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I want to clear out a spot for a small orchard near my train station so my visitors have immediate access to any fruits they might need. I'd like to make it as compact as possible. What are the minimum spacing requirements for trees to grow?

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You always need to have at least one space surrounding a tree, so you can't plant it directly next to a wall, a house, or another tree. Doing so will just be a waste and the sapling will wilt and die.

X = Tree O = Surrounding space

OOO
OXO
OOO

As an easy test, make sure you can run in a circle around the hole that you dug for your sapling.

However, I have found that in this game, you cannot have a tree completely encircled by other trees when you plant them either (can't remember if this was the case in earlier games, but I don't think so), or it will not grow.

In order to avoid this happening, try to initially plant saplings in rows of 2, so you don't accidentally block in other saplings. After these rows have progressed to the first growth stage past the sapling, you're safe to plant another row (but not another 2 rows at once, as the first "new" row would then be completely surrounded again).

Note this spacing. It theoretically should work because each hole has a full space around it, including the center one.

digging holes

However, the next day, we see that the center one wilted and died. No matter how many trees you try to plant there in the center spot, they will die.

sapling results

This will also fail even if you use staggered tree spacing instead of straight rows, like in the following image:

staggered trees

In conclusion, basic rules:

  • Make sure you plant your tree with at least enough room to run around it
  • Make sure you don't plant your tree completely surrounded by other trees
    • Planting trees in rows of 2 initially and adding a row a day later when the trees have grown into the first stage beyond the sapling state will avoid saplings dying due to this
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  • Can you surround a grown tree? So plant two rows, let em grow then add the third?
    – James
    Jun 17 '13 at 16:55
  • @James I did some research and yes, that seems to work fine! Updating my answer.
    – FAE
    Jun 20 '13 at 13:46
  • Awesome! I have also had good luck just adding two spaces horizontally with the knight chess layout.. When I get the green house garden place thingy open and can redo trees a bit more I will hopefully get a much nicer set of gardens :D
    – James
    Jun 20 '13 at 16:28
  • This definitely was not the case in the original Animal Crossing. Less sure about City Folk
    – Ben Brocka
    Jun 20 '13 at 21:39
  • It seems it's a bit more complicated than this, when placing trees in a wide oval of staggered rows I found that BOTH slots inside the oval couldn't grow trees, so it seems like any slot completely surrounded by trees, even if not completely adjacent, might be unable to grow a tree
    – Ben Brocka
    Jul 5 '13 at 13:04

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