Planting Seeds of Resilience is the fourth installment of the Horn Farm Ecosystem blog series. Through monthly articles, we’ll walk the land in writing: visiting the forests, regenerative fields, and ecological action sites of the Horn Farm Center to explain our stewardship work, uplift nature, and inspire love for the land. Read past installments by scrolling down our blog page.
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.”– Wendell Berry (from Work Song: A Vision, 1977)
They’re unassuming from a distance. Nestled among the familiar marks of land restoration and farm activities, these plots of vegetation don’t necessarily command attention to the untrained eye. Beyond missing them completely, a new visitor might gloss them over as fallow edges or, how dare we!, would-be agricultural plots in wild disrepair. Whatever the impression may be, there is no ready clue to the wandering onlooker that what they’re seeing is actually extraordinary.
Step closer, however, and curiosity begins to spin.
Your eyes dart up, down, around, and into an impossibly dense cluster of flora, frenetically dappled and dizzying. Ablaze in summer green or tangled tawny in winter, every inch is taken up: branches and stems colliding with leaves of kaleidoscopic shapes and sizes, cascading upward and downward at once. The wind flicks and this sea of vegetation expands and contracts in unison, somehow luxurious and chaotic, like a single organism revealing to you their nested layers of complexity.
It’s a grand experience to have while standing on a modest mowed path surrounded by farmland and the noise of passing traffic. Somehow in spite of this, visiting these plots evokes the feeling of standing in a towering, boundless forest, abuzz from floor to canopy. Their greatest departure from this bucolic setting lies not in biological richness, as you might expect. They’re simply … compact.
The mesmerizing embrace of a century’s old woodland: condensed to the length of a fallen tree and the width of a deer’s leap. At the time this blog was published, the tallest trees grace 15, 20 feet–but you can easily imagine them shooting upward rapidly in a rebuke to time’s slow churn. So yes–somehow, the young, fresh, miniature community you’re touring is so recognizably a forest. Less than five years old, and already beckoning the scurries, buzzes, and wingbeats of diverse wildlife, as if time has accelerated and you’re peering into a wild future contained in ~20’ by ~8’.
Present and future are mingling in this big tiny forest–one of dozens that are taking shape across the Horn Farm Center.
Five years ago, Woodland Steward Wilson Alvarez began an experiment with students in the Woodland Steward Training Program–the predecessor of the Horn Farm Center’s current Land Steward Training Program. The prompt was straightforward: plant a ton of trees and shrubs in a little bit of space–little, as far as tree plantings are concerned. The site for this experiment was selected for its utility: paralleling the relentless highway that slices by the Horn Farm (Rt. 30 for our sympathizing community readers), these plants would create a border against noise, road pollutants, and an unsavory view. If, of course, the high-density, high-diversity approach would take. Counteracting the management recommendations of conventional riparian buffer planting, this experiment shelved the tree tubes and mower-centric spacing in favor of a new catalog of ideas. What would happen if, instead of planting individual trees, we approximated a forest? What if success hinged not on human tending but on trees tending, urging, and animating each other?
Four short years later, nestled among the familiar marks of landscape restoration and farm activities at the Horn Farm, this planting has transformed an exposed highway-side border into just what our stewards envisioned: a wall of forest, teeming with beauty and biodiversity that surpasses its simple protective function. Wilson was betting on a method he had stumbled upon while studying approaches to wildland renewal on degraded landscapes–a method employed worldwide but only just gaining traction in the United States–and it worked superbly. This was the Miyawaki Method for forest building. Since helping us keep a highway at bay, it has become a staple of expanding land stewardship actions at the Horn Farm Center.
The Miyawaki Method: Origins, Urgency, & Promise
Dr. Akira Miyawaki, the Japanese botanist and ecologist who originated the Miyawaki method, arrived at his revolutionary approach to building forests from a similar tension: seeing a human-made problem, and envisioning how trees might provide the solution.
The Japan of Miyawaki’s pre-World War II childhood was changing drastically. Rapid economic growth in the wake of the war resulted in levels of pollution and deforestation unseen in the country’s history. Amid this march of environmental degradation,1 he took notice of how native forests were well equipped–often better than human infrastructure–for withstanding the natural disasters afflicting Japan during this time period. In particular, he noticed how natural forest resilience averted further human tragedy time and time again, giving an emotional edge to a scientific question.
Stirred by this conviction that age-old forests provided both direct and indirect security to the human communities around them, and pairing this with the world-scale disfigurement of forests amid rampant industrialization, he devised a method that, in many ways, was already millions of years into its own devising.
To recoup forest health in a scalable way, Miyawaki took inspiration from the forests themselves.
What we call the Miyawaki Method is really a modified short-cut of the forest’s method for becoming a forest: recreating the conditions for the most mature community of plants in a natural forest to develop, but doing so at a rate that matches the pace of their collapse—fast.
Arriving at this method was far from fast. A key influence in Miyawaki’s method came with spending ample time among the sacred forests of Shinto shrines. Shinto is an Indigenous Japanese religion that, like many Indigenous animist spiritualities, recognizes the divine in the natural world. From this reverence, worshippers have taken care to cultivate and protect biodiversity around religious sites, creating sacred pocket forests called Chinju no mori. The richness of these centuries-old forests is based on the tending of vegetation most suited to the conditions of a particular place. While biologically sound, this is at its core a spiritual approach: Shinto holds that nature’s health is based not simply in the presence of life, but in the presence of the members of a natural community resident to a specific place. Over time, this management ethic generated pristinely layered and heterogenous forests, where small space made no small work of diversity. The key, Miyawaki observed, was verticality; he saw these forests as “time capsules, showing how indigenous forest was layered together from four categories of native plantings: main tree species, subspecies, shrubs, and ground-covering herbs.” Overall, the treasured forests of Shinto care infused their wisdom into Miyawaki’s approach, from the selection of species to the emphasis on vertical space to the conviction that small areas could still serve as repositories for diversity and resilience.
Over time, Miyawaki honed his approach to build a capital M “Method” that incorporated that additional consideration absent from the Shinto guidebook: urgency. In the Miyawaki Method, forests move from a counterpart to spiritual practice to a counterbalance against environmental damage. Working with government ministries, cities, schools, and industrial companies, he oversaw the planting of hundreds of “environmental protection forests” on exposed tracts that were otherwise considered negligible. You could say that the Shinto conception of a human space wrapped in a forest’s embrace was infusing its way into secular modern life.
Miyawaki’s work in Japan quickly leaped into mainland Asia, and he became a spokesperson for his method globally. Insisting on forested landscapes as countermeasures to all scales of human overreach–from pollution to climate change–his method casts attention to the narrow, the little, the forest-less, and the seemingly infertile. How could these degraded spaces be reawakened to a point where they resemble the functions of our shrinking and threatened existing forests?
“It was human activity that turned much of the world’s land into an unproductive semi-desert, and it must be human efforts that restore at least some of this area.”– Akira Miyawaki
Miyawaki in North America: From the Ground Up
It should be clear now that the adjectives associated with Miyawaki’s approach to landscape restoration encapsulate an urgency for the work: rapid, dense, diverse, and resilient. Words like these took the method global, but it’s only just beginning to take root–literally–in eastern North America. The Horn Farm Center has planted away at the cutting edge of that rooting, taking up the method to address both immediate concerns and a legacy of deforestation that has scarred the Mid-Atlantic region. For context, a brief hike is in order: to survey the recent history of forestlands in the eastern US.
It’s well understood that prior to European colonization, much of the east was covered in forests. These included forested lands independent of human influence and thoughtfully-stewarded forest-mosaic landscapes favoring the edible, medicinal, and infrastructural species that Indigenous peoples relied on. As settlers encroached and imposed their version of production, swaths of forest were cleared like never before, and the characteristic species and ecological relationships of the region–refined over thousands of years–began to unravel. A 2013 article comparing pre- and post-colonization forests in the northeast traces this drama concisely:
“For more than 10,000 years native people cleared modest areas along waterways and seasonal settlements and managed some upland areas through sporadic understory burning. Even so, the region was overwhelmingly forested and chiefly governed by non-anthropogenic disturbances and successional dynamics until around 1650, when two centuries of logging and agricultural clearing were initiated that removed more than half of the forest cover and cut over almost all of the rest. Outside of the far north and rugged mountainous regions, the northeast became a predominantly humanized agrarian landscape.”
By 1900, Pennsylvania in particular had lost more than 60% of its forests to agriculture, logging, and industries like iron production–the remnants of which remain scattered throughout our Lower Susquehanna region. Once dominated by forests so thick “it seems almost as if the sun had never shown on the ground since the creation” (1743)2, a landscape that was biologically and climatologically primed for bold, diverse forests was quickly supplanted by monocrops and moonscapes. It was, of course, the humidity, density, and complexity of dynamic forests and their shifting waterways (did somebody say beavers?) that built the arable soils so desired by settlers; but with the soil-building process undermined by intensive agriculture, soils depleted, erosion spread, and the seed bank of the past dwindled.
As populations concentrated and the American “breadbasket” shifted to the Midwest, agricultural expansion plateaued and a process of natural reforestation in abandoned areas began. This, alongside state remediation efforts and updates in logging policy, did contribute to a “rebound” in forest quantity during the 20th century, but as we can see today, many challenges remain.
Namely, the land is missing most of the ingredients that built the dynamic, productive, mosaic ecosystems of the past.
The legacies of the last 300 years have compacted, eroded, and denuded soils; confined and contaminated waterways; extinguished or extirpated ecosystem engineers like beavers, wolves, and passenger pigeons; introduced novel species that are highly adaptable to unfamiliar conditions; and diminished our own sense of place in relationship with the landscape: tenders, gatherers, and fire-makers partaking generatively in ecological world-building. Human activities have even disoriented the carbon cycle, with climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions exceeding the rate at which natural systems like forests can recoup carbon from the atmosphere.3 It’s enough to induce a feeling of grim paralysis, but returning to the point: while we’ve certainly made strides in addressing ecological impairments through our households, industries, and communities, the full recovery of wild spaces stands against these odds. Any regenerating forest in the northeast is growing on a radically altered foundation, absent many of its ancient counterparts, strained by ongoing development, and under a rapidly changing climate.
All told, the Miyawaki method surfaces as a compelling addition to the toolbox for recovering dynamic, productive, and resilient northeastern forests. Designed for (modern) human-impacted landscapes and driven by the urgency of stacked environmental crises, it’s especially equipped for the situation we find ourselves. The services that forests provided are needed now more than ever, from protecting water quality to providing cooler microclimates, to diversifying food and material sources, and calling carbon back to the land to make climate change manageable. A way forward that expedites the revival of these services is evident, we believe, in Miyawaki’s east-coast debut at the Horn Farm.
Planting a Miyawaki: In Praise of Chaotic Biomimicry
Since Wilson’s initial experiment on the highway’s edge, the Horn Farm Center has undertaken the planting of over a dozen Miyawaki plots across our restoration landscape. This is the highest concentration of Miyawaki-inspired plantings in the east, with the 2018-2019 installations being the first of their kind on this side of the continent. The work of pioneering the Miyawaki method for eastern temperate forests has brought, collectively, 38 native species to our recovering landscape, as well as countless birds, insects, beneficial soil bacteria, fungi, and other beings that would not have found refuge when the land was conventionally farmed.
As mentioned earlier, the Miyawaki method is less about growing individual trees and more about approximating a mature, biodiverse forest in a short period of time. It’s an extension of a broader restoration concept called “biomimicry,” or imitating the structures, strategies, and relationships found in nature to aid in its recovery and solve human design challenges. So how does Miyawaki biomimic? And how does it move impaired land to a dynamic forest state so rapidly?
As winter transitions to spring and the prime time for tree planting approaches, the Horn Farm Center hosts classes led by Wilson that dig deep into the process for establishing a Miyawaki forest. A written summary cannot do any class justice, but some of the essentials are covered below, and “digging deep” is the step one:
Deep Soil Preparation
Just as a house requires a sturdy foundation, a forest requires stable soil. In a natural system, soil is built over time by decomposing layers of vegetation and organic materials. With each stage of ecological succession–or the movement of natural landscapes from initial “pioneer” species to forest species–the soil conditions are improved. Most agricultural and developed landscapes degrade soils by keeping natural elements “locked” in an idle or liminal state, thereby excluding the processes by which materials and nutrients cycle through the land and build living soils. These landscapes are also mowed, plowed, sanitized, and bereft of deep-rooting vegetation, exposing vulnerable topsoil to erosion while compacting the ground to the detriment of potential vegetation.
Landscapes like this are not prepared for forests, which grow out of the improved soils of previous successional stages. Therefore, in planting a Miyawaki mini-forest, we need to manually improve soil conditions to make the plot conducive to the mid- and late-successional forest species we are going to introduce. Practices for priming soil include decompaction by “double-digging” and aerating, the addition of organic matter like leaf mulch and compost, and inoculation with fungal mycelium typical of forest soils. It’s worth noting that Miyawaki stewards avoid undoing these improvements by not stepping on prepared soil areas–an experience strangely reminiscent of the “floor is lava” game. Together, these practices enable air flow, improve water retention, nurture the soil biotic community, and grant the return of regular nutrient cycling that sustains soil over time without artificial inputs.
Potential Natural Vegetation
“Potential Natural Vegetation” (PNV) describes “the hypothetical ecological potential of a piece of land” or “theoretical endpoint of succession.” In practice, it constitutes the overstory, understory, shrub, and herbaceous species that would characterize a mature natural space unaffected by human impacts. PNV is usually the outcome of natural succession, whereby hardy (“weedy”) pioneer species create the conditions conducive for perennial grass and shrublands, which create the conditions conducive for early forests, which transform overtime to mature layered forests. The Miyawaki method bypasses this time-intensive process for a similar result, favoring the community of species most appropriate for the environment when it reaches its “climax” state.
This high-diversity assortment collectively improves more soil, retains more water, and inhales more carbon than the modest plot size might suggest, thanks to variations at both the terrestrial and subterranean levels: staggered heights, root depths, shading/sunlight preferences, growth habits, and ecological roles. The inherent diversity of PNV also boosts resilience against disease and disturbance, with plants better equipped to exchange resources, and no single genetic vulnerability dominating the space. For the Horn Farm’s eastern temperate plantings, PNVs include overstory trees like oaks, hickories, and sycamores, understory trees like eastern redbud and dogwood, and shrubs like buttonbush, elderberry, and viburnums.
High Density, High Randomization
“In natural forests, fertilization is done by the wind or by wandering pollinators […] It is a total random disorder. This Chaos model is an optimized system. This tactic is the best protection from windstorms, powerful floods or even heavy snowfall.”
Indeed, the Miyawaki method embraces the game of chance that governs forest dynamics. This means relinquishing the human impulse to control or design. Once determined, species are interspersed arbitrarily, and at a seemingly precarious density: 18 to 24” apart. 4000 sq feet, in this case, can accommodate 1500 trees: the outcome of the Horn Farm Center’s 2020 volunteer plantings. Density like this bucks the cultural notion of cutthroat competition defining ecological relationships, which is a dangerous misreading of Darwin to say the least. High density planting actually stimulates the dance of mutual and competitive interactions found in forests: urging plants upward while fostering cooperative exchanges below ground, aided by the mycelium added during soil preparation. It also maximizes the presence of roots with which beneficial soil microorganisms develop their own symbiotic relationships. What appears to be a paradox–a coexistence of cooperation and competition–yields upwards of 90% survival in Miyawaki plantings.
Now, there are a few recommendations to placate a desire for order, and these help to ensure randomization doesn’t inadvertently compromise diversity. For one, the species categories represented in a given Miyawaki plot–those being canopy trees, understory trees, and shrubs–can be mathematically parsed out into different proportions depending on planting goals that might accompany landscape renewal, like creating bird habitat, a food forest, riparian cover, etc. Plantings can also be divided between “major” and “minor” species representations, with 5-7 species chosen for 50% of the whole and a large amount of alternative species set aside for the other 50%.
STUN: Sheer, Total, Utter Neglect
Over the history of the Earth, most forests became forests without human intervention. Being forest-adjacent, a Miyawaki plot is no different. That brings up another human impulse to stem during the process of mothering a Miyawaki: the desire to tend to its growth with watering, weeding, fertilization, etc. Weeding in the first year in areas prone to encroachment from prolific species is one exception, but otherwise, barring unexpected circumstances, the longevity of a plot is best achieved when it’s left to fend for itself. Trees watered too routinely become dependent on a consistent watering cycle, which isn’t reflective of the natural world, especially one undergoing climate change. After potential weeding in the first and second years, a third-year Miyawaki plot is usually self-sufficient and self-sustaining: filled out by trees helping themselves and nudging each other through a marriage of cooperation and competition. Part of the joy in the Miyawaki method is casual visitation, to watch maturity unfold in a digestible time frame–ten times faster than conventional restoration tree plantings.
Rewilding & Reintegration: Spreading the Miyawaki Seed
The smallness of a Miyawaki planting is its greatest strength. While the scale of ecological wrongs to be righted is unutterably daunting, stepping foot on a path straddled by two Miyawaki mini-forests–surpassing ten feet in just two growing seasons–is enough to temper the despair and recognize that seeds, small as they may be, are solutions. If allowed, Miyawaki plots will cast themselves outward from their nuclear origins. The seeds and pollen they produce as they mature will grow forth from those confines where humans gave them life, moved by birds, insects, wind and rain, and ourselves. New sprouts will volunteer in the nearby landscape, just as new ideas will take root in backyards, schoolyards, farmyards, and those other once-forested lands left barren by a myopic vision of progress. Planting a Miyawaki forest gives nature its missing pieces while piecing together our own sense of place on the land, as we re-learn what it needs to grow, thrive, and give immeasurably on and on:
“Mini-forests are where we touch life. We explore our place, discover what is native, restore our soil, nurture a small ecosystem that restores life. Watching a mini-forest grow several feet a year, watching it become more complex and beautiful in front our eyes, knowing that it has a direct impact on the biosphere and atmosphere—these relationships feed us. They feed our longing to make a difference, our need to connect to what is regenerative and act. Facts do not change our minds. Actions change our minds. As we get involved with the acts of regeneration […] our sense of self and what is possible transforms. A mini-forest of ideas and hope is born within us as well.”– Paul Hawken, “Forward” in Mini-Forest Revolution: Using the Miyawaki Method to Rapidly Rewild the World (2022)
1) Deforestation worldwide is an ongoing crisis. Between 1990 and 2015 the world lost 129 million hectares of [forests], which equals “two Texases.” Deforestation is responsible for an estimated 5 billion tons, or 17 percent, of annual global carbon emissions, not to mention soil erosion and biodiversity loss.
2) Journaled by John Bartram while traveling up the Susquehanna River in 1743
3) With an estimated loss of 270 kilohectares (khas), or 667,184 acres, of forest cover between 2001 and 2022, Pennsylvania emitted the equivalent of 94.6 megatons (Mt) of the greenhouse gas CO2 from deforestation alone. 1Mt is roughly equivalent to a space filling a cube 27 feet tall, wide, and long (imagine a cube made of telephone poles), so that much carbon fills a three-dimensional space of about 2,554 feet–about half a mile tall, wide, and long. The importance of these regional numbers is underwritten by their concurrence nationally and internationally.
About the Authors:
Growing up in the foothills of Ricketts Glen State Park, Andrew spent his early life in the embrace of Northeastern PA forests, sowing the seeds for his ongoing enchantment with the natural world and its stewardship. While studying English and Music Composition at Muhlenberg College, he gravitated toward nonprofit engagement as a work study student in the college’s Office of Community Engagement. Now, at the Horn Farm Center, Andrew manages social media, develops educational programs, coordinates volunteer events, and collaborates on marketing projects, large events, and organizational capacity-building. Through all of this, he is a dedicated student of the land, with a life’s mission of learning (and providing spaces for others to learn) about bioregional ecology, regenerative agriculture, permaculture, foraging, and locally-focused ways of living in reciprocal relationship with nature.
Mel is a rising junior at Franklin & Marshall College pursuing a B.A. in environmental studies and public policy. After taking an environmental justice course and diving into research on “forever chemicals,” she realized that she wanted to pursue a career that actively acknowledges and addresses the ways in which the environment is deeply interconnected with and integral to our wellbeing. She jumped on the opportunity to intern at Horn Farm Center, seeing how our mission aligns with her passions and career goals. As the Education & Communications Intern, she’s grateful to contribute to HFC’s essential role in demonstrating not only sustainable, but regenerative and resilient agriculture by assisting with research and outreach. In her free time, she enjoys being with friends and family and in nature, thrifting, listening to music, and watching video essays. On campus, she is a house advisor and the president of Catastrophic Relief Alliance, an F&M organization that addresses housing needs locally and nationally, especially in the wake of natural disasters.