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Issues of the Environment: Proposed "pocket forest" may be planted in Ann Arbor's Buhr Park

Barbara Lucas
Barbara Lucas
Barbara Lucas


  • The method was developed in the 1970’s by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki (b. 1928, d. 2021).  He advocated planting native trees, choosing a highly diverse mix of tall trees, understory trees, and shrubs, and spacing them close together, as in a forest.  In comparing Miyawaki Method to traditional plantings, the website of a Sugi.com (a non-profit that has created nearly 200 pocket forests on 6 continents) says the method “draws inspiration from nature’s ecosystems to create 100% organic, dense and diverse pioneer forests in as little as 20-30 years.  Miyawaki forests grow 10x faster, are 30 x denser and contain 100x more biodiversity.”

  • The forests planted nearly 50 years ago in Japan are doing well.  The report on studying Miyawaki Forests in Belgium, is the most thorough research study we’ve seen, although it doesn’t specify how the sites were prepared. People sometimes adapt Miyawaki’s method, especially when it comes to site preparation, as it is expensive to hire machines to till the soil a meter deep.  It will be useful to share data, including methods used and results as time goes by.  Our group is working on networking with other pocket forest growers, especially in similar climates.

  • The main benefits of Miyawaki pocket forests are:

    • HEALTHIER FOR THE PLANET - We need to plant trees to help fight climate change (sequester carbon, lower temps, absorb stormwater, etc.), and native trees are resilient and support more insects, and thus more birds and other wildlife–why not plant natives? The Miyawaki Method is a movement that is inspiring people across the globe to plant native trees in much greater numbers than before. 
    • HEALTHIER FOR TREES - It may not be right everywhere, but planting in mini-forests vs. single trees surrounded by grass protects trees from weed whackers–a major threat to urban trees. It also is healthier for trees due to the interactions (mycorrhizal) underground, and the shade and humus produced.  So even though some of the trees will die due to natural thinning, overall survival rates are better than in traditional plantings, despite the lower maintenance required.
    • HEALTHIER FOR PEOPLE - Tree canopy has many proven social, health, psychological, and economic benefits. Lack of trees is an equity issue, and this method can help address the problem. It’s a way individuals can take action. Building pocket forests builds community.

  • Note that trees planted this way grow tall and dense which is a different look compared to trees planted in a lawn in isolation from other trees, which grow into a spreading form with vistas between the trees.  So, they aren’t appropriate everywhere.  But because their benefits are great, they are popular around the world. So far, the pilot project in Ann Arbor is believed to be the only one in the city. Canada has a national registry and Hamilton, Ontario has a program–-similar to Washtenaw County’s Rain Garden program–-where they supply plants and design assistance to homeowners, schools and businesses that want to start a pocket garden. 
  • Buhr Park was chosen for the first pocket forest in Ann Arbor because it has the Childrens’ Wet Meadows, a project which also created a food forest and a Hickory Grove. There is also a Project Grow Community Garden.  So, it’s a whole array of plant projects that benefit people and the ecosystem. 
  • Critics of the pocket forest method argue that using only native trees and shrubs can be expensive, however saplings of native species suitable for a certain area can be purchased from county conservation districts for just less than a few dollars apiece.  In addition, many native "volunteers" that sprout up in yards--they are free!  But when it comes to soil preparation, that can get expensive.  Some people till the soil deeply with large machines, and mix it with compost, before planting their Miyawaki-inspired forest.   But another method is to layer cardboard on top of the lawn, add compost and mulch on top of that, and let sit for months until the grass and cardboard layers have decomposed enough to plant through them. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're just getting into 2024. The New Year brings an exciting new project to Ann Arbor's Buhr Park. It will become home to a demonstration "pocket forest." What exactly is that, and what benefit does it bring? Well, I want to know the answers to those questions, too. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's Issues of the Environment, The pocket forest will come through a partnership between the Ann Arbor chapter of the Citizens' Climate Lobby, Ann Arbor Wild Ones and the Buhr Park Children's Wet Meadows Project. Our guest today is a name familiar to some of you. Barbara Lucas for years served as reporter on the award-winning environmental feature, "The Green Room" right here on WEMU. She continued with her environmental journalism and is now serving as a volunteer on this new Buhr Park demonstration pocket forest project. So good to talk with you again, Barbara.

Barbara Lucas: Thank you so much for having me.

David Fair: Define a pocket forest for me.

Barbara Lucas: We're inspired by the Miyawaki method, which was invented by a Japanese botanist by the name of Akira Miyazaki in the 1970s, and he advocates using only native trees and shrubs planted close together, so that they have competition and race to the sun, which brings more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere faster. And also, he advocates using, like I said, only native trees and shrubs, and that improves the biodiversity of the area. He's very interested in building community. So, there's a lot of benefits to this type of tree planting.

David Fair: As I read it, Miyawaki forests grow ten times faster, are 30% more dense and, as you mentioned, contain 100 times more biodiversity. Why is that?

Barbara Lucas: The native trees and shrubs--each species supports a wide variety of different specific insects and birds and wildlife. So, the more different species you have in a planting, the more different wildlife you're going to have, because they each eat different things. They have different needs. So, he advocates planting 30-plus different species in an area. And also, when you have such a dense planting, you have very rich soil because you're not raking the leaves underneath, your allowing nature to process these to a forest. And so, you keep the moisture in, the nutrients are raised. It's just a much better atmosphere for fungal growth, which is, I don't know if you've been hearing about this new research, where mycorrhizal under the ground, which is fungal connections between tree roots, are allowing trees to communicate kind of like a worldwide web. And so, it's much, much more trees. Pretty exciting!

David Fair: So, this is a concept that was developed back in the 1970s. Where are there examples today that show it works as it's designed to?

Barbara Lucas: The first one was at the Yokohama National University outside of Tokyo, and that one's almost 50 years old. And it's very tall and really cool. I would love to go to Japan and see all the different forests he had planted there. The ones that are around the rest of the world, which is pretty much every continent--Europe, Africa, Asia, North and South America--they're all over the place, but they're younger. But recently, I traveled to Hamilton, Ontario, where they have a big program of planting them, including in people's yards. And so, there are a lot of good examples to see all over.

David Fair: This is Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking about the upcoming Buhr Park pocket forest project with Barbara Lucas. She is serving as a volunteer on the project. Now, how did this partnership between the Ann Arbor chapter of the Citizens' Climate Lobby, the Ann Arbor Wild Ones and the Buhr Park Children's Wet Meadow Project come about to create this pocket forest?

Barbara Lucas: Well, first, I want to backtrack and say we do not yet have permission to do our demonstration garden yet. We've only submitted an application to the City Parks Department, and we're confident that something's going to happen somewhere soon, hopefully next summer.

David Fair: Is there a possibility this doesn't come to pass at all?

Barbara Lucas: It's going to come to pass somewhere. But, you know, it's just jumping the gun a bit to say. You know, we don't have permission yet. There's a process that takes time, and we're going to figure that one out. But there's a lot of interest in doing it somewhere. So, we're very confident about that. And Buhr Park is our first choice because they already have this really exciting program. Janine Palms, who's a former teacher, she and her students built these wet meadows. And they're very rich pollinator habitats. And they also put in a food forest, which is wonderful and a hickory grove. And the,n there's the Project Grow community garden there. There's the elementary school. So many opportunities for kids to learn because these pocket forests are very exciting. Schoolyards around the world are putting in their own because kids can measure the tree growth. They can measure the amount of wildlife that are coming to visit their private forest. So, it's a really great learning opportunity.

David Fair: So, you mentioned the importance of making sure that it's entirely native species that are planted and stewarded. What is going to be planted there?

Barbara Lucas: We're looking at a wide diversity of species, as I mentioned, Miyawaki advocates 30-plus different types, and they're a mix of multi-story. You've got your tall trees, your medium-sized shrubs and the groundcover layer, and also, probably, native flowers as well. And we don't have our species list figured out exactly. But one thing we're doing is encouraging the Wild Ones members who grow native plants in their yard to save the little seedlings that are growing up in their yard because squirrels and birds and such plant oak trees and things that come up and normally you would weed them out. Well, we have a list on the Internet that people can go to to say, "Hey, I've got an oak seedling that I'm going to save for you." So, when you plant your garden next fall, well, we'll look them up and we'll use their seedlings. So, it's a low-cost way of utilizing the native plants that are growing in our area. And even if you have to buy trees like the Washtenaw County Conservation District has a wonderful sale both in the spring, in the fall, and you can get trees there for just a couple dollars apiece. So, we haven't got our species list figured out yet, but we're really excited to get started on that.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Barbara Lucas about the proposed Buhr Park demo pocket forest project on Issues of the Environment. So, it takes decades for these pocket forests to reach maturity. And, that way, we can get the full benefit of what they have to offer. Is there a way to measure ecological benefits year to year?

Barbara Lucas: Well, that's a really interesting question. We reached out to Douglas Tallamy, who is the pretty much a world expert on native plants, and he suggested that we measure the holes in the leaves of trees and shrubs, which is really exciting because that indicates how many insects are coming to your forest forest. And you normally think of insect damage as a bad thing. But this is actually a really good thing because the insects of our world support our birds. Even the birds that are seed eaters as adults, they have to feed their babies insects because they're high-fat content. So, the more insects you have in an area, the richer the biodiversity is supported. But that's an easy way kids could mark, "Oh, this date, we had this many insect holes in this species of trees." And so, that would be pretty fun.

David Fair: Obviously, more forests, better carbon capture. Ann Arbor has a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030, Washtenaw County by 2035. Given the short time between now and then, can these types of forest make a difference that quickly, or are we taking a longer view with this project?

Barbara Lucas: Well, it's both. It needs to be a longer view, but also the number of these things that potentially could be put in can really add to the efficacy of them. And they've taken off almost like a fad around the world. And I think part of it is that Miyawaki encouraged community installations--big celebratory events with children, because they're small saplings that you're planting. And kids can get involved. And it's something where schoolyards and teachers get really excited. And so, they're popping up all over the world. And if you look around, there's so many places where it would be appropriate. There are so many places we could be putting them.

David Fair: So, what is next in this proposed demonstration project? What is the next step in getting it to reality?

Barbara Lucas: Well, we're waiting to hear about our application to the city. And, in the meantime, we're working on educational materials, like we're trying to encourage people to think that, even if they're not going to plant a pocket forest in their own yard, they can use the principles of not planting trees singly apart from each other with lawn in between because the lawn is a very dense mat that the rain sheds off of it and contributes to flooding. We want people to plant multi-story. You know, if you're going to plant some trees, plant a trio. Plant some shrubs under them. Plant some native flowers under them. Don't put grass under it. Mulch under it. Don't break your leaves. They can leak back into the little pocket forests that you've created in your yard.

David Fair: Barbara, it's been great talking with you, and I look forward to updates on this project. I think it's going to be exciting to see not only the first one that comes to fruition, but those that follow. So, thank you very much for sharing the information.

Barbara Lucas: Thank you. And I'd like to encourage people to go to our website, which is pocket forests dot org. There, they can see the video that we've created. And also, they can contact us there.

David Fair: And you will find the link to that on our Web site as well at WEMU dot org. That is Barbara Lucas, volunteer on the Buhr Park demonstration pocket forest project, which is being created through a partnership between the Ann Arbor chapter of the Citizens' Climate Lobby, Ann Arbor Wild Ones and Buhr Park Children's Wet Meadows Project. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community. NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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