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Be A Better Gardener: Tiny Forest

Be A Better Gardener: Tiny Forest

By Thomas Christopher

In the fall of 2021, the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, planted the first Miyawaki Forest in the United States. That made news in the American ecological restoration community, even though this event came more than a dozen years after Shubhendu Sharma of Bangalore India began a program that had introduced Miyawaki forests all over the world.

What, you may ask, is a Miyawaki Forest? Often called “tiny forests,” this type of planting was developed by the Japanese botanist and ecologist Akira Miyawaki in the 1970s. In a survey of Japan’s forest resources, Miyawaki determined that only 0.06 % of them were truly indigenous, featuring plant species in the kind of diversity that would have been characteristic of undisturbed woodlands from Japan’s past. Too much of what passed for wild forest in his native land was actually timber plantations or other manmade woodlands based on collections of plants selected as desirable by foresters.

In response, Miyawaki began to search for old-growth forest remnants. He found scraps, he believed, in sacred sites such as ancient temple groves where religious beliefs had forbidden tree cutting and allowed the woodland to perpetuate itself without disturbance. From inventories of these remnants, Miyawaki constructed a profile of what indigenous forests had looked like throughout the Japanese islands.

Miyawaki next designed a system of planting that would more closely mimic nature’s plan than the tidy rows of trees beloved by foresters or the aesthetically-influenced planting styles of horticulturists. Miyawaki decided to plant the trees much more closely than gardening tradition dictated, clustering saplings grown from wild-collected seeds as closely as they typically spring up in the wild, with 3-5 saplings per square meter.

Planting so closely had a couple of effects. Competition for sunlight prompted the little trees to grow tall more quickly. They and the understory species Miyawaki included quickly dominated the site, leaving no room for invasive species to infiltrate. Such lavish use of plants made Miyawaki’s plantings expensive to install and so limited the size of the created forests. That, however, proved an advantage, as they could fit into small spots, even vacant lots in cities. Even at that size, they served as inoculations, havens of indigenous plants and wildlife that could serve as nexuses for their return to the local ecosystem.

Miyawaki brought his concept to India in 2008 when a Toyota plant in Bangalore invited him to plant a tiny forest on its campus. Shubhendu Sharma, who was working for Toyota Bangalore as an engineer, had already become disturbed by the way his work was contributing to environmental degradation. On visits to suppliers, he saw iron mining devastating mountains and forests cleared to make way for rubber plantations. The products this produced – cars and tires – had a relatively short life after which they were junked. There was no replenishment of the natural resources. At an introductory lecture by Dr. Miyawaki, Sharma recognized tiny forests as one way to “close the loop” as he recently told me.

Sharma volunteered to help plant the Toyota tiny forest in 2009. He read Dr. Miyawaki publications while also studying conventional systems of forest planting. In late 2010 Sharma planted a tiny forest in his own backyard. The success of that encouraged him to found a tiny forest installation firm, Afforestt, in January 2011.

Afforestt, with a staff of 13, has progressed from planting tiny forests across India to projects in Singapore, the Middle East, Western Europe, and Latin America. Along the way, Sharma’s strategies evolved. Reasoning that a non-profit would involve him in full-time fundraising and dependent on the corporations that were contributing to the natural degradation, he organized Afforestt as a for-profit organization, using the money it earned to fund research. He chose to make that research available to anyone for free, creating a series of manuals and instructional videos to enable others to go into tiny forest planting. Sharma also put a new twist on the Miyawaki emphasis on sacred groves: he worked with Eco Sikh, a religious charity in Punjab, to create a chain of 303 tiny forests dedicated to the founder of the Sikh religion, intending in this way to ensure the perpetuation of these forests.

Americans are often reluctant to look outside our national borders for inspiration. When it comes to tiny forests, though, I think we have much to learn from Subhendu Sharma and Afforestt.

To listen to my recent conversation with Subhendu Sharma, log onto the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s “Growing Greener” podcast at www.berkshirebotanical.org.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature, a distinction reserved to recognize those who have left a profound and lasting impact on issues that are most important to the GCA. Christopher’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at berkshirebotanical.org/growinggreener.

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