Native plants crowded onto postage-stamp-size plots have been delivering environmental benefits around the world — and, increasingly, in the U.S.
The tiny forest lives atop an old landfill in the city of Cambridge, Mass. Though it is still a baby, it’s already acting quite a bit older than its actual age, which is just shy of 2.
Its aspens are growing at twice the speed normally expected, with fragrant sumac and tulip trees racing to catch up. It has absorbed storm water without washing out, suppressed many weeds and stayed lush throughout last year’s drought. The little forest managed all this because of its enriched soil and density, and despite its diminutive size: 1,400 native shrubs and saplings, thriving in an area roughly the size of a basketball court.
It is part of a sweeping movement that is transforming dusty highway shoulders, parking lots, schoolyards and junkyards worldwide. Tiny forests have been planted across Europe, in Africa, throughout Asia and in South America, Russia and the Middle East. India has hundreds, and Japan, where it all began, has thousands.
Now tiny forests are slowly but steadily appearing in the United States. In recent years, they’ve been planted alongside a corrections facility on the Yakama reservation in Washington, in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park and in Cambridge, where the forest is one of the first of its kind in the Northeast.
“It’s just phenomenal,” said Andrew Putnam, superintendent of urban forestry and landscapes for the city of Cambridge, on a recent visit to the forest, which was planted in the fall of 2021 in Danehy Park, a green space built atop the former city landfill. As dragonflies and white butterflies floated about, Mr. Putnam noted that within a few years, many of the now 14-foot saplings would be as tall as telephone poles and the forest would be self-sufficient.
Healthy woodlands absorb carbon dioxide, clean the air and provide for wildlife. But these tiny forests promise even more.
They can grow as quickly as ten times the speed of conventional tree plantations, enabling them to support more birds, animals and insects, and to sequester more carbon, while requiring no weeding or watering after the first three years, their creators said.
Perhaps more important for urban areas, tiny forests can help lower temperatures in places where pavement, buildings and concrete surfaces absorb and retain heat from the sun.
“This isn’t just a simple tree-planting method,” said Katherine Pakradouni, a native plant horticulturist who oversaw the forest planting in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park. “This is about a whole system of ecology that supports all manner of life, both above and below ground.”
The Griffith Park forest occupies 1,000 square feet, and has drawn all manner of insects, lizards, birds and ground squirrels, along with western toads that journeyed from the Los Angeles River, Ms. Pakradouni said. To get to the forest, the toads had to clamber up a concrete embankment, traverse a bike trail, venture down another dirt embankment and cross a horse trail.
“It has all the food they need to survive and reproduce, and the shelter they need as a refuge,” Ms. Pakradouni said. “We need habitat refuges, and even a tiny one can, in a year, be life or death for an entire species.”
Known variously as tiny forests, mini forests, pocket forests and, in the United Kingdom, “wee” forests, they trace their lineage to the Japanese botanist and plant ecologist Akira Miyawaki, who in 2006 won the Blue Planet Prize, considered the environmental equivalent of a Nobel award, for his method of creating fast-growing native forests.
Dr. Miyawaki, who died in 2021 at the age of 93, developed his technique in the 1970s, after observing that thickets of indigenous trees around Japan’s temples and shrines were healthier and more resilient than those in single-crop plantations or forests grown in the aftermath of logging. He wanted to protect old-growth forests and encourage the planting of native species, arguing that they provided vital resilience amid climate change, while also reconnecting people with nature.
“The forest is the root of all life; it is the womb that revives our biological instincts, that deepens our intelligence and increases our sensitivity as human beings,” he wrote.
Dr. Miyawaki’s prescription involves intense soil restoration and planting many native flora close together. Multiple layers are sown — from shrub to canopy — in a dense arrangement of about three to five plantings per square meter. The plants compete for resources as they race toward the sun, while underground bacteria and fungal communities thrive. Where a natural forest could take at least a century to mature, Miyawaki forests take just a few decades, proponents say.
Crucially, the method requires that local residents do the planting, in order to forge connections with young woodlands. In Cambridge, where a second tiny forest, less than half the size of the first one, was planted in late 2022, Mr. Putnam said residents had embraced the small forest with fervor. A third forest is in the works, he said, and all three were planned and organized in conjunction with the non-profit Biodiversity for a Livable Climate.
“This has by far and away gotten the most positive feedback from the public and residents than we’ve had for any project, and we do a lot,” Mr. Putnam said.
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