fb-pixelA Cambridge resident wanted bigger things for her urban front yard. Neighbors helped plant a ‘Miyawaki forest’ there. - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

A Cambridge resident wanted bigger things for her urban front yard. Neighbors helped plant a ‘Miyawaki forest’ there.

It’s one of several such forests, which are loaded with carefully selected plant and tree species, that have popped up in the area in recent years. This one is likely the first on a private lawn — but hopefully not the last, advocates say.

Cambridge woman plants region's first 'microforest' in her yard
WATCH: ‘Miyawaki forests’ allow nature to run its course. In less than a decade, the 600-square-foot plot will host trees that are 20 feet tall, or more.

CAMBRIDGE — For now, it doesn’t look like much.

On this patch of lawn the size of a studio apartment, a cluster of bare twigs pokes up from an oval of freshly turned soil, with just some delicate orange leaves — or red berries — clinging to them.

About three dozen species of trees, plants, and bushes have been planted here, all bunched so closely that they’re nearly on top of each other. None stands more than waist high, and many are so young and delicate, one wrong step could snap them in half.

Check back in a few short years, and then a few more years after that. If all goes according to plan, a forest will stand in this spot, as mighty as it is miniature.

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Right here, in a resident’s front yard.

This, said owner Susan Filene, is a “Miyawaki forest,” a planting technique designed to squeeze the maximum environmental effect out of smaller spaces such as the patch of dirt between her front door and the sidewalk. Typically, they’re planted by volunteers on public land.

But Filene, known for her advocacy to allow residents to keep chickens in the city, believes she’s the first person in the region to install one on private property. And she hopes she’s not the last.

“Can you imagine an entire street of forests?” she said.

Until recently, few people thought of forests this way. But there has been a surge in enthusiasm for the “Miyawaki method,” devised by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, which calls for planting a wide variety of local trees in large numbers and in very tight quarters, mimicking the biodiversity and competition of the natural growth that occurs in the wild.

When done properly, advocates say, the forests bloom 10 times faster than usual. They also nurture an uncommonly rich and complex soil where microorganisms flourish and power growth.

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In a Miyawaki forest, after several years of maintenance, nature is allowed to run its course: Some trees soar upward, others die, and a whole ecosystem blooms in a hurry.

“All of those trees will grow together and they will nourish each other and help each other. They actually exchange nutrients just as they do in a big forest,” Filene said. “They will grow very fast because they’re all reaching for the sun.”

With help from friends and neighbors, Susan and Robert Filene this year planted trees in their front yard using the "Miyawaki method."Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Around three dozen tree and plant species will take root in Susan Filene's Cambridge front yard.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

In less than a decade, Filene said, the 600-square-foot plot will host trees that are 20 feet tall, or more. The tight grouping of thin, sturdy trees will tower over her home, standing out even on a street lined with large oaks.

Planting it was a community effort that began last year, when a crew of neighbors from local nonprofits and strangers she met on the app Nextdoor helped dig, spread compost, and turn over the soil.

Then, earlier this month, she hosted a block party, complete with snacks, games, and tables for groups focused on environmental issues. Everyone was invited to plant something. By the end, some 40 people, including kids, got their hands dirty.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” she said.

Not all experts are on board with this new approach to planting. They have questioned, among other things, the utility of planting lots of hard-to-source local trees all at once when many won’t survive by design.

But proponents say the environmental benefits are immense.

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For one, the thicket of varied trees and plants provides a habitat for birds, insects, pollinators, and all sorts of critters that support the local ecosystem.

The dense cluster also absorbs heat, while the network of roots that grows beneath them sucks up flood water. The large volume of leaves makes it a powerful tool for cleaning and sucking carbon out of the air, helping fight climate change close to home.

The Miyawaki forest in Cambridge's Danehy Park, planted three years ago, was reportedly the first of its kind in the Northeast. Saplings planted there already stand several feet tall.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

This is not the first Miyawaki forest to be planted in the area. A much larger one was planted three years ago in Cambridge’s Danehy Park, and is thought to be the first of its kind in the Northeast. Another was put down at Greene-Rose Heritage Park, and this fall, one sprang up next to Somerville High School and at a playground in Brookline.

“This new urban forest represents a significant step toward a more eco-friendly, resilient, and beautiful community,” Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne said after the planting, where she was joined by other elected officials.

Fans of the Miyawaki method see potential microforests everywhere — even in the densely populated Boston area, where empty space can be hard to come by. Whether in grassy medians between roads, on underused corners of parks, along train tracks, or — yes — right outside a person’s front doors, they view the possibilities as endless.

“This is something that can be replicated in other places,” said Tori Antonino, an ecological landscaper and cofounder of the group Green & Open Somerville, who consulted on Filene’s project. “The majority of our green and open space is on private property. And even in Cambridge, where we have a lot of postage-stamp-size properties, we have a lot of people who have lawns. Those can be transformed.”

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For all their environmental benefits, planting a Miyawaki forest can be pricey. Filene’s cost about $12,000 for supplies and consulting fees. (Thanks to volunteers, the labor was free.)

Filene said that’s not much different from what others in this wealthier corner of Greater Boston might spend on a more traditional landscaping job. But to help with the price tag, and make it a more attractive option for other homeowners, she wants to see the government chip in with grants and tax credits — like the kind available for solar panel installations or electric cars.

“You can put up all the solar panels you want,” she said. “But if you don’t have pollinators, we’re all going to die of starvation because there won’t be any food.”

Her forest comes with customizations to make it more inviting, including a small path that will curl through its center. She plans to install a bench outside its perimeter “where people walking by can just sit and watch the forest grow.”

Whether or not others follow her lead and convert their lawns, her tale is a model for how people in places such as Cambridge could be reimagining their lawns, said Steven Nutter, executive director of the group Green Cambridge, which works to add plant life to the city.

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“Having 600 square feet in an urban environment is really precious,” Nutter said. “So what Susan has done is given that space back to the community. She could use it for private use, but she’s giving it back.”

Mr. Thompson, a cat belonging to one of the tenants in Susan and Robert Filene's house, walked through the growing Miyawaki forest in their front yard. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him @SpencerBuell.