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Monday, February 20, 2023

Urban Afforestation: Food Forests and Microforests

Food forests and microforests are two emerging movements within urban environments. Benefits include carbon sequestration from the atmosphere into the soil, soil-health restoration, urban cooling, urban-wildlife habitat and food, “forest bathing” for local residents, and community-environmental education.

With their focus on human-food production from the variety of trees and groundcover, food forests contribute to food security within the community. In general, microforests are planted with native tree and bush species and are a haven for urban wildlife. Due to the Miyawaki-planting method, a microforest can grow into a dense, 100-year old forest in a decade or two.

Food Forests
According to Project Food Forest, a food forest, also called a forest garden, is a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. Food forests are three-dimensional designs, with life extending in all directions – up, down, and out.

A food forest consists of numerous layers of plants ranging from fruit- or nut-bearing trees to shrubs to dense ground cover that protects the soil and prevents weeds. Annuals and self-seeding perennials are recommended to create a forest with minimal annual maintenance. 

The Moroccan Food Forest That Inspired an
Agricultural Revolution
Photo courtesy of Gastro Obscuro
Plant diversity is important to nurturing a healthy, self-sustaining food forest. Selecting plants that attract beneficial insects who pollinate the forest and control pest insects creates an ecosystem based on nature's perfected principles.

Prior to planting, soil preparation is key to establishing a nurturing forest foundation where mycorrhizal fungi and other soil-ecosystem components flourish. In an urban environment, a common soil-preparation method places cardboard covered with a thick layer of mulch over the forest footprint; the soil preps for weeks to several months. Upon planting, compost and other natural amendments are added to the soil.

Food forests may vary widely in size depending on the availability of land. When planted on public land, it is wise to partner with an organization to harvest the fruits and nuts from the trees and vegetables from the ground cover. Non-profit organizations such as Concrete Jungle in Atlanta and Transition Sarasota use a volunteer model to harvest food grown on public and private land; the food is donated it to shelters or other community programs dedicated to local food security.

Urban Food Forests
The June 2022 Sustainable Urban Delta article, 10 incredible urban food forests from around the world, showcases the many benefits of thriving urban food forests. As most are maintained by a local volunteer network, food forests build community networks as well as establish local-food security. Additionally, the forests provide excellent educational opportunities, whether via formal workshops/classes or experiential learning through simple participation.

Swales, a floating food forest
Photo courtesy of Fine Dining Lovers

In New York City, Swales founder Mary Mattingly sidestepped city regulations by growing the food forest on barge where it is legally assessible to the public for harvesting. Though Swales closed during the pandemic, plans are in place to reestablish the floating food forest in Brooklyn. 

In the City of Ashdod, Israel, a degraded public park was transformed into the Ashdod Community Food Forest; the  community food forest is a collaborative effort between residents, community groups, schools, and city staff. In addition to providing local, nutritious food, the forest provides community inspiration. From their Instagram page, a young neighborhood resident states, "I get bored at school. Whenever I get home, I always come here to the forest. I love it here.”

Rather than focusing on one forest, the Coöperatie Ondergrond in Rotterdam, The Netherlands creates a series of food forest gardens throughout the city utilizing empty lots and other available land. As stated on their website: 

Our aim is to strengthen the bond between city and country, consumer and producer, and between people and nature. By creating food forest gardens and edible green spaces within the city, the food forest story is told through the experience of seeing, feeling, smelling and tasting.

Mini Food Forests
As demonstrated by the Coöperatie Ondergrond, tiny food forests are vehicles for small tracts of urban land to contribute to the community ecosystem. In addition to empty lots, backyards are often excellent avenues for urban mini food forests.

Ei Food Forest five months after planting.
Photo courtesy of Holly Elmore Images
Within the Ei Rewilding Urban Landscapes Pilot hosted in Elemental Impact (Ei,) Founder & CEO Holly Elmore's home yard, the Backyard Permaculture-Oriented Pilot includes a mini food forest. After several months of soil preparation, the initial trees were planted on June 15, 2022 along with native shrubs and sweet potato ground cover. Three months later, the young food forest proved resilient when it survived  Hurricane Ian's battering of the Florida Gulf Coast.

Though supportive of microforests, Ei's focus is on urban food forests within the Nature Prevails platform.

Whereas it's primary focus is to produce food for human consumption, food forest trees and supporting foliage may not be indigenous to the area. In contrast, Miyawaki microforests consist of native trees and shrubs that provide food and habitat for local urban wildlife.

Renowned Japanese botanist and ecologist Akira Miyawaki (1928 – 2021) developed the Miyawaki method for microforests. In 1972, Miyawaki installed his first microforest at the Nippon Steel Corporation's plant in Ōita Prefecture. According to Urban Forests, since the 1980's over 2000 microforests were successfully planted across the globe using the Miyawaki method.

As state on the LA Microforest site: 

Microforests (also called pocket forests, mini forests, and tiny forests) are densely-planted, multilayered indigenous forests planted in urban spaces which act as self-sustaining ecosystems that reconnect fragmented habitat and restore biodiversity.

The Miyawaki method involves the randomized planting of small saplings of various indigenous shrubs and trees (grown from local, regionally adapted seeds) in very close proximity together, where no two trees or shrubs of the same height are planted side by side.

A Miyawaki-method microforest in India
Photo courtesy of
Randomized planting of saplings creates four layers: canopy tree, tree, sub-tree, and shrub; trees within each category are not planted next to each other.

Due to the dense planting and fast growth, microforests draw down carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, via photosynthesis, at a faster rate (10X) than traditional forests. Microforests have a cooling impact on and provide a natural oasis within urban environments. With indigenous trees and shrubs, microforests are a haven for urban wildlife via food, habitat, and refuge from buildings and impervious surfaces.

Prior to planting, the soil is prepped for a microforest in a similar manner to the previously mentioned technique in the food forests section.

In general, it takes two years of nurturing via watering and weeding for a microforest to evolve into a self-sustaining state. By leaving the leaves on the forest floor, a natural leaf mulch develops that prevents weeds and contributes to establishing a healthy underlying soil ecosystem. As they are native, the trees and shrubs evolved to thrive on the area's typical rainfall for hydration.

Many microforests are designed with walking paths, educational signage, and areas for "forest bathing." Thus, microforests provide a community amenity in addition to its environmental benefits.

A Global Movement
Organizations such as IVN Nature Education (IVN,) a Netherlands conservation group, commit to design and plant microforests, or tiny forests, in their local vicinity and beyond. Since 2015, IVN supported the planting of hundreds of microforests. Similar organizations are active in Belgium and France.

Microforest planted by IVN
Photo courtesy of
European Platform/Urban Greening
As stated in the May 2022 Nippon article, Urban Forests: Restoring Nature Through the Miyawaki Method of Afforestation, "To date, some 900 projects in Japan have utilized the technique (Miyawaki method,) including those to reestablish protective coastal forests devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake’s tsunami in 2011, as well as more than 300 afforestation efforts in such far-flung places as Southeast Asia, the Amazon, Chile, and China."

At LA Microforests, native-plant horticulturist and educator Katherine Pakradouni focuses on the collective impact of a series of microforest installations. According to Katherine,

Rocks and succulents, they reduce water, but they don't solve the biodiversity issue, they don't solve the carbon-sequestration issue, and they don't improve soil health in the same way that a really diverse multi-layered oak woodland microforest might.

While these micro forests might be small, planting a large number of them could go a long way in solving our climate and biodiversity crises. 

When you add it up, it becomes cumulative. Even a small pocket of forest habitat has the ability to sequester a lot of carbon and has the ability to become a haven and refuge for wildlife that is otherwise being pushed farther and farther out of our cities.

Heritage Harbour Microforest Planting Day
Photo courtesy of Holly Elmore Images
Suncoast Urban Reforesters (SURF)
Founded by Charles Reith, Ph.D., SURF is a collaborative organization dedicated to installing a series of microforests on Florida's Central Gulf Coast. SURF members include Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START,) Florida Veterans for Common Sense (FVCS,) and the Rotary Club of Sarasota Bay (RCSB.) To date, SURF boasts the successful installation of five local microforests, ranging in size from a 1/4 of an acre to a full acre.

In addition to the previously mentioned microforest benefits, SURF focuses on erosion control and stormwater abatement. As stormwater often contains contaminants including nitrogen-based fertilizers, stormwater abatement aids in the prevention of severe and costly red tide outbreaks. 

Red tide occurs when there is a higher-than-normal concentration of Karenia brevis, a microscopic algae, in the nearby Gulf of Mexico; Karenia brevis feeds on nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants. Thus, a microforest's absorption of stormwater prevents the flow of contaminated stormwater into waterways that eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico and helps to deter red tide outbreaks.

Heritage Harbour Microforest
On January 18, 2023, over 100 volunteers from 5-years old to 85-years old participated in the Heritage Harbor (HH) Microforest-planting day. Due to superb underlying organization by Ei Strategic Alley Zach Zildjian Design Services, over 2,000 trees were planted on the 1/2 an acre site in less than five hours.

Climate First's $10,000 grant was the capital catalyst for the well-funded microforest design and installation. Beyond financial support, Climate First associates volunteered at the planting day.

As it is not a formal organization, SURF is housed within START's legal structure. START Chair Sandy Gilbert attended the planting day and educated attendees on the important environmental impact of microforests to the community and beyond.

HH Microforest educational signage with 
Don Smith of HH and Rotary members
Photo courtesy of Holly Elmore Images
With perfect timing, the RCSB hosted a delegation of District Governors Elect from across the globe; the microforest-planting day was one of the delegation's activities; thus, Rotary members from Israel, India, Chile, Denmark, Poland, Norway, Germany, England, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand attended the HH Microforest planting.

In addition to funding support, the FVCS provided a strong volunteer crew who aided students in the distribution of soil to the planting sites. FVCS was responsible for excellent local media coverage and will produce a 40-minute documentary of the microforest planting.

As done with past microforest-planting days, videographer Bill Wagy donated his talents to film the event and produced an amazing three-minute video showcasing the successful HH Microforest planting day. Enjoy the Heritage Harbour Microforest video compliments of Bill.

The Holly Elmore Images Heritage Harbour Microforest Planting album gives a still-photo documentary of the event.

A sixth SURF microforest is slated in spring 2023 at a local private school.

Afforestation, planting trees on land that has not recently been covered with forest*, is an emerging environmental movement that provides many community benefits, ranging from local food security to "forest bathing." Though small by their intended design, the cumulative impact of food forests and microforests has potential for significant affect. Importantly, the movement attracts media attention and inspires others across the globe to participate in afforestation within their locale. 

* definition provided by the American University, Washington, DC.

Tax-deductible donations in any amount are greatly appreciated to support Ei's important work. 


About Elemental Impact:
Elemental Impact (Ei) is a 501(c)3 non-profit founded in 2010 as the home to the Zero Waste Zones, the forerunner in the nation for the commercial collection of food waste for compost. In June 2017, Ei announced the Era of Recycling Refinement was Mission Accomplished and entered the Era of Regeneration. Current focus areas include Nature PrevailsSoil Health | Regenerative Agriculture, and Water Use | Toxicity.

The Regeneration in ACTION Magazine articles, From Organic Certification to Regenerative Agriculture to Rewilding Landscapes: an evolution towards soil integrity and SOIL & WATER: the foundation of life, published to explain and substantiate the importance of Ei’s rewilding urban landscapes work within the Nature Prevails focus area.

The Holly Elmore Images Rewilding Urban Landscapes-album folder documents two active pilots: the Native-Plant Landscape Pilot and the Backyard Permaculture-Oriented Pilot.

To work with industry leaders to create best regenerative operating practices where the entire value-chain benefits, including corporate bottom lines, communities, and the environment. Through education and collaboration, establish best practices as standard practices.

Ei’s tagline – Regeneration in ACTION – is the foundation for Ei endeavors.

The following mantra is at the core of Ei work:

Ei is a creator, an incubator.
Ei determines what could be done that is not being done and gets it done.
Ei brings the possible out of impossible.
Ei identifies pioneers and creates heroes.

For additional information, contact Holly Elmore at 404-510-9336 |

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