Fast-track your return on investment by adopting a high-density planting schedule for your new citrus orchard. This innovative farming technique maximizes soil usage, improves light, water, and fertilizer utilization, which consequently boosts production and profitability.

High-density Planting for a Better ROI

South Africa has emerged as a global leader in citrus exports, achieving record-breaking figures in 2020. This success has solidified citrus as a vital subsector in South African agriculture, providing up to 60,000 jobs in a country grappling with high unemployment rates. Given the current economic climate, growers are under pressure to achieve a positive return on investment (ROI) as quickly as possible. In tree crop industries like citrus, full production typically takes several years, delaying ROI. However, high-density planting offers a solution for quicker economic returns.

What is High-Density Planting?

High-density planting is an innovative farming technique that maximizes the use of soil, leading to increased profitability. By planting trees closer together, farmers can improve light, water, and fertilizer utilization, which boosts production. This method allows trees to grow larger, faster (see Figure 1), and has become a cornerstone of advanced production systems.

Using a suitable cultivar and a dwarfing rootstock, farmers can achieve optimal planting densities for maximum yields. While the standard density is 555 trees per hectare (6 m x 3 m), some farmers have pushed this to 1,667 trees per hectare (6 m x 2 m x 2 m) to accelerate ROI. For long-term crops like citrus, it’s crucial to design planting densities that promote early high yields and establish sustainable long-term production units.

In a tramline design, tree rows are planted in pairs with narrower spacing than in conventional plantings. The trees are arranged in a triangular manner to maximize space usage. Choosing a less vigorous, more dwarfing rootstock helps ensure better penetration of pesticides and foliar sprays, facilitating a healthier tree canopy and earlier economic production.

The Economics of High-Density Planting: A Case Study on Mandarins

Research on optimal tree planting density for mandarins, using data from ARC LS Nadorcott in the Burgersfort and Mbombela regions, shows promising results. Without nets, trees planted at a density of 1,667 trees per hectare yielded significantly more in year three compared to those planted at 555 trees per hectare. By year six, yields from both densities were relatively similar. For a detailed comparison of yields at different planting densities, refer to ROOTED magazine #2.

While high-density planting incurs higher initial costs—such as for trees, fertilizers, and pesticides—these costs vary depending on farming practices. Despite the higher initial input costs, such as land preparation, irrigation design, and herbicide application, the increased production from high-density plantings can cover these expenses more quickly, leading to faster ROI.


High-density planting is continuously being refined to improve orchard efficiency, maximize fruit yield per hectare, reduce production inputs, and minimize environmental impact. Though initial costs are higher, the faster returns from increased production can offset these expenses, helping farmers reach their ROI sooner.

The primary goal for any farmer is to achieve maximum yields quickly to repay initial capital investments and cover annual running costs. High-density plantings reduce the financial risks associated with high capital developments by generating cash flow earlier compared to lower-density orchards.

High-density planting is not just a trend but a strategic approach to enhance profitability and ensure sustainable agricultural practices. As research and implementation continue to evolve, this method stands to offer significant benefits for the citrus industry and beyond.