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Plant distances in your food forest

Louis De Jaeger

3 jun. 2024

Plant distances in your food forest

In a food forest we always work from high to low. We plant the tallest trees in the far north, and the lower trees and shrubs in the south. You can apply this line from south to north (or vice versa in the southern hemisphere) several times in your food forest. You usually start the main structure of the design with the standard fruit trees, after which you gradually add smaller trees, shrubs and plants.

The average planting distance in a classic standard orchard is 8 x 8 m. This is the smallest possible distance. In your food forest it is best to place the standard stems further apart. This way you can add multiple layers to your design and there will be more photosynthesis that leads to fruits.

Martin Crawford uses the rule that the crown diameter should be multiplied by 1.5. You then place a tree with a diameter of 8 m at a distance of 8 x 1.5 = 12 m. Commensalist also adheres to this rule on average. But we add our own logic to it. The Commensalist system serves as a basis, remember that there are infinite variations possible. Our method is therefore a guideline and not a dogma at all.

The Commensalist system of plant spacing

Draw a grid on the plan of your site. Each cubicle has an area of 3.5 m x 3.5 m. We divide the structurally most important elements into 7 groups.

The trees

Crown diameter

Distance diameter

Branch-free trunk length

Low stem

2 m

3.5 m

0.5 m


5 m

7 m

1.5 m


10 m

15 m

2 m

Average takes:

  • A low trunk in one cage of 3.5 m x 3.5 m.

  • A half-trunk in four cages of 3.5 m x 3.5 m.

  • A standard tree with 16 boxes of 3.5 m x 3.5 m.

Small fruit

For convenience, use a row of 1 m wide for all small fruit bushes. Be aware that shrubs such as josta berry and unpruned red currant can grow to +- 2 m wide over time. So keep this in mind when determining the width of your paths. The planting distance in the row can be set to 1 to 1.25 m for almost all small fruit. For professional raspberries, it is recommended to plant 6 to 8 plants per linear meter, which is a major investment cost on larger surfaces. You can also choose to place 4 per linear meter, for example. They will in any case grow underground in the coming years and form a nice dense row in a few years.


Coppice can be used in groves and wood edges, but in a food forest it is very interesting to place it in thin rows (1.5 to 2 m) between the fruit trees. You plant these rows with cheap forest material that is 1 or 2 years old, 1 m apart. Place these coppice strips fairly close to the fruit trees and cut them down using the chop & drop method whenever they grow too high or too wide. This way you grow biomass on site for free that can serve as mulch, timber or to grow mushrooms. Depending on the situation, the choice of species may differ. You usually use pioneer species that grow quickly and produce a lot of biomass. Some examples:

  • Willow (Salix spp.)

  • Alder (Alnus spp.)

  • Anna Paulowna tree (Paulownia tomentosa) (super fast grower, do not plant near nature reserves, can proliferate and behave invasively)

  • Poplar (Populus spp.)

  • Birch (Betula spp.)

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