How to Restore Native Forests on a Small Scale

Reforestation needs to happen globally—and that starts in your own backyard.

wheelbarrow full of trees

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Tackling the climate crisis involves, above all else, taking steps to make sure we significantly reduce emissions in the first place. But we do also need to think about mitigating climate change through conservation of crucial ecosystems, and through reforestation and afforestation efforts. 

Creating new forests is far more than just planting trees. A plantation of trees is not necessarily a forest; forests are far more than just collections of trees. These tree-dominant systems are also complex ecosystems that incorporate other plants, animals, and fungi and are reliant on the symbiosis between them.

Creating new forests cannot entirely replace old-growth forests that are lost. So conservation and prevention of continued deforestation must be the first step. But in order to halt Anthropocene climate change, we also need to plant new forests. 

To avoid temperature rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, there must be an increase in global forest cover of 10 million square kilometers [3.9 million square miles], an area the size of Canada, by 2050.

Reforestation is a complex topic. And restoring native forest cover in different areas can come with a range of different challenges. But today, I thought I would talk about some of the different methods being used to restore native forest on a small scale around the world—to help you work out whether any of these strategies are ones that could be employed on your own property, even in your own garden. 

Methods for Native Forest Restoration

The methods used to create new ecologically functioning forests vary depending on the precise location. And the impacts of restoration also vary based on where you live. But I thought we should briefly explore three key ideas, or methodologies, which are applicable to small-scale native forest restoration anywhere. These are:

  • Natural Forest Regrowth
  • A Permaculture Approach 
  • The Miyawaki Method

A Passive Approach: Natural Forest Regrowth

Sometimes the best way to create a new forest is to let nature take the reins. Where a location has appropriate environmental conditions and the soils are sufficiently healthy, forests can naturally regrow where allowed to do so. 

We may simply need to step back and take steps to make sure that the factors preventing natural regrowth (such as human activity, overgrazing, etc.) are removed. 

Sometimes, however, conditions may have degraded to such a degree that natural regrowth is not possible. In such situations, one of the methods below may offer a solution.

Balancing Human and Environmental Needs: A Permaculture Approach 

Permaculture takes a holistic, design-based approach to forest restoration and other forms of ecosystem restoration and land use. Centered around the three core ethics of people care, planet care, and fair share, permaculture systems often mimic natural ecosystems like forests. 

This theoretical and methodological approach can create native natural forest ecosystems as well as food-producing systems which mimic them. But in permaculture, there is often an emphasis on creating forests which are not exactly the same as native natural forests, but share many of the same beneficial characteristics.

A permaculture approach can be used to recreate native forests or to create food forests or other agroforestry schemes which deliver many of the same benefits for people and our planet. Taking a big-picture approach, permaculture has been key to many reforestation and afforestation efforts around the world and can be applied on a range of scales. 

This is the approach I most commonly take in my own design and consultancy work. 

Speeding Up Reforestation: The Miyawaki Method

Based on the work of Japanese award-winning expert Dr. Akira Miyawaki, this method is used to speed up the process of creating an ecologically functioning forest. Using the concept of potential native vegetation, would-be forest creators can plant appropriate species extremely densely to create systems which can develop far more quickly than other new forest types. 

This recent article of mine explains a little more about this method, and how you might employ it on your own property, wherever you live. 

Creating new forests can be a challenge. But by exploring the different options, you can find the right approach for your situation and potentially play your own part in the reforestation and afforestation that so urgently needs to occur to combat the global issues of climate change and biodiversity losses.

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