By Veronica Chavez
Photo courtesy of Jeff Turner.
Shubhendu Sharma was working as an industrial engineer at the Toyota Motor Corporation in India when his life changed.
Toyota Motor had been striving to become a zero-emission company at the time and had invited Akira Miyawaki, a Japanese botanist and expert in plant ecology, to hold a seminar about the methodology of planting natural forests.
As Sharma tells BTR, he attended the event not because he was particularly passionate about the environment, but he needed a break from work.
At the seminar he learned about Miyawaki’s unique planting procedure–a formula leading to forests that are up to 30 times denser, absorb 30 times more carbon dioxide, and have 30 times better noise and dust reduction than conventional plantations. Most interestingly, this super forest grows in as little as three years, with results showing in as early as six months.
Sharma left the seminar indescribably inspired by Miyawaki’s teachings and for the next two years, he began to implement the botanist’s methodology as a volunteer.
During this period, Miyawaki’s institution did large-scale projects namely for non-profits, factories, and government-funded areas as environmental conservation.
Seeing that the methodology he was learning had not yet penetrated the mainstream market, Sharma decided to take the planting technique and offer it as a retail service, essentially allowing consumers to “build their own forest.”
Photo courtesy of Afforestt.
His company, Afforestt, now offers consultation and planting management as a landscaping business for companies as well as individuals.
Each individual project consists of six steps. Firstly, Sharma and his team test the soil to determine what nutrients the soil is lacking. They then create biomass that will introduce these missing nutrients back into the soil for fertilization.
Next, his team identifies which species of trees are native to the area. As Sharma points out, exotic trees tend to be very popular for use in landscaping. Consumers like to have colorful and interesting-looking trees regardless if the plants are native to that land or not.
One of the main details of Miyawaki’s technique, however, is that the trees planted must be native to the location’s soil. This allows them to grow without a hitch.
After identifying which trees are native to the area, a database is created. Out of this database Sharma’s team creates a multilayer plan: shrub, sub-tree, tree, and canopy.
Then the actual planting begins.
Photo courtesy of Afforestt.
The soil is dug to a depth of one meter in which all of the biomass is mixed. Adding this natural fertilizer increases the perforation capacity of the soil so that the roots can penetrate easily. Water retention nutrients are also mixed into the soil as well as compost to provide nutrition for the trees.
The last step of the process is adding the seedlings to the soil. They are planted in a way in which different species are grown right next to each other and planted very close to one another.
By planting the seedlings so densely, it creates competition when they begin to grow. Since the saplings are all trying to get as close to the sun as possible, they go back and forth, essentially trying to outgrow one another.
They are able to grow at an accelerated pace and competitively because they have all the nutrients and water they need already in the soil. This allows them to be self-sustaining with no maintenance needed after their initial planting.
The forests that grow from Miyawaki’s technique are also completely free of chemicals and fertilizers. This is possible because the biomass that Sharma’s team adds to the soil acts as a natural fertilizer. Also, since different species of plants are planted right next to each other, pests and insects cannot travel very far.
As Sharma explains it, “the bug may be getting nutrients from Plant A, but if it travels too far it will only find nutrients from Plant B which the bug doesn’t need.” Because of the varying species of trees in such a small area, bugs cannot spread infinitely.
Photo courtesy of Afforestt.
As for the business side of Afforestt, the company’s model is unique because Sharma doesn’t “sit on” the methodology. He only charges his clients for the time he spends consulting and for the initial “handholding” portion of the planting.
While most landscaping companies are expected to complete an entire project for their pay, Sharma walks his clients through the steps they need to do to finish the project and then he leaves.
“Our goal is to spread the methodology,” Sharma reveals, “We want to make more and more forests by sharing and creating a domino effect, a chain reaction.”
Sharma believes that his time is better spent sharing his technique and moving on to a new project as quickly as possible, as opposed to completing a project from start to finish.
Sharma’s long-term plan for Afforrest is to release the methodology and the formula for each unique location on an open-sourced platform. That way, when one person in New York plants a forest, anyone from New York can go online and find out exactly what biomass Afforestt used, what species were found to be native to the area, and ultimately follow the same steps.
Additionally, Sharma has begun to speak with interested consumers from California, an area that could benefit greatly from Miyawaki’s waterless technique of planting.
“Water usage has become a big problem today,” says Sharma. “These are the times when the Miyawaki method will be looked at as the obvious solution.”
Hopefully the world catches on before it’s too late. Regardless, Afforrest will continue to strive to bring the “build your own forest” model to all consumers.