When preparing a site for planting—well before transplanting any seedlings into the ground—one of the first orders of business is to devise a short-term and long-term shade management strategy. Cacao seedlings need at least partial shade during their first few years of growth. The standard literature recommends that young cacao seedlings are planted underneath a canopy of 70% shade with 30% sun exposure. As these young trees move towards productive age, the shade cover should be gradually culled until the canopy is reversed to 30% shade with 70% sun exposure—a process which should be completed by the fifth year. Maquipucuna Foundation conducted an interesting experiment that analyzed how cacao yields and bird biodiversity change as a function of different levels of shade. They found 40% to be the level of shade-cover that optimizes the yield/biodiversity balance. (Click here for the full report.) At our experimental cacao plots in the Jama-Coaque Reserve, 40% shade-cover is what we aim for.
The current vegetation and the general characteristics of the land help guide management decisions on this matter. If planting on land without much or any existing shade cover (such as a converted cattle pasture or recently-harvested corn field), the immediate task is to begin facilitating shade cover, both provisionally and for the long-term. For provisional shade cover, plant fast-growing edible crops such as banana, papaya, yucca, or leguminous (i.e., nitrogen-fixing) crops such as pigeon pea—all of which grow 1½ -3 meters tall within months. Most of the above can be planted at 3m x 3m spacing. It should be noted that banana requires good shade that lends itself to easy modification, but as banana plants are routinely cut for harvest, extra care will need to be taken to ensure that the heavy stalks don’t drop on young seedlings.
If irrigation is available, provisional shade crops can be planted at least six months prior to transplanting the cacao seedlings to the site. If irrigation is not available, the safest bet is to plant the provisional shade crops during the rainy season one year prior to planting cacao. For a less patient grower, another alternative is to plant provisional shade crops at the very beginning of the rainy season (early January in coastal Ecuador), and then transplant the cacao seedlings in the middle of that same rainy season (mid-March) or possibly even as late as early-April. This will give the provisional shade crops a few months head start, and should (if the year’s weather is kind) give the cacao seedlings enough time to establish themselves before the onset of the dry reason.
Almost all of coastal Ecuador is subject to a pronounced 6-8 month dry season every year. Without irrigation, planting anything in the dry season is a losing cause. Growers without irrigation will want to confine their planting (of both cacao and shade crops) to the rainy months of January through April, with February and March being the optimal months for planting.
If there is still a lack of sufficient shade-cover at planting time, there are a few work-arounds that can be applied. This past year one of our experimental plots in the Jama-Coaque Reserve was under-shaded. As bad luck would have it, we were hit by several weeks of uninterrupted sun in the middle of the rainy season, immediately after transplanting a few hundred cacao seedlings into the field. For help we turned to one of the most plentiful native trees in our area—the tagua palm, whose massive fronds we use to thatch the roof of our house. Seeing our young seedlings getting scorched, we harvested fronds from the tagua palms, cut the fronds into 1-meter lengths, and then stuck them vertically into the ground next to each plant (about 20 cm away) on whichever side was most exposed to sun.
These “tague shields,” as I call them, provide each plant with dappled shade for at least half of the day. In some cases, I even angle the fronds somewhat diagonally, to extend above the seedling and thus also provide some relief from overhead noon-time sun. This year I estimate that this tactic saved the lives of up to 50% of our crop in one particular plot. Seedlings that were showing advanced signs of stress started to recover almost immediately.
Another tactic is to use naturally-occurring weeds to your advantage. The term “weeds” is frowned upon in permaculture because it connotes plants that are useless. I use the word “weeds” for lack of a better term; in this case, the native plants I’m referring to have several key uses. Many species of weeds in coastal Ecuador explode into growth as soon as the rainy season begins, and can grow a meter in height over the course of weeks. If the site still lacks shade at the time of planting, sometimes it’s beneficial to let the weeds grow as tall as they can, to fulfill the role of shade production. It’s best to pull out the weeds immediately surrounding the cacao seedlings up to a radius of 1 meter, although in dire situations a radius of a half meter can be applied in the short-term. I usually hand-weed within 20 cm of the seedling and then machete-drop weeds in the 20cm-1m range.
It will be necessary to de-weed around each seedling every 2-3 weeks during the rainy season, or else they’ll be swallowed up and lost within the native vegetation. This approach is labor-intensive but it works in the short-term, during those crucial first few months in which the seedlings are establishing themselves. Once the dry season arrives, weeding can be done once every two months or so. The weeds that you cut around the seedling can, at that very moment, in that very place, be used as mulch to protect the soil from direct sun exposure. As the weeds biodegrade on site, they likewise amend the soil in the primary root zone of each seedling.
Although these two work-arounds can be applied as a last resort, it should be emphasized that planting shade-cover ahead of time is always preferable. At the same time that the provisional shade crop is planted, you might as well go ahead and plant the long-term shade trees as well. If fruit trees will be used as the shade crop, its best to steer clear of trees with extremely dense foliage, like tropical pear, mango and even ice-cream bean. In coastal Ecuador, citrus trees are commonly integrated with cacao, but in my opinion their foliage is still too dense. Trees such as sapote, achiotillo (aka rambutan), guayabilla, guava, carámbola, soursop and other trees of the anona genus all have less dense foliage and therefore allow more sunlight through their canopy. Tall but thin-crowned trees like mamey, coconut, and Amazon tree grape are also suitable options.
The wood from rubber trees is not strong enough for building, but if industrial civilization collapses the latex produced from the wood may prove useful. At our plots in the Jama-Coaque Reserve, we primarily use native hardwood trees as our long-term shade crop—with moral fino (Maclura tinctoria), laurel (Cordia alliodora), fernán sánchez (Triplaris cumingiana) as our favorites, none of which we have to plant. These native timber trees grow naturally as early successional species. (Moral fino, it deserves to be mentioned, is one of the finest, most durable timber species in Ecuador.) Rubber trees (Castilla elastica) are also prominent pioneers in these sites. The foliage of rubber trees can be fairly dense (big, velvety leaves of a beautiful shade of green), and some sun-loving cacao growers (i.e., most agronomists) would shun their use. But as they grow naturally in the site, and are majestic, and produce rubber, and allow dappled sunlight to reach the understory, I can’t help but to give them my blessing—albeit with very wide distancing.
Last but not least, tagua palms (Phytelephas aequatorialis) are excellent trees to integrate with cacao. In the Jama-Coaque Reserve, tagua palms are simply present, everywhere. No planting is required—without fail they already reside in whichever plot we wish to plant cacao. If unmanaged, their shade becomes too thick for cacao. Fortunately, tagua lends itself to easy management. As soon as the annual rains arrive and the site grows hungry for sun, most of the fronds can be cut down and used as provisional shade structures for small cacao seedlings or as weed-suppressing mulch for mature cacao trees. When the rains end, and the site grows hungry for shade, the fronds grow back right on schedule.
Long-term shade trees should be spaced at 14m x 14m up to 24m x 24m, depending on how wide the crowns of the trees are when full-grown. As the shade trees slowly reach the canopy, provisional shade plants will need to be gradually culled.
If planting cacao in an existing fruit orchard, overgrown patch of fallow land, or some other version of early successional growth, where some or many trees are already present, then the shade management strategy will be different. First, you’ll want to walk through the site and identify the existing saplings and trees that you intend to keep for long-term shade (e.g., moral fino, laurel, or leguminous species). You’ll also want to identify short-lived pioneer species that you may need to cull before planting, such as cecropia (Cecropia sp.) and balsa (Ochroma pyramidale), which grow very fast but die young and then crush everything in their path when they eventually fall.
Inga edulis, arguably the most prominent successional species in degraded land in our area, works wonders for the soil in a given site, owning to its copious nitrogen-rich leaf litter. However, it is also short-lived and thus problematic as a long-term shade option. If culled a year before planting, the leaf litter and wood that is dropped to the ground will prepare excellent soil for planting and provide a reservoir of mulch material.
In general, it helps to chop-and-drop all weeds in the site at least six months before planting time, so that the chopped plant material has time to degrade and naturally amend the soil. The more cycles of chop-and-drop you can perform before planting, the more amended the soil will be. For the record, we’re already up to three key functions performed by weeds in a young cacao patch, and we haven’t even talked about pollinator habitat.
Fruit trees that provide shade for cacao in the Jama-Coaque Reserve
- Amazon Tree Grape (Pouroma cecropiifolia)
- Avocado (Persea Americana)
- Borojo (Borojoa patinoi)
- Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis)
- Cashew (Anacardium occidentale)
- Cauje (Pouteria caimito)
- Chupa Chupa (Quararibea cordata)
- Coconut (Cocos nucifera)
- Grapefruit (Citrus paradise)
- Grosella (Phyllanthus acidus)
- Guava (Psidium guajaba)
- Guayabilla (Bellusia sp)
- Ice Cream Bean (Inga spectabilis)
- Jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus)
- Lime (Citrus× aurantiifolia)
- Mamey (Mamea americana)
- Orange (Citrus sinensis)
- Macadamia (Macadamia integrifolia)
- Mandarin Orange (Citrus reticulate)
- Mango (Manguifera indica)
- Pomarosa (Syzygium jambos)
- Rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum)
- Sapote Colorado (Pouteria sapota)
- Soursop (Annona muricata)
- Star Apple (Chrysophyllum cainito)
- Sugar Apple (Anona squamosa)
Fruiting plants that provide shade for JCR cacao
- Banana (Musa acuminata
- Papaya (Carica papaya)
Edible plants that cacao provides shade for in JCR
- Coffee (Coffea Arabica)
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale)