Forest Habitat Gardening

The Case for Forest Gardening

With more and more acreage being converted to urbanized land, it is becoming more and more important to plant native plants on our properties.  The typical suburban lot is usually completely covered by lawn grass, with a few small garden beds and maybe a shade tree or two.  Though this may be pleasant in the traditional sense, there's ultimately not a whole lot of value to wildlife with this type of setting.  Instead, you could convert even just a small portion of your land to a natural habitat.  Using the forest habitat as an example, think of it this way:  If 10,000 homeowners with 1 acre of land converted just the back 1/4 acre to forest, that would add 2,500 acres of forest - That would be an addition of nearly 4 square miles of forest in an area just over 15 square miles!  

Zooming in to our 1/4 acre sample, let's explore how we could convert this to forest.

Planning Your Backyard Forest Habitat

Continuing with our 1/4 acre example - If our example yard was a perfect acre square (A little over 200 x 200 feet), that would give us a little strip of forest 200 feet wide by 50 feet deep.  Using our formula of 8x8 spacing, or 1 tree per 64 square feet, that would give us room for approximately 150 trees!  That gives ample room to play with many different species and maintain enough of each species to provide a seed bank.

With 150 trees to play with, you could plant understory trees as every 4th or 5th tree.  These would be trees such as redbuds, dogwood, ironwood etc. depending on your location.  Plant quality, long-lived hardwoods in the overstory, and plant various shrubs in between the trees.  After the planting is established, usually about 3-5 years depending on your location, you can plant the herbaceous plants (Ferns, wildflowers, etc.).  For more information regarding which actual varieties to plant, read our article "Species Selection".

Maintaining the Naturalized Yard

Though the initial planting may seem like it takes a lot of work, after a forest is established, there's not a whole lot of upkeep.  Aside from pulling out occasional invasive weeds like honeysuckle or garlic mustard, you don't need to work on a forest garden very much.  There's no raking of leaves in the fall, and you don't have to mow.  Most of the land east of the mississippi was covered by forest before it was settled, and the forests existed for thousands of years with no maintenance.  In other words, you've got 1/4 acre less land to mow and maintain.  It takes about 2 hours to mow 1 acre of grass with your average self-propelled walk-behind mower, and you have to do that twice a week for a good portion of the year.  With 1/4 acre less to mow, you've now got a full hour extra per week of down time!

In conclusion, there are many benefits to having a naturalized yard, even if it's just a small portion:

  • Fresher Air - Trees pull carbon dioxide and pollutants out of the air, and give of oxygen.
  • Cooler air - One tree has the cooling power of a window unit air conditioner, so you can imagine what a forest of 150 trees would do for your yard!
  • Attract Wildlife - Songbirds and small mammals are more likely to visit your yard with a little natural habitat for them.
  • Save Time and Money - With 1/4 acre less to mow per week, you've saved an hour of time, and a little gasoline to boot!

This year, take a little time to plan out a forest habitat in your yard.  You'll reap the benefits in just a few short years.

Share this article with your neighbor to start a continuous forest across your neighborhood!  For a more in-depth discussion on forest gardening, read "Backyard Forestry".