Do you love the feeling of being surrounded by trees as you walk through the woods? Maybe you love hearing the sounds of birds chirping or seeing them flitting back and forth among the branches. If so, you’ve probably wondered how to grow a forest in your backyard!
While it’s impossible to turn your yard into a forest overnight, if you’re willing to take a long-range view, you can get started with an ecological process that will eventually yield amazing results.
The bottom line is that you can make your backyard look less like a lawn, and more like a forest. We’ll get you started with some helpful forest gardening tips below.
Table of Contents
Forests: Then and Now
It may be hard to imagine, but long ago, most of the earth was covered with forest. Harvesting lumber from trees has been one of the main ways that humans have been able to build things like ships and houses. But as a result, the earth’s percentage of forests has declined, as raw resources became needed for industry or because the land itself was cleared for development.
This predicament has left many people searching for ways to regenerate forests, even on relatively small plots of land in urban areas or in the average residential backyard.
Converting Your Backyard into a Forest
Since the average backyard is typically comprised of a lawn, turning a backyard into a forest obviously entails a considerable transformation. But that is also why this DIY landscape project is potentially meaningful and important, not to mention beautiful and restorative.
Because of concerns about biodiversity, land use, and sustainability, some experts have come up with creative ways to help encourage a quicker regeneration of forest habitats on the earth. For example, one forestry expert has figured out how to encourage a forest to flourish ten times faster than the usual rate of forest growth in an unmanaged natural forest landscape.
In other words, it could be possible to convert your backyard into a 100-year-old forest in only a decade, provided that you have at least 1000-square feet to work with, or a little over .02 acres.
To put that into perspective, the average backyard in the United States is a quarter of an acre or .25 acres. That’s well beyond the .02 acres required for an optimally fast-growing backyard forest.
“Afforesting” Your Backyard Landscape
“Afforestation” is the process of creating a forest where there once was none. However, it truly is a process. You’ll need to take several elements into consideration.
These elements include the composition and density of your soil, the types of tree species that naturally grow in your region, the best planting ratio to encourage quick growth, and the process of regeneration that occurs in natural forests.
Let’s break down the steps to make your backyard into a forest.
1. Test Your Soil
First, test your soil to determine its alkalinity vs. acidity, because this will affect which species of trees that you plant. Most tree species require slightly acidic or neutral soil.
In addition, check your soil density. Hard, packed soils can strangle tree roots or prevent root growth. The soil needs to allow water and minerals to naturally pass through.
Also test your soil for the levels of micronutrients in your soil, primarily nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (known as “NPK”, or the big three). Identify any deficits in the quantities of these elements, which your soil needs in order to support the beginning of new forest growth.
Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are the main macronutrients for soil health, but calcium, magnesium, and sulfur are also important macronutrients, too. In addition, you can amend your soil for micronutrients, such as copper, iron, manganese, nickel, and boron.
Once you identify the major deficiencies in your soil, you can go to your local garden center, or shop online, for nutrients that you can use to amend your soil. Then, working these nutrients into your soil begins the slow process of restoring your soil to optimal health.
2. Learn Which Tree Species to Plant
Learn about the types of trees that grow in your area or in nearby forests, since this is the best indication of which tree species will thrive in your backyard. Also, select native species based on the composition of your soil and regional climate requirements.
For example, broadleaf deciduous trees (hardwoods) do best in sandy, loamy soil, because their roots need adequate room to breathe. By contrast, conifers are able to tolerate heavier, clay soils. Conifers also handle tough conditions better than hardwood trees.
Choosing which tree species to plant will depend on your region and factors such as climate, soil, and elevation. As part of your research, we recommend speaking with a local master gardener extension office, which should be able to help you identify which trees and native plants grow naturally in your area so that you can begin to grow a forest in your backyard.
3. Best Planting Ratios for New Forests
You’ll want to plant saplings (young trees) in a tight tree layer planting scheme of approximately 4 saplings for every 30-55 square feet. In less than one year, this will create such a dense tree canopy that sunlight will not be able to break through the canopy.
This will create the exact conditions required for a forest to flourish. If sunlight can’t get through the tree canopy, the ground soil will stay moist around the roots of trees.
In addition, the rain will not instantly evaporate, as it otherwise would when exposed to sunlight. Thus, the ground will retain the needed moisture to promote tree growth.
If you plant your new forest with this sufficient density, the trees will naturally compete with each other for sunlight about the tree canopy. This type of competition fosters further growth, which will help your backyard forest to grow more quickly.
4. Allow for Natural Regeneration
When trees shed their leaves or needles, it adds to the detritus (decaying organic matter) on the forest floor. This detritus slowly breaks down, thanks to helpful microorganisms in the soil, and it becomes fertile humus, which then further enriches the soil and encourages beneficial insects to come around.
As the trees interact with other natural elements (such as rain and soil bacteria), their fallen leaves become recycled into nutrients that will be needed to produce the next phase of tree growth. New forest growth relies on this process of decay and regeneration.
5. Let Your Forest Emerge Naturally
This last step could be one of the hardest. Making your backyard into a forest means exercising patience and allowing nature to work on its own time frame.
Just remember, according to some estimates by forestry experts, in just ten years you could have a backyard that resembles a century-old forest. The result will be an ecologically sustainable and relatively low-cost, low-maintenance forest right in your own backyard.
Why Forests Are So Important
Forests support many species of plants, animals, insects, and fungi that exist nowhere else on earth other than in a forest habitat. These species also work in tandem to maintain the overall health of a forest eco-system.
Some species of forest plants and fungi have important medicinal value for humans. For example, nettle is good at helping us detox (it’s even considered a superfood), while goldenrod is known to aid our kidneys. Many forest plants, berries, and fungi are also prized for their culinary uses.
Combat Climate Change
As we know, trees naturally convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, which people and animals require to breathe. But forests also help to combat climate change by sequestering excess carbon within the soil, which means less carbon remaining in the atmosphere, where it can cause ozone issues and global warming.
Health and Wellbeing
Over the past few years, it’s become more common to hear about the ancient Japanese practice of “forest bathing.” This lovely term implies spending time among the trees and feeling a connection to nature.
In addition, numerous scientific studies are showing that spending time in forests can be good for our mental, emotional, and physical health. It can lower our blood pressure and overall stress, while dramatically boosting our mood and sense of wellbeing. Walking in a forest can also improve our energy levels and sleep while helping us to cope with or recover from certain illnesses or injuries.
Having your own backyard forest is also great for kids, who are increasingly spending more time indoors rather than exploring the natural world around them. With a forest right outside of their backdoor, your kids will be able to safely explore trees, shrubs, and the wildlife in them while staying close to home.
They Enhance Your Landscape
A lesser benefit than the others in this section, but a benefit nonetheless, is that growing a forest in your backyard enhances your landscape and may increase your property value. Trees provide privacy, which is an excellent way to separate you and your neighbors with a beautiful, natural barrier compared to fences or strategically-placed hedges.
Rather than having a barren backyard, your yard will be filled with greenery, flowers, shade, and wildlife. If you ever plan on selling your home and property, this addition of privacy and natural scenery will entice the right buyer.
A backyard forest also leaves more room for gardening creativity. For example, a Fairy Garden or tree sculptures are more appealing in an area that is covered with greenery, and often create a magical aura.
You’ll Be Providing Food and Shelter for Local Wildlife
Due to deforestation and the cultivation of land for suburbs and other urban areas, wild animals are driven out of their natural habitats and into unnatural ones. By learning how to grow a forest in your backyard, you’ll be able to provide animals such as squirrels, rabbits, and birds with vegetation to hide, burrow, or nest in; as well as providing food with wild berries, nuts, and seeds.
One thing to consider is that with the addition of vegetation and the increase in prey animals, predators may also come with the package. Keep in mind that predators are also a natural element of the animal world and are necessary for a healthy ecosystem. Don’t be surprised if you start seeing a snake or two, or even a coyote or fox start slinking around. Prepare yourself, your family, and your pets for these ecological changes in your backyard, and increase safety measures accordingly, such as by building a fenced-in area for pets, and watching your children whenever they’re outside.
Afforestation Success Stories
Before people began felling trees to create space for agriculture, roads, and residences, forests actually covered most of the earth. Today, there are fewer forests. Fortunately, however, there are also recent examples, as well as new and old methods, that are being explored for successful afforestation.
For example, permaculture is one particular approach for regenerative design and planting. Is it often used to create edible landscapes in conjunction with new forests, and it can be adapted to various regions and climates.
In the United States, the number of trees per acre has actually increased in certain areas, such as the Northeast, during the past 100 years. This is because sustainable forestry practices have actively sought to restore forested areas, following centuries of clear-cutting trees for lumber or as space for agriculture.
Old Growth vs. New Growth Forests
Forests usually keep growing unless they succumb to hurricanes, forest fires, or tree-felling. Old-growth forests are those which have been around for centuries.
Certain species of birds (such as the cerulean warbler and wood thrush), as well as other wildlife, require old-growth forests. However, other species benefit from new growth forests. New growth forests are those which have more recently emerged or been planted.
Some studies show that some new growth forests which emerge after logging become important habitats for field sparrows, box turtles, and hognose snakes. New growth forests, also called early successional landscapes, tend to have more saplings, edible berries, and vines per acre.
In other words, planting a new growth forest in your backyard will create an essential habitat for certain birds and other wildlife. Not only will this contribute to the world’s biodiversity, but you’ll be able to enjoy seeing more birds and other animals thriving in your new forest landscape.
If you were wondering how to grow a forest in your backyard, we hope this article has shown that you can actually turn your backyard into a forest! This involves creating an ecologically sustainable habitat that will be able to support biodiverse species of plants, trees, fungi, insects, and wildlife.
Today, about 31 percent of the world still includes forest. Isn’t it amazing to think that with patience and effort, you could add to the earth’s percentage of forests and enjoy proximity to a forest habitat by creating one right in your own backyard?