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Litter production and nutrient cycling in coffee (Coffea arabica) or cacao (Theobroma cacao) plantations with shade trees


The relative importance of N fixation, organic material inputs and nutrient inputs in litterfall, as justifications for including shade trees in plantations of coffee or cacao, is discussed. According to existing data, N fixation by leguminous shade trees does not exceed 60 kg.N/ha/a. However, these trees contribute 5,000–10,000 kg. organic material/ha/a.

Comparisons are made between the leguminous shade tree Erythrina poeppigiana and the non-leguminous timber tree Cordia alliodora. The former, when pruned 2 or 3 times/a., can return to the litter layer the same amount of nutrients that are applied to coffee plantations via inorganic fertilizers, even at the highest recommended rates for Costa Rica of 270 kg.N, 60 kg.P, 150 kg.K/ha/a. The annual nutrient return in this litterfall represents 90–100 percent of the nutrient store in above-ground biomass of E. poeppigiana, and hence the consequences of competition with the crop should not be a serious limitation. In the case of C. alliodora, which is not pruned, nutrient storage in the tree stems, especially of K, is a potential limiting factor to both crop and tree productivity.

It is concluded that, in fertilized plantations of cacao and coffee, litter productivity is a more important shade tree characteristic than N fixation.

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Beer, J. Litter production and nutrient cycling in coffee (Coffea arabica) or cacao (Theobroma cacao) plantations with shade trees. Agroforest Syst 7, 103–114 (1988).

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Key words

  • Agroforestry
  • Coffea arabica
  • Cordia alliodora
  • litterfall
  • nitrogen fixing
  • nutrient cycling
  • review
  • shade trees
  • Theobroma cacao