Micro-forest vs Food forest – what’s the difference?

On a 2000 square metre block in Moruya, NSW, I’ve been exploring growing different types of vegetation. As well as traditional shrub beds, mown grass, vegetable gardens, water harvesting ponds and a large outdoor courtyard I’ve planted a micro-forest and a Food forest.

Micro-forests cool the landscape

In 2019, I created pilot urban landscape project, called the Downer micro-forest. The pilot used dense planting, climate-ready trees and provides a cool space for the public to enjoy.

The Federal Labor Member for Canberra, Alicia Payne cottoned on to the idea. She invited the Molonglo Conservation Group and The Climate Factory to submit a grant application to build a micro-forest in her electorate. The Sullivans Ck micro-forest was borne.

Australia’s National Forest Inventory

The Federal Department of Agriculture describes forests as areas dominated by trees, usually with a single stem and a mature height exceeding two metres. The crowns of trees have the potential to cover 20% of the area.

They say,”Native forests are categorised in Australia’s National Forest Inventory​ into eight national forest types named after their key genus or structural form: Acacia, Callitris, Casuarina, Eucalypt, Mangrove, Melaleuca, Rainforest, and Other native forest (which includes a range of minor native forest types that are named after their dominant genera, including Agonis, Atalaya, Banksia, Hakea, Grevillea, Heterodendron, Leptospermum, Lophostemon and Syncarpia).”


“Across the wide range of rainfall and soil conditions that support forest, most of Australia’s ‘Native forest’ category of forest is dominated by eucalypts (77%) and acacias (8%).”

A home micro-forest

In our home garden, I’ve planted our front garden into a dense native micro-forest. My aim was to mimic the look and feel of the heavily vegetated local sand dunes at Moruya Heads. And to create a windbreak from hot westerly winds, provide privacy and make wildlife habitat.

The micro-forest grew quickly to provide a dense windbreak, privacy screen and wildlife refuge in 3 years.

To establish a dense privacy screen and windbreak I planted the fast growing local coastal wattle, Acacia longifolia subsp sophorae. Amongst these wattles, I peppered local tree species like Casuarina glauca, Allocasuarina, Callitris rhomboidea, Acacia mearnsii (Black Wattle) and Acacia fimbriata. The coastal wattle and Black Wattle grew to four metres high in three years. And some of the Casuarina outstripped the wattles.


Understorey shrubs include, Banksia integrifolia (Coastal Banksia), Leptospermum petersonii (Lemon-scented Tea Tree), Correa alba, Westringia ‘Wynyabbie Gem‘ and strappy plants like Dianella and Lomandra. Groundcovers include Myoporum parvifolium (Creeping boobialla), Carpobrotus (Pig Face) and Hardenbergia. Hardenbergia also known as Native sarsparilla, can grow as a sprawling groundcover or twine up trees and shrubs.

The native groundcover, Dichondra repens (Kidney Weed) grows naturally in the damp and shaded parts of the micro-forest.

Wildlife habitat

With the micro-forest or tiny forest, the aim is to make it as dense as possible and to avoid bare ground. We plant at a ratio of between three to four plants per square metre.

Local Blue-tongues took up residence in 2018. They provide an excellent service, munching on unwelcome snails.

This Blue-tongue lizard lives in the dense undergrowth of our micro-forest. I was quite surprised when I threw some snails near it and it started eating them and was lucky enough to capture it on video!

In November 2019, I spotted my first pair of bumbling metallic green Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa) gathering pollen from Dianella and Westringia flowers. The dense shrubs are visited by small birds like Silver Eyes.

Soil improvement and irrigation

With soil excavated from our building site, our contractor, manipulated the ground to look like sand dunes. In each plant hole, I added organic material to give plants the best possible start to life.

In its first three years, the micro-forest survived on rainfall and occasional hand watering. Then, the summer of 2019 hit. By the year’s end Moruya received a paltry 508mm of rain (about 5/8ths) of the ‘average’ annual rainfall. Over summer 2019/2020 firestorms devastasted the Eurobodalla area, burning almost 80% of the landscape.

As a smokey January 2020 unravelled I questioned whether I’d made the right choice in planting a native micro-forest so close to our house. Our micro-forest faces west and if the fire reached us, the front garden would go up like kerosene on a barbie.

My partner and I, discussed hacking the trees off. But where would we place the prunings?

Late in January 2020, the fire burned to Moruya’s fringes. Luckily it didn’t penetrate into town. Since then, I’ve installed a 50m length of drip irrigation pipe to keep the micro-forest moist in hot weather. In addition, we are installing a second large water tank to protect the garden and house in case of fire.

Resources

Since penning this article, I’ve created a 54 minute video addressing frequently asked questions on how to make a home micro-forest.

Home food forest

As the name implies, the main aim of a food forest is to grow a diverse range of food in a forest-like environment. So while an orchard is a simplified forest, consisting of an over-storey that bears fruit, a food forest includes multiple vegetation layers. Like a micro-forest it includes groundcover layers that cool the soil (and provide habitat), shrubs, grasses, climbers and trees.

Improving the soil with organic material

In 2019 I chose a spot with alluvial soil, near Racecourse Creek, an ephemeral creek. Sometimes the creek is dry for months at a time, like in 2019 and sometimes it floods.

I marked out a 5m x 5m area for the food forest. Then I relocated the chooks to this space for a couple of months to scratch and fertilise the soil. I also added compost, seaweed and coffee grounds (from a local cafe). Our next door neighbour, a market gardener, formed five mounds with his cultivator.

Like the micro-forest I planted Wattles like Acacia floribunda that would grow quickly and protect sensitive plants. An added benefit of wattles is they drop leaves forming a fine mulch layer and add nitrogen to the soil.

Edible plants

I planted tubestock of edible exotic trees into the mounds: five carobs, three figs and one Mulberry. Shrubs include the Hawaiian Guava (Psidium guajava), Tamarillo (grown from a neighbour’s seed) and Peppino. Understorey plants include Comfrey (non-edible but a compost accelerant), Raspberry and Lemon Grass and rambling pumpkins and sweet potato.

The Food Forest was just above the flood on Racecourse Creek in February 2020. We received around 200mm of rain over 10 days. The flood took down fences and washed away vegetables in the next door market garden.

Bush foods

I added tough local Warrigal greens, Tetragonia tetragonoides to the food forest. These plants grow exposed to salt laden winds at the beach and as a groundcover in Casuarina glauca forests. Warrigal greens need to be cooked prior to eating to remove oxalates. I combine them with silver beet and kale when I want to add some greens to a dish.

I also added one Davidson’s Plum, Davidsonia. These trees grow in Australian rainforests and require frost protection. They bare edible fruit which is apparently best stewed.

Maintenance

The biggest maintenance issue, for both the micro-forest and the food forest is keeping grasses like Kikuyu and Couch at bay. I’ve almost won the battle with our micro-forest. I find hand weeding enveloped by greenery meditative.

Cool haven

Once the trees canopies overlap in our food forest, a small spot for a comfy chair will be the perfect antidote to oppressive summer heat.

Holt Micro-forest and food forest

In 2021, I started working with a group of residents from Holt in the ACT. The group are on target to build a 1500 plant micro-forest and a food forest in 2022.

Postscript

January 2020 was followed by two years of La Nina bringing extreme rainfall. Our micro-forest is thriving while the back garden and food forest is soggy. These climatic extremes illustrate the need to prepare for the future – for drought, bushfire and flood.

The value of a micro-forest

How much does it cost to build a tiny or micro-forest?

Simple analysis

From a simple accounting point of view, the answer is around $500 per square metre. This figure is based on a $40,000 budget and an area of 800 square metres for the Downer pilot project.

At one online-workshop I ran on the Eight Steps to Make a community micro-forest a participant (I suspect an economist or accountant) commented that it was a very expensive exercise. They used simple maths dividing the total cost by the number of trees (1800). Using this method it costs $22 per tree. But this is too simplistic. It ignores the time and expertise involved in engaging the services of green professionals like landscape architects, water harvesters and community facilitators. It ignores that we are creating spaces within the planting that people can use. It ignores the fact that we are creating a much nicer space that can be used by anyone for free.

Modest garden for a family of 5

In 2021, I’d designed a modest garden for a family of five in Canberra on a 1200m2 block. The house and driveway probably took up 500m2. The garden design included water harvesting and lots of planting, a bit like our micro-forests. The total cost to build was $80,000. It made me realise the public micro-forests we are building represent remarkable value.

Micro-forests empower communities to tackle climate change

The Climate Factory’s micro-forest model draws community together with a sense of purpose. Further it empowers communities to make change at a neighbourhood scale. As it grows, the micro-forest will store carbon, reduce park temperatures and provide habitat.

Shown below are the physical assets and the community assets. Typically community assets are harder to measure with numbers.

Physical assets

The physical assets are easy to measure and can be given a dollar figure. At the Downer Micro-forest over 2020-2021 we built:

  • 20 lineal metres of water harvesting trenches
  • 6 square metres of bog
  • 450m2 of shrub beds with enhanced soil
  • 1800 native plants
  • a recycled timber bench
The Cole St, Downer park in 2019 prior to building the community micro-forest was weedy and dry.

Community assets

The project has activated the local community. They now take pride in their local park. This has resulted in the:

  • Creation of the Downer Parkcare Group
  • 1 community consultation to give residents a say about changes to their park
  • 1 informal on-site consultation
  • 4 community working bees (all held during Covid19)
  • Additional working bees led by the Downer Parkcare group.

Community connectedness

Just looking at the cost per square metre of a tiny forest is too simple. This method ignores community wellbeing and connectedness. This is because wellbeing and connectedness are harder to measure in dollars and are often ignored.

However, the leader of the Downer Parkcare Group, Amit Barkay provides a sense of how his community wellbeing has improved.

I like the fact that it brought the community together more than I envisaged, everyone coming to help, kids, young and old. And the fact that the place has changed in a matter of six months. To the point, that two weeks ago there was a couple who just came with a picnic table and glasses and a bottle of wine, to cuddle on the bench just over there. It was absolutely lovely.

Amit Barkay, Downer.
Amit Barkay, volunteer leader of the Downer Parkcare group.

His neighbour, Leah Moore describes how the creation of a micro forest or tiny forest has enhanced the Downer community. She talks about the physical and community changes that occurred. Leah says,

… there’s been a miraculous transformation. This park used to be quite bare of trees in the middle part here and through the drought got very dry and now we’ve got this flourish of growth and it’s very very green and our communities got behind it. So we’re all in this together. I like that too. I like interacting with my neighbours like that.

Leah Moore, Downer.
Mother and daughter at a planting bee at the Downer tiny forest
The community planted the entire Downer tiny forest during COVID 19.

A model for the future

This project demonstrates a new way of regreening public spaces. Rather than competing for scarce grant money, projects like the Downer and Watson Micro-forest are funded via crowdfunding.

Maintenance expenses

All public landscape projects will require some maintenance in the future. Under The Climate Factory model the community commit to maintain the tiny forest for its first two years. The main job is hand weeding and disposal of weeds.

The micro-forest also saves local authorities on mowing costs. By turning grass into garden beds at the Downer Micro-forest, there is 450m2 less grass to mow.

Eight steps to build a community tiny forest

The Climate Factory has built two community micro forests in the ACT with a third to be constructed in 2022. And the vision is to create a micro forest in every urban hotspot in Australia.

Founder of The Climate Factory, Edwina Robinson says she created the eight step method to show others how to create a tiny forest. In fact, the method can be applied to almost any community revegetation project. She says,

The 8 step method can be applied to any community regreening project. You could use this method to create a food forest or a pollinator garden, it doesn’t have to be a micro-forest – the principles and the stages are the same.

EDWINA ROBINSON, FOUNDER, THE CLIMATE FACTORY

The Climate Factory has created a 54 minute video on the Eight Steps to make a climate-cooling micro-forest.


Plants with tree guards, surrounded by mown grass and recycled timber bench

Collaboration needed to regenerate Canberra’s parks

2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Parts of the country were so dry it culminated in the Black Summer bushfires.

Tiny forests tackle urban heat

In response to 2019, I started The Climate Factory to take action on climate change. At The Climate Factory we collaborate with communities to build tiny or micro forests. And we choose parks with low biodiversity. These forests are targeted at reducing urban heat.

A CSIRO 2017 report showed Canberra’s summer urban temperatures were up to 8°C hotter than the surrounding countryside. Based on this report I realised that regenerating urban areas was a priority.

Miyawaki Method

In September 2020, The Climate Factory built the first micro-forest pilot project in an unloved park in Downer, Australian Capital Territory. There we trialled dense planting loosely based on the Miyawaki method. Akira Miyawaki describes himself as the inventor of man made forests.

However, this dense planting has raised some eyebrows. More on this later.

Urban oasis

The aim of a micro forest is to cool the landscape. To do this, we combine simple water harvesting methods with soil improvement. This is followed by dense planting of natives. One young resident said we’d turned a dustbowl into an urban oasis.

Downer Micro-forest, December 2021, 14 months after planting. Photo: Jarra Joseph-McGrath

Tiny forest trees

In developing a list of trees suitable for the micro or tiny forest, I relied on Australian National University (ANU) School of Forestry research. This 2019 study was commissioned by the ACT Government to help the city adapt to climate change. Researchers consulted with councils in hotter, drier regions to develop a list of trees likely to thrive in a hotter, drier future.  

First on the tree list is the Kurrajong, Brachyciton populneus. This plants has become the signature tree for Canberra’s tiny forests.

Tiny forests align with the ACT Government goals

Canberra’s new tiny forests align with the ACT Government’s goals on climate adaptation. The ACT Government’s 2019 Living Infrastructure Plan states, “As we continue to face the challenges of climate change, in particular increased temperatures and more frequent heatwaves, it will become increasingly important that our parks are able to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. This includes ensuring appropriate planting, shading, provision of water features and suitable paving and surface materials. By upgrading our parks, we will support our community and ensure these valued public spaces will continue to remain attractive, useable and functional spaces for our community, and provide oasis in times of heat stress.” p28.

The Government also recognised the important role the micro-forests play in canopy regreening. In September 2021, the ACT Government announced it was committing to planting an additional 54,000 trees by 2024. This action will help the Government reach its target of 30% canopy cover by 2045.  Furthermore, they announced they were extending the Adopt-a-Park program by three years and specifically mentioned micro-forests initiatives.

National attention

The Climate Factory’s micro-forest concept is regarded by many as innovative and attracted considerable media attention. In an ABC article, Australian National University Professor of Forestry Peter Kanowski said micro-forests had the potential to lower temperatures in urban parts of Canberra.

“I think we should expect to see more of these as part of the sort of diversity of ways that we add greenery to our cities, and that we use that greenery to deliver multiple benefits for the environment, but also for urban residents and communities,” he said.

“I think the big picture is that we sort of need all hands on deck in our urban areas, because of the increasing average temperatures and the increasing frequency of heat waves.”

Handsome evergreen Kurrajong at the Banksia St O’Connor wetland. These trees are slow growing and tough and are the signature tree of Canberra’s tiny forests. Photo: Edwina Robinson

Criticism

But the micro-forest movement has its critics. A number of the capital’s grassland ecologists and allies are unhappy. They claim the micro-forest plantings are overly dense, a waste of resources and will negatively impact biodiversity. They also suggest that micro-forests give the wrong impression to the community. They say the community will think forests once covered Canberra’s plains. Which they didn’t. Instead, they would rather see grassy woodland restoration happening throughout Canberra’s public lands, using endemic species.

However, the challenge with endemic species is that it is unclear whether they will be resilient in an uncertain future.

Measuring heat in tiny forests

To assess if micro-forests cool the landscape, temperature loggers will be installed in the Downer tiny forest in 2022.  Information will be accessible with a smart phone and an app. This will provide an unique dataset for planners for the future.

Regenerative thinking

Recently I participated in a course on regenerative, living systems thinking. The course was led by Dr Dimity Podger of Barasa Consulting Group. It’s based on thought leader Carol Sanford’s book ‘The Regenerative Life’. Sandford’s book focuses on regenerative principles and ways of thinking about societal transformation. Her approach recognises that our places and contexts are continually evolving. And as humans we can unlock and develop the potential that arises in living systems.

In the book, Sanford enourages us to recognise the inner obstacles that stop us from developing regenerative solutions.  One common internal obstacle we face is fear. Another obstacle, is inflexible thinking.

Sanford says, when we are in problem identification mode we break a system into parts and struggle to realise its true potential.  We are more likely to compete with one another rather than collaborate. If we are stuck in problem identification mode we perceive resources as scarce, not plentiful. And fail to identify the opportunities.

To adapt to climate change in our urban areas by 2030 we need to transform the way we think about our activities, beyond repeating business-as-usual. Business-as-usual won’t help us respond to rising temperatures and urban wellbeing.

Collaboration needed

Our approach to parkland regeneration, needs to be collaborative not competitive. We must consider the potential of what our parks could be in a hotter world.

The Downer Micro-forest is located in a highly modified neighbourhood park. The tiny forest plantings cover 450m², a mere 5% of the park. This leaves oodles of room for a display of other ecosystem types, like grassy woodlands or other features the community values. And plenty of room to have a conversation about how grassy woodland advocates can get involved. It shouldn’t be an us or them approach.

Eight Step Method

At The Climate Factory, we developed an Eight Step Method to help people create climate-cooling micro-forests. The process is powerful in that it invites ‘non-experts’ to step up and create a volunteer team. Together they lead the community to develop a tiny forest over a 12 to 18 month journey.

The Eight Step Method acknowledges the potential in all of us to stretch ourselves and do something we’ve never done before. In Step 2 it uses crowdfunding to circumvent the notion of a scarce money pool.

For every micro or tiny forest, the public can attend a community forum where they vote on what’s important.  At Downer, the community focused on water harvesting, habitat and nature play. At the Holt Micro-forest they will include a food forest. So far, over three community consultations, no-one has expressed a desire to include grassy woodland alongside their tiny forest.

Tiny forests provide inspiration and hope

It’s easy to snipe at those daring to break new ground. Dr Grey Coupland, Ecologist and Urban Forest Maker, Murdoch University points out the positives of the Miyawaki method.

“The work that Miyawaki forest makers do will not solve the climate crisis or the biodiversity crisis. The work is part of broader action and a ground swell movement. Perhaps the most important aspect of these forests is that they provide people with the capacity for hands on action and the ability to see that their actions can make a difference at the local level. The forests provide inspiration and hope.”

In 1910, former United States President, Theodore Roosevelt gave this speech about critics. Roosevelt said:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

By offering community leadership to create a healthier society, The Climate Factory, is acting in what Sandford calls a regenerative citizen role. Furthermore as a regenerative entrepreneur, we provide a blueprint to make community tiny forests. Our tiny forests address one of society’s most pressing problems – urban heat.

It’s time to stop sniping and problem identification and collaborate to create solutions that benefit people, animals, plants and the planet.

Leading women – Holt resident, Jennifer Bardsley starts micro-forest

After hearing a radio interview about Canberra’s fledgling micro-forests, Jennifer Bardsley started the Holt Micro-forest initiative. Supported by a group of keen residents they visited potential sites and created social media accounts to spread the word. Together they raised $25,000 in a crowdfunding campaign which has been topped up with successful grant applications.

The Climate Factory chats with Jennifer about her busy family life and why she wanted to create a micro-forest.

TCF: What’s your day job?
I am currently on maternity leave with our 7 month old baby. I also have a 10 year old and 8 year old son. Family keeps me pretty busy!  When I’m not on leave, I am a public servant working in Information Technology.

TCF: What’s a ‘typical’ day look like for you?
At the moment night and day merge into a blur, we are still up through the night quite a lot with bub. Generally the morning focus is getting the children ready for school, followed by school drop-off, housework, walking the dog, school pick-up, afternoon sport activities, dinner and bed routines. In between that I try to spend some time with family and on writing, books and the micro-forest initiative.

When you are passionate and persistent, so many things are possible.

JENNIFER BARDSLEY


TCF: Why are you passionate about volunteering to create a micro-forest in your suburb?
My family and I love being outdoors. We love being surrounded by nature. It brings such a sense of fun, adventure, happiness and peace. It’s good for our mental and physical health. We are also worried about global warming and threats to biodiversity. We want to play our part in combating climate change and nurturing the natural world around us. 

TCF: What’s a surprising fact about you?
Two of my other passions are writing and martial arts. I have recently published my first children’s book ‘A land of muddy puddles’ and I am assistant instructor at a local Tae Kwon Do club.

TCF: Do you have any words of advice about being a leader? And if people are hesitant to have a go at being a ‘leader’ what would you say to them?
Be the change you want to see in the world. When you’re passionate and persistent, so many things are possible! 

If you want to know what is involved in starting a community micro-forest we’ve created a video documenting the Eight Steps.