“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time in now”
This Chinese proverb has always resonated with me, and since we bought our plot of land in Maria Pinto in 2018, we have planted a variety of trees – a willow for Rodrigo´s dad who passed away a few years ago; a maiten and a quillay for our lost babies; an oak that my dad asked for when they last visited us; another maiten to celebrate Rodrigo’s brother Juan Carlos and Paula’s wedding and olive trees for my best friend Melissa and her dad. I love walking around the property and thinking about each person as I pass by their tree.
But, since the beginning of 2020 we have been dreaming and planning a far more ambitious tree project, to plant our very own native forest using the Miyawaki method.
This method of replicating natural reforestation principles was developed by Akira Miyawaki, a Japanese botanist and plant ecologist who was particularly interested in how plant species interact with eachother within communities. The method is based on choosing native trees that are found in the same area, planting them intensively with 3-5 plants per square metre, preventing weeds and covering the ground with a rich layer of mulch to help soil biodiversity and retain moisture. This replicates the natural competition that would occur between trees and speeds up growth as the plants compete for light and resources. The growth rates of the trees almost needs to be seen to be believed.
Our dream turned into reality this autumn when we finally put our ideas onto paper and then into reality. This first post will focus on all the technical details of the project. Although we are by no means experts in this method, we have read alot of websites and blogs and Instagram accounts and have received some good advice along the way from locals and other specialists such as the nursery where we bought most of the trees.
So here is a brief account of our journey to plan and plant our Miyawaki forest:
What trees should we plant?
The fundamental principle of this method is to select species that occur naturally in the specific area where you are. Rodrigo’s mom asked us if we could plant a coihue or araucaria for her, but unfortunately these are trees from the south of Chile, with a very different climate. In our case we had to find species that are native to the central zone of Chile, not as magnificent as the giants of Patagonia, but just as beautiful in their own special way.
Other factors that we took into account in the selection included: frost tolerance (we can have 8 hours of below freezing temperatures a night in winter, reaching minus 4-5 degrees at the extreme); sun-shade preferences (some trees prefer sheltered ravines in the mountains and others more open conditions on the mountain side or valley floor); and most importantly water requirements, given the dire drought scenario in Chile.
We were lucky to be able to get some advice from a local organization called Maria Pinto Tesoro Natural. Guillermo is an agronomy student whose family has lived in Maria Pinto for many generations. He has maintained a register of all the fauna and flora that he has seen around the valley, and he shared his lists with us, so we could get an idea of the local species. This helped us to identify 20 specifies of trees and bushes, of which at least 80% Rodrigo and I had never heard of, so it was a great source of information for us.
How many trees do we need?
The area that we planned for our forest is roughly 6m by 16m with a pathway and 4m2 clearing the middle, giving us an approximate surface area of 90 m2.
We laid out the perimeter and then I got started designing the forest, based on the mix of trees we had identified and the quantities we had of each. The smaller tree species and bushes (some of which can reach 3-4m) are all placed around the outside of the forest or along the pathway and clearing. The larger tree species are all towards the centre of the forest.
I spent many an hour moving little colour coded symbols around on my map, but this was extremely useful when it came to defining where to dig the holes and what tree had to go where. The geographer in me was rather happy!
In the end, we planted 270 trees and bushes in our forest.
Where do we find so many trees?
We started hunting down our chosen species online. Thankfully most nurseries now have pretty good websites thanks in part to the boom in online shopping in the pandemic.
Our first tip to anyone wanting to do this kind of project is to find nurseries that are specialised in native trees. Retail nurseries will be exorbitantly expensive, especially for a large scale project.
We found a couple of nurseries that sent us their price lists and I got started on a comparative excel spreadsheet. In Chile at least, the price of trees will depend on the size, so we budgeted for a mixture of small saplings (20-30cm) to medium sized plants (60-80cm). Anything bigger than that was way out of our budget. It is important to bear in mind that for a native tree to get to a metre or more in height means that it has been cared for in the nursery for at least a couple of years, so the price is probably quite reasonable if you factor in time and energy.
In the end we decided to buy the majority of our trees from a nursery in the north of Santiago called Pumahuida. Their service was great and Constanza answered countless emails of mine with much patience. We visited the nursery one Saturday which was useful to get to see the species that we weren´t familiar with, and then the rest of the process was done online with Constanza.
In parallel to the process of buying trees, we also applied to CONAF’s Reforestation Programme which Chile has had in place for many years. CONAF is the National Forest Corporation which is in charge of running Chile’s national parks and protected areas as well as manage Chile’s forestry policies in general. We are not big fans of CONAF here in Maria Pinto, in fact, we have been vocal critics of their policies when it comes to allowing monoculture crops such as avocados to be grown on mountainsides, destroying natural vegetation and consuming ridiculous amounts of water. But this program is a credit to the institution, and we were very happy with the 70 trees (8 different species) they donated to our project.
The advantage of these trees was their size, which would have been unpayable in a commercial setting for us. These trees gave our forest some good variety in terms of height and foliage development.
What else do I need to plant my forest?
Apart from the trees, and a lot of enthusiasm for the hole digging part of the project, there are a few other things to take into consideration.
If like in our case, the soil conditions are not the best, it is important to ensure that you give the trees a boost with some quality compost. Since starting to plant our vegetable garden two years ago, we have always bought our compost from Armony, who have more than 30 years of experience in transforming Santiago’s organic waste into really good quality compost.
Secondly, you need to consider mulch to cover the forest floor. Mulch is fantastic for weed control and also for keeping the moisture in the soil and rejuvenating soil life. Given that Maria Pinto is an agricultural valley, we were lucky enough to be able to buy a huge roll of dried alfalfa from the company Baldrich, which was more economical than the traditional hay bales.
Here in Maria Pinto we have a plague of rabbits. These have always been around, but the problem has become significantly worse since plantations of avocados on the mountainsides have forced the rabbit population to move down into the valley. New sapling roots are a juicy treat for rabbits and so each tree has a wire mesh protection. The top of the mesh has spikes to prevent the rabbits from being able to stretch up and eat the foliage and sharpen their teeth on the bark.
Rodrigo has dedicated at least 4 full days installing all the wire mesh. But so far so good with holding off the rabbits.
The final investment for our forest is the drip irrigation system. This will allow for very efficient watering as well as saving A LOT of time. We will write a post on this part of the project in a few weeks time when Rodrigo has finished installing the system.
We hope this first post has not been too boring, and that it may provide useful information (that we struggled to find) for anyone wishing to undertake such a project.
Next up, read about the fun we had planting all 270 trees over the last 5 weeks…