Suburban Forest Islands: Creatively Use and Respond to Change, and Produce No Waste


Big Tree

Often the design feature of a suburban yard is a big shade tree. What do you do when that big tree in your yard begins to die? For a suburban lot there can perhaps be no greater change. All of a sudden that deep shade becomes full sun and it may take 30 years to grow another tree to replace the one you just lost. But, when you finish grieving, the loss of that tree is a great opportunity to increase the diversity of your habitat.

There are two permaculture principles that apply. The first is to creatively use and respond to change. The second is to produce no waste. Consider having the tree processed in place and using the logs and wood chips to build a hügel mulch.  You will save the expense of having those materials hauled away and the expense of establishing a lawn in the old area of shade. The hügel mulch can then be planted to a guild of plants that will support each other using the materials from the old tree as nutrients for up to 30 years. That saves the expense of mowing, fertilizing, and watering the lawn. Instead of spending time and money maintaining a lawn that is seldom used, you will have created a habitat for beneficial insects, including the pollinators, and an annual supply of food for people and other visitors to your garden.

In the Denver area we have this opportunity coming from two different directions. First, as Denver was developed, a popular landscape tree was the silver maple. Many of those trees are coming to the end of their lives and becoming a hazard. They are at risk of blowing over or losing large branches during high winds. The other potential for tree loss is the emerald ash borer. It has recently been found in the Denver area and if it spreads about 20 percent of the urban canopy is at risk. All those trees being lost could mean a great deal of expense for landowners who remove the trees and landfill the wood. There is even more expense to amend the soil and lay sod to put in a lawn the old fashioned way. An alternative is to creatively respond to the change and not waste any of the material.

Plant Propagation Cooperative

We are taking steps to take advantage of this opportunity by forming the High Plains Plant Propagation Cooperative. This new form of organization has six ways to participate for anyone who is interested. Working together these six elements will save home owners money when faced with the loss of a tree opportunity. By changing the way landscaping is done we will improve the health of our urban and suburban habitat.

The central piece is plant propagation. With a little instruction, some used pots, potting soil, and a little time collecting seeds or cuttings, anyone with a sunny window or a balcony can start plants that will fit into the forest island guilds. We want to identify and propagate specific varieties proven to thrive in this precise climate for each species we want to include in a guild. That will increase genetic diversity and the ability to respond to climate change in the same way as saving seeds and line breeding domestic animals. Permaculture designers familiar with the concept of plant guilds and others familiar with local plants can participate by designing plant groupings (guilds) that will do well in these forest islands. That will help our plant propagators to know which plants to propagate. People with larger lots can make space available to grow out the plants until they are large enough to plant out in the forest islands.

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