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Dense Vs. Wide Spacing in Food Forests

 
James Landreth
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Over the years I've heard a lot of conflicting views on whether or not to space things close together or far apart, in a permaculture food forest/forest garden system. What is people's take on this? I've always opted for more space rather than less but have a lot of plants on hand that I'm trying to pack into a small-ish space this year. The site has good soil and plenty of sun
 
Crt Jakhel
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Could depend on the climate also... My experience has been that planting close together led to problems with moisture-related disease (on apple and quince trees) so I'm in favor of leaving plenty of space (as a rough measure, the expected height of the tree). And that's why our food forest is more of a food savanna - or in less modern terms, a meadow orchard.
 
James Landreth
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That's a good point. My climate has dry summers and not a lot of issues with those kinds of diseases. We do have canker from winter rain
 
greg mosser
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closer spacing of trees also closes the canopy sooner and doesn’t let as much light in for the lower layers in the forest garden.
 
Antonio Hache
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My 2 cents:

Plant small and dense. See how it grows. Prune and/or eliminate as you see how it evolves.

This way, you increase your chances and see what goes better in your soil and weather.

If you are up for adventure, make seed cocktails with tons of different seeds, this way you will see what thrives there
 
Stacie Kim
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Antonio Hache wrote:My 2 cents:

Plant small and dense. See how it grows. Prune and/or eliminate as you see how it evolves.



This is what I was thinking too. I've seen people who planted two varieties of apple trees in the same hole, so they'd be extra sure of proper pollination. Then they let them grow and prune them as if they were one tree. As far as I could tell, both trees looked healthy, shaped well, and bore good quality fruit.
 
r ranson
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I always forget that trees grow bigger and put everything too close together so there's no sun getting in at the lower plants.  

But every climate is different, so maybe look at what nature is doing in your neck of the woods and use that as a starting place for plant spacing.  
 
Ben Zumeta
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I think where I am now where heat, wind and sun can be over abundant, tight spacing is better for shading soil sooner, and in these places the understory still gets plenty of light for a lot of things. In western Washington or at my old place near the coast of NW CA, I’d spread things out more to allow airflow and light penetration.
 
Mike Haasl
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I take some cues from the wild forests in my area.  I'll often see 5 mature maple trees enjoying each other's company with their trunks a few feet apart.  So I tend to cluster my overstory trees along the north side of an area so that the understory trees/shrubs/plants can be to the south of them in the sun.
 
James Landreth
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It's pretty hot and dry here in the summer (it's in the 90's and 100's for weeks on end some summers). I'm thinking of trying a denser spacing. I can always take stuff out or prune I guess!
 
Jamin Grey
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Stacie Kim wrote:I've seen people who planted two varieties of apple trees in the same hole, so they'd be extra sure of proper pollination. Then they let them grow and prune them as if they were one tree. As far as I could tell, both trees looked healthy, shaped well, and bore good quality fruit.



Some nurseries and big box stores even sell trees like that - the two trunks literally twisted together. I bought one about four years ago, and the two distinct trees planted together seems to be doing about as well as any of the other trees I planted solo.

James Landreth wrote:Over the years I've heard a lot of conflicting views on whether or not to space things close together or far apart, in a permaculture food forest/forest garden system. What is people's take on this? I've always opted for more space rather than less but have a lot of plants on hand that I'm trying to pack into a small-ish space this year. The site has good soil and plenty of sun



It depends on what you're trying to do. I'm pruning my trees to keep them small, and got dwarf varieties, so I have mine planted closer together than normal, with the intention that this also helps keep their growth constrained. I plant mine about ten feet apart, but sometimes as little as seven feet.

I want all my trees (except nut trees*) to basically be entirely within hand-picking range from the ground. I'm 6'2", so I can basically reach 8 ft high, so I don't want any of my trees taller than ten feet, max. I plant dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties, but I also plant standard varieties and just prune them to stay small. My orchard is still young (five years), so we'll see how it goes long-term.

*I've heard nut trees won't produce if kept small - so I let the nut trees grow naturally.

Crt Jakhel wrote:Could depend on the climate also... My experience has been that planting close together led to problems with moisture-related disease (on apple and quince trees) so I'm in favor of leaving plenty of space (as a rough measure, the expected height of the tree).



What do you mean by "close together"? What does James Landreth mean by "close together"? We're using vague terms. =P

My trees are ~8-10 ft apart, and even when older, they won't ever touch each other (except through their roots). I consider that to be close, because several neighbors have stopped by to say, "Well, I've never seen trees planted that close together", but that may not be what you or James considers 'close'. =)
 
James Landreth
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I consider "close" to be anything closer than conventional spacing, which in my area is:


Standards: 20-30 feet
Semi-dwarves: 12-15 feet
Dwarves: 8-12 feet, sometimes listed as as close as 5

Shrubs: 5-10 feet
 
Jamin Grey
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James Landreth wrote:I consider "close" to be anything closer than conventional spacing, which in my area is:


Standards: 20-30 feet
Semi-dwarves: 12-15 feet
Dwarves: 8-12 feet, sometimes listed as as close as 5

Shrubs: 5-10 feet



Ah, then I'm absolutely planting "close" by those standards. I plant my Standards, Semi-dwarves, and Dwarves at about 10 ft apart, average. Sometimes more like 15 for standards, sometimes more like 8 for dwarfs. But I prune mine so they stay below 7-8 ft tall (I rarely have to do any pruning work at all - one day's pruning work every other year, so far, but we'll see how things go as the orchard matures - mine is still young).

This probably explains why you've heard a lot of conflicting views on optimal spacing - it's at least partially dependent on how the trees are pruned. Some people let the trees grow naturally - 20 ft or more into the air. Others prune them, and keep them under 15 feet. Some prune them under 10 feet, some prune them human-reachable-height. Others prune them to be shrub-like bushes only three feet tall (popular in Japan).

I wouldn't want the trees planted close together and unpruned to the extent that they rub against each other and get diseased.

 
Ben Zumeta
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I like Mike Haasl’s approach of having clumps of canopy trees on the north side of understory shrubs and smaller trees. This reflects the banana/palm circle approach in the Designer’s Manual, which seems like it could be useful anywhere excessive sun and evaporation are a bigger problem than humidity exacerbated disease. The Apple-nitrogen fixator-plum pattern (or some other similar alternating cycle of trees for your area) also seems to help nutrient cycling and disease mitigation.

This debate seems to reflect a similar variety of approaches in what I’ve seen around various grape growing areas. Some older vineyards that were put into replace apples or walnuts fifty years ago still have row spacing based on the tractor size of the apple grower (10x8ft). Their vines are very vigorous due to a lack of competition and space to spread out, and seem less prone to mildew and botrytis than the newer, French style. These grapes get planted at 3x6ft or less, with smaller tractors to suit this intensive style that produces less fruit but of supposedly higher quality for wine due to competition causing deeper rooting and more complex mineral uptake. The French style also seems better suited for the changing climate that is getting hotter and drier in the Willamette valley, but it costs more to start more canes and prune them to manage the tight spacing.
 
Trace Oswald
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I think it depends what you mean by "things".  I think most people put their trees too close together, but then don't plant enough support species.  I know I have done that very thing.    I don't want a closed canopy and I would like to avoid cutting down trees that I planted and grew for 6 or 7 years, so I'm spacing trees farther apart now.

With other layer species, as well as support species, all bets are off.  I plant all sorts of things, most very close together, and let them sort it out.  Lots of my bushes and such are native plants that I thin from areas on my land that they grow themselves.  Nature thins it trees, bushes, and smaller plants anyway as they grow, so if I remove some and put them in an area I want them, I don't believe it harms anything.  You can plant an awful lot of plants for no cost other than your time if you propagate from other plants that grow naturally on or near your own land.

I do tend to clump some of my trees as Mike said.  I do the same with bushes and smaller plants.  In nature I see things growing that way.  Flowers often grow in drifts, and obviously most plants propagate themselves in one area and spread, so I try to do the same.  Certain species like mint you may want to be careful with.  They can take over an area pretty easily.  I still plant lots of it, it's just something to be aware of.  I figure nature will take care of most of the mistakes I make.
 
Richard Cleaver
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Location: Dordogne, France
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We're in a temperate climate which is very wet in the spring.  At our first property we planted our forest garden trees 20ft apart.  After 13 years we felt that they were too close together.  At our new place we are going for a minimum of 25ft.  In the book Edible Forest Gardens vol 1 (Jacke & Toensmeier) there is a section on Vegetation Density which discusses canopy and root spacing in great detail.
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