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Grow your own tiny forest on the web

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionShubhendu Sharma envisages tiny forests growing up in cities, offices and gardens

In autumn, as the trees change colour, there is little to beat a walk in the forest.

But what if you didn't need to go out of town to enjoy the beauty of the woods? Imagine if you could plant a forest in your garden, in your city or even in your workplace?

Entrepreneur and engineer Shubhendu Sharma is doing just that, starting with a miniature one in his own backyard.

Within a year, a lush green forest had appeared in his hitherto unremarkable 93-sq-m (1,000-sq-ft) plot in Uttaraskhand in India.

Two years later, he had 300 trees, 42 species, of which 18 bore fruit, and 17 species of bird in an area that had previously had just two.

image copyrightAfforestt
image captionShubhendu Sharma grew his first forest in his back yard

"Our guava trees produce so much fruit that we harvest at least 5kg [11lb] a day. All my neighbours are getting guava nectar because we have such an abundance," he said.

iPhone prices

Forests act as the lungs of the planet, but they are rapidly disappearing from the globe. According to Mr Sharma, we lose the equivalent of 36 football pitches in any given minute.

It typically takes at least 100 years for a forest to mature, but the ones he helps create grow 10 times faster than traditional ones, are 30 times as dense and 100 times more biodiverse.

Mr Sharma's interest in forest-building began when he met Japanese forester Akira Miyawaki, who regenerates habitats by planting dozens of native species to create an ecosystem that can develop in 10 years.

He met Mr Miyawaki when he was working at Toyota in 2008 and the forester came to the site to plant a forest at the factory.

He started to see that growing forests could be done in the same way as manufacturing cars - a job he knew well as an industrial engineer at Toyota.

"I realised I could create an end-to-end service provider for forests," he said. "We could standardise the process and make a forest for the cost of an iPhone."

"The methodology is the secret, Miyawaki Method amplifies the natural process of growth. This happens due to enriched soil, dense plantation and using only native species," he said.

He soon after abandoned the comfort of his corporate job to become a forest entrepreneur.

City forests

image copyrightOther
image captionPlanting trees can involve the whole community

He set up his for-profit website and now works with partners around the world, planting forests in corporate settings, farms and cities.

"I made a forest for a financial technology company where the managing director wanted to create a place where he could have a board meeting in the open," said Mr Sharma.

He made a forest of 1,500 trees in a 500-sq-m plot.

"Now they can have a board meeting right in the middle of a forest without leaving their office premises."

As for city forests, they can help solve a range of issues, according to Mr Sharma - from lack of biodiversity to air pollution, as well as reducing the "heat island" effect whereby concrete absorbs sunlight, making cities hotter.

"A natural forest in a city brings back the plant and animal life of that geography right in the middle of the urban landscape," he added.

Greenpeace spokesman Graham Thompson had mixed feelings about the project.

"I've no doubt having lots of little dense forests in cities would make those cities better places to live - but as a solution to an environmental problem, I'm not sure which problem it is supposed to be solving."

Forest clicks

To grow a forest, people need to follow a series of steps.

Firstly the soil needs to be analysed to identify what species of tree will grow. The team make it a rule that any biomass added to the soil to give it nourishment must come from within 50km (30 miles) of the site.

Once the soil is right, saplings are planted that are up to 80cm (2ft 7in) high. They are packed in very densely - three to five saplings per square metre.

image copyrightAfforestt
image captionThe saplings are planted very densely

The forest itself needs to be a minimum of 100 sq m. After about eight months, the forest will be so dense that sunlight cannot reach the ground.

At this point, the forest starts to become self-sustaining - with every drop of rain conserved and every leaf that falls converted into compost.

The forest needs to be watered and weeded for the first two or three years, but after that it is recommended that it is disturbed as little as possible to allow its ecosystem to become established.

So far the group has planted 43,000 trees for 33 clients, all based in India. Mr Sharma was made a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Fellow in 2013 and spoke at the conference in Vancouver earlier this year about his work.

The next stage is to create a website that will collate real-time soil data and act as a one-stop shop for anyone wanting to create a forest.

Mr Sharma is also developing a GPS-enabled probe that will allow people to test soil and upload the data to the server for analysis. A database of soil types will be kept for future reference.

"The website will enable people to make their own forest. Whichever new geography we do a project in, we have a step-by-step process ready to make a forest for that geography. We are going to share that process on our website," said Mr Sharma.

"Everyone and anyone can make a forest with the click of a button."

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