orchards started out with headed trees because that’s all that was available from the nursery. When the leader is cut back, an upper branch must be laid flat on the wire as an extension of the leader.

In the future, growers need to coordinate their plantings with the nursery, Whiting suggested during an orchard tour this summer.

Brandon Lewis, a cherry grower and field representative for Columbia Basin Nursery in Quincy, Washington, said the nursery tops cherry trees at about 5 feet 5 inches at harvest so they can be laid down in crates and stored over the winter. In order to produce unheaded trees, the storage system would need to be changed, as the trees would take up more space.

Lewis said some growers who are trying the UFO system have found that a headed tree is not necessarily a bad thing. They fear that if they used unheaded trees and tied the leader to the wire in order to develop the upright shoots, the leader might not grow to fill the space.

Ken Adams, president of Willow Drive Nursery, Ephrata, Washington, said the nursery normally heads cherry trees. However, the trees are stored upright, so they can be left unheaded if the customer requests that before they are harvested. The nursery doesn’t top any apple trees on Malling 9 rootstocks, and they’re stored in 8-foot pallets.

Leaving some trees unheaded creates additional paperwork and expense for the nursery, as do any other exceptions to standard procedure, Adams said. But if the number of trees is adequate, the nursery can leave a row or two of trees unheaded.

“If people want something, and there’s enough of it that it doesn’t get lost in the system, we will try to accommodate them,” he said.