Grow a 100-year old forest in your backyard - in just 10 years

CC BY 2.0 Bob Owen

Obviously, you can't literally grow a century-old forest in just a decade, but by mimicking nature's forest-building process, it's possible to kickstart your own mini-forest.

Instead of viewing nature as something outside of our cities and neighborhoods, where forests and 'wild' spaces exist only in designated parks and preserves and "out in the country," perhaps it's high time more of us embraced and nurtured our own little section of wilderness, right in our own backyards. All too often, our yards tend to take after someone else's idea of proper landscaping, with a heavy focus on lawns, popular trees, shrubs, and ornamentals, all with their own designated space in the yard, and yet this approach runs counter to how nature does things and can end up using more resources (time, fuel, water) to achieve less.

A far better option is to mimic the way that forests grow in nature, with plenty of diversity and an abundance of soil fertility, with multiple layers of plants that serve to nurture and protect each other. That's the approach that Shubhendu Sharma takes with his mini-forests, which allows him to create "ultra-dense, biodiverse mini-forests of native species in urban areas" that end up being maintenance-free and self-sustaining.

Sami previously wrote about how Sharma, a former industrial engineer, quit his job to pursue his vision of making afforestation a full fledged industry in its own right. Afforestation is akin to the opposite of deforestation, except that instead of focusing on reforesting former wooded areas, this process seeks to establish forests in places where no trees grew before (or where land is currently bare, such as in many urban backyards).

In this TED Talk, Sharma lays out his view of working with nature, not against it, in order to plant and nurture mini-forests that can increase local biodiversity, improve air quality, grow food for humans and wildlife alike, and provide shade and sanctuary in suburbs, office parks, factories, or schoolyards.

Sharma began his afforestation journey with an internship with Japanese forest expert Akira Miyawaki, who developed a methodology that can enable a forest to grow 10 times faster than normal, and has since improved and optimized this approach with his own insights through hands-on forestry projects of his own. The hyper-local focus of Sharma's plantings, along with his soil-first and nature-led procedures in afforestation, seeks to emulate the regenerative processes that nature uses to build ecosystems, but also includes a fair amount of industrial process thinking, such as "car-assembly" logic that uses software to determine the appropriate species and planting ratio to help increase the efficacy of the forest's growth.

On the TED blog, he briefly breaks down the process into six steps:

First, you start with soil. We identify what nutrition the soil lacks. Then we identify what species we should be growing in this soil, depending on climate. We then identify locally abundant biomass available in that region to give the soil whatever nourishment it needs. This is typically an agricultural or industrial byproduct — like chicken manure or press mud, a byproduct of sugar production — but it can be almost anything. We’ve made a rule that it must come from within 50 kilometers of the site, which means we have to be flexible. Once we’ve amended the soil to a depth of one meter, we plant saplings that are up to 80 cm high, packing them in very densely — three to five saplings per square meter. The forest itself must cover a 100-square-meter minimum area. This grows into a forest so dense that after eight months, sunlight can’t reach the ground. At this point, every drop of rain that falls is conserved, and every leaf that falls is converted into humus. The more the forest grows, the more it generates nutrients for itself, accelerating growth. This density also means that individual trees begin competing for sunlight — another reason these forests grow so fast.

Sharma's company, Afforestt, is working to "create wild, native, natural and maintenance free forests at the lowest possible cost," and is said to be working on a platform of hardware probes to analyze soil quality, which will help the company offer specific instructions for growing native forests "anywhere in the world."

Tags: Forestry | Trees


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