Alley cropping allows the famer to effectively use available resources and yield more benefits. Choosing suitable associated crop and mitigating the competition between trees and crops are crucial for designing the alley cropping systems. We conducted a long-term experiment, including apple (Malus pumila
)/peanut (Arachis hypogaea
), apple/millet (Setaria italica
) and apple/maize (Zea mays
) alley cropping systems with conventional intercropping distance, and corresponding monocultures (Exp.1), and a short-term experiment with improved intercropping distance in the same three combinations (Exp.2) in the Loess Plateau, China. The results showed crop yields in three alley cropping systems were lower than the corresponding monocultures. Apple yields were significantly constrained by millet and maize in the alley cropping systems, but not sensitive to the presence of peanut. Land equivalent ratios (LERs) ranged from 0.44 to 0.89 before the tree bore fruit. The LERs were greater than 1.0 after the tree bore fruit, and the apple trees made a decisive contribution to the land use advantage. Net present values of three alley cropping systems were on average 60.1% higher than the corresponding monocultures across the alley cropping period. The maximum annual present value in the first–fifth, sixth and seventh–ninth years after the alley cropping establishment was observed in the apple/maize, apple/millet and apple/peanut system, respectively. These results highlight that choosing the optimal alley cropping management and suitable associated crops at different years after establishment may allow farmers to increase the land use efficiency and economic profitability.
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