Alley cropping is a hot topic in agroforestry and permaculture. Unfortunately, the name doesn’t do a great job of explaining what it is. So what is alley cropping and how can you implement it on your homestead?
Alley cropping is an agricultural method where annual crops are planted in between rows of trees or other perennial crops. While the annual crops can be harvested and replanted each year, the trees or perennial crops can take several years to produce a crop. This agricultural system provides both a short- and long-term harvest and many other significant benefits.
What Is Alley Cropping?
Alley cropping is a method of growing crops for a harvest. While some forms of agriculture—such as monoculture—rely on a single crop for their harvest, alley cropping enables a farmer to have two separate types of harvests from one section of land.
When implementing alley cropping, farmers plant several rows of trees or long term perennials. In between the trees, farmers plant annual crops that can be harvested in one season. While almost any single-season crop can be planted in what are called the “alley rows,” here are some common choices:
- Forage for animals, such as orchard grass, alfalfa, or rye grass
- Cash crops, such as soybeans, corn, or potatoes
- Vegetables for human consumption, such as asparagus, peppers, tomatoes, or peas
The type of trees planted can also vary greatly. Fruit trees are popular, as they will eventually bear large quantities of edible fruits. However, some farmers successfully utilize non-fruiting trees—such as oak, chestnut, and pine—in their alley cropping fields.
Long-term perennial plants and bushes can also be planted; for instance, I visited a farm that planted blueberries and their perennial long-term crop with annual crops in between.
The Benefits Of Alley Cropping
So what’s the point of planting trees and crops near each other? There are many benefits, but let’s talk about some major ones.
First of all, alley cropping allows farmers to experience more than one type of harvest from a single field. In traditional monoculture fields, only one crop is harvested. In alley cropping, however, the harvest is diversified, helping to protect the farmer in case of crop losses.
Another key benefit of alley cropping is that it can improve crop health naturally. For example, peas love cooler weather and shade—so when planned carefully, the trees between the alley rows can provide much-needed shade for pea plants in the heat of the summer. In turn, the trees are benefited by the nitrogen-fixing peas, which make vital nutrients more readily available for the trees.
Trees can provide a necessary wind break for delicate crops. Vegetables like peppers dislike wind; by providing shelter from the wind, trees can help these crops thrive and may even increase their production.
Lastly, alley cropping can help decrease nitrogen runoff into nearby streams and rivers. One of the major problems facing the agricultural industry is fertilizer runoff; when trees are planted between crop rows, excess nitrogen is absorbed and utilized by the trees. This improves the health of both the trees and the nearby water sources.
The Drawbacks Of Alley Cropping
Of course, no agricultural practice is perfect. Here are a few of the potential drawbacks of utilizing an alley cropping system.
Alley cropping may require more manual labor than other types of agriculture. For example, the trees will need to be pruned regularly; this is best done by hand, rather than with machinery. Because of this, the farmer will have to hire out or complete this work by hand.
Another issue farmers who practice alley cropping may face is reduced crop production. While alley cropping can increase yields when planned and executed properly, poor planning may actually lower the amount of production.
If the wrong trees are planted next to a specific crop, for example, they may cause too much competition for nutrients or provide an excess of shade that can prevent the crops from getting the sunlight they need to thrive.
If well planned and done correctly, alley cropping can be a beneficial and productive form of agriculture. Alley cropping certainly has a few challenges but the benefits can outweigh those and provide long term abundance to a homestead or farm.
- USDA National Agroforestry Center – https://www.fs.usda.gov/nac/assets/documents/agroforestrynotes/an12ac01.pdf
- Oregon State University Agroforestry Working Group – https://pnwagro.forestry.oregonstate.edu/sites/default/files/Bishaw_Alley%20Cropping_Washington_Final.pdf
- ScienceDirect, Reduced nitrogen losses after conversion of row crop agriculture to alley cropping with mixed fruit and nut trees – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167880918300999
- Alley cropping for maximum agricultural productivity & soil fertility: Benefits of practicing alley cropping in Upland ecosystem maintaining crop productivity and soil health – https://amzn.to/3v3EQZV
Homestead Scale Alley Cropping and Silvopasture
- Used Book in Good Condition
- Mark Shepard (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
Last update on 2024-02-25 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API