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

Reader Contribution by David R. Braden Iv
article image

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.

I envision people learning to work with converting old trees to hügel mulch forest islands and offering their services to home owners and getting paid both for their contracting services and labor. Anyone who thinks that it is important to change the way we do landscaping can participate by spreading the word. We can plant demonstration plots and provide tours to show how beautiful and productive a forest island can be.

Here is how everyone benefits:

• The plant propagators will own the plants and can sell them wholesale to the contractors and at retail prices to do it yourself home owners.
• The designers can get a royalty whenever a home owner selects one of their designs.
• Landowners can get a per plant fee for plants sold from their property.
• Contractors will charge for their work the way they do now except that they will include the charges to compensate the other participants.
• There will be plenty of call for labor to help with installations.
• People interested in improving the habitat who are out talking to their neighbors about alternatives to traditional landscaping can earn a commission when they help arrange for a home owner to work with the co-op.

We have set up a cooperative membership structure with full members who agree to contribute both time and money to the success of the cooperative and associate members who agree to contribute time. Full members will assess themselves to cover the expenses of the cooperative and have a vote in determining how each of the participants is compensated. Each participant will make their own decisions about how and when to participate. If we have good designs then neighbors will show each other. That will create demand for the plants and demand for help in processing trees and building gardens.

Start a Co-op in Your Region

This is about changing the way landscaping is done in urban and suburban areas. Each locality is unique. The guilds that we develop for the Colorado front range will differ from those developed for another locality. Therefore each region needs a co-op of its own. Each new co-op will increase the diversity of species participating in the regional system. The more diversity we foster the more we improve the resilience of our system.

If you want to start a co-op of your own, get in touch with local permaculture practitioners and show them this blog. Other sources of participants are organizations in your area that are working to promote local food, increase pollinator forage, reduce pesticide use, improve wildlife habitat, reduce water usage and any number of other issues that can be addressed by changing the way that humans interact with the living things around us.

This is an experiment in creating the kind of world in which we want to live. Many of us wish for fewer toxins released into the environment and more beautiful and healthy places. We cannot expect either the government or the corporations to make these changes for us. The government, by design, represents the status quo. Corporations, by law, must produce a monetary return for their investors. The system can and will change when individuals begin to work with their neighbors to repair the damage that has been done. When we do that, nature can resume building resources back into the system to create the kind of beautiful and productive places where we would like to live.

We call it using your resources strategically to enhance the pattern of interactions within the range of your influence. Indeed, the only way that change ever happens is at the level of the individual interaction. Governments and corporations will come along eventually.

Special thanks to my gardening team mate Donald P. Studinsky who helps me translate these complex interrelated concepts into understandable bites. To the extent there is clarity here the credit belongs to Don.  To the extent it is not clear the fault is mine.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.