Since the adoption of hedging in Georgia pecan orchards I have seen the tree spacing of newly planted orchards grow tighter and tighter. Many growers are now telling me they plan to plant 20 X 40, 30 X 30, or 20 X 30. Some growers fully expect to maintain the trees at this spacing throughout the life of the orchard. Will it work? No one knows but I am highly doubtful. In my opinion 40 X 40 or perhaps 35 X 35 is as close as we need to plant in Georgia even when utilizing hedging. No matter what we do, we will always be limited by sunlight so spacings that work in the West may not work here in the Southeast. We receive about 60-70% of available sunlight while orchards in the West receive 80-90%. Even in the West when growers plant 20 X 40 they normally thin to 40 X 40 at some point and maintain the trees there with hedging.
My doubts were strengthened last week when I visited a 9 year old ‘Pawnee’ orchard planted 30 X 30 which has been hedged twice. Pawnee has an upright growth habit and if any variety would be suitable for such close spacing, Pawnee should be a good candidate. As you can see from the photos below, a year and half after pruning the trees with a hedger the canopy is crowding and there is no grass growing on the orchard floor—a sure sign there’s not enough sunlight.
The side of the trees hedged this past winter looked much better from a distance as you can see from the photo below. There is grass growing in the middles and it looks as though there is adequate sunlight penetrating. But a closer look reveals that the bottom 1/4 of the tree is devoid of leaves and fruit is scarce throughout the tree compared with what a 9 year old tree should be producing.
An adjacent orchard was identical except for the fact that it was 7 years old. As you can see in the photos below it still has good sunlight and the trees look healthy.
The production has been down on the 9 year old trees for 2 years now, meaning that trees planted at this spacing would need to be thinned after year 7. The question then becomes do you get enough production in years 4-7 to make it worth planting that tight? The table below shows (generous) potential yields (lbs/acre) for one of our most precocious varieties—Creek—in years 4-7:
Year 30 X 30 20 X 40 20 X 30
Year 4 336 378 504
Year 5 480 540 720
Year 6 720 810 1080
Year 7 960 1080 1440
I think these yields are very generous for the 20 X 30 spacing in years 6 and 7 because I believe the crowding will take place sooner in that situation. But for arguments sake we will assume its still ok. If you go into this determined to cut trees down after year 7 (perhaps sooner on a 20X30 planting) or you have your own tree spade to move trees and create more acreage, it is probably worth doing as long as you can carry out a plan for tree removal within 8 years of planting the initial orchard.
The cost of tree spading is currently at least $80 per tree (and perhaps more) so let’s look at the following. You would need to remove 12, 13, and 18 trees per acre at 30 X 30, 20 X 40, and 20 X 30, respectively at a cost of at least $960, $1040, and $1440/acre.
Total income for years 4-7 at, say $2.50/lb for Creek, would be $6240, $7020, and $9360/acre, which is good but you still have to remember that’s TOTAL income over 4 years and you have considerable production costs in spraying, irrigating, fertilizing, hedging, etc each year.
So, on paper at least and especially for a large, experienced grower with a tree spade, it may make sense to plant at a tight spacing even if trees are removed within the first 8 years. But for most growers with less than 800-1000 acres of pecans, particularly those new to this, I don’t know that its the right way to go. The truth is no one does at this point since this practice is new to us here in the southeast. So, if you’re in this situation and thinking of planting tight, I would recommend letting others figure out the best way to manage tree spacing and hedging in the Southeast before jumping into it.