About 1,000 plants will be grown in the microforest, which SANCA CEO says will add opportunity to connect with nature.
Visit the southern end of Nathan Benderson Park’s Regatta Island, and you might notice large piles of cardboard and mulch.
Using those two basic materials as a foundation, Suncoast Aquatic and Nature Center Associates executives hope to create a microforest that will contain approximately 1,000 individual plants — about one-third of which will be trees — from about 60 different native Floridian species. The microforest will occupy just one-third of an acre in a location that will soon become a focal point for the park, according to Tomás Herrera-Mishler, president and CEO of SANCA, which operates the park.
A walking path will wind through the microforest, allowing people to observe the miniature habitat and learn about the wide variety of plants, which will be labeled. It will lead to the southern tip of the island, which will become a lookout with benches where visitors can take in a panoramic view of most of the park.
Herrera-Mishler said visitors most often request two changes to the park — more opportunities to connect with nature, and more shade. The microforest will provide both.
For now, the park is planning to spread mulch in the middle of summer, possibly July. That would allow the park to begin planting in August, before the end of the rainy season. Though taller plants like trees will take time to grow, visitors will be able to enjoy wildflowers and other ground-level plants quickly after they have been planted.
Normally, a forest such as this one would take 100 years to grow. Using the microforest technique, the park hopes to see trees grow 30 to 40 feet tall in about 10 years. Herrera-Mishler said visitors will see the trees double or even triple in size during the first two to three years after they’ve been planted.
“By year two, it'll start to explode,” Herrera-Mishler said. “By year three, people are going to be blown away by how much growth they got with no artificial fertilization.”
The soil at the southern end of Regatta Island doesn’t seem ideal for any type of planting, let alone a microforest. It has no nutrients or organic mold, little to no nitrogen and lots of phosphorus, according to Herrera-Mishler.
That’s where the cardboard-and-mulch technique — also known as sheet mulching, a type of permaculture — comes in. The cardboard comes from old boxes used by The Mall at University Town Center, while the mulch is made of recycled wood chips that came from tree trimmers.
Flora will be planted in the mulch, which will be spread across the cardboard covering the ground. Once it’s all watered, it will create cool and dark conditions underneath the cardboard, which will attract soil-fertilizing animals like earthworms, millipedes and termites. They will digest the cardboard and mulch, turning them into nutrient-rich fertilizer to feed the plants’ massive appetites.
The key to making the microforest succeed will be placement. The plants must be placed close to one another to accelerate their growth.
“Pack them in like subway riders and feed them like sumo wrestlers,” said Charles Reith, a science advisor with the Southface Institute who helped plan the microforest.
Growing them close together creates light stress, because each plant must grow taller more quickly to soak in the light it needs. Without proper nurturing, this can lead to trees that are too skinny and not durable enough, but the sheet mulching technique is designed to ensure the trees are well-fed.
Reith helped create a microforest at The Celery Fields in Sarasota in 2020, but he wanted to learn from that experience. He said advisors from the Florida Native Plant Society were excited about The Celery Fields’ microforest, but that excitement seemed tempered because the microforest only included forest habitat.
Therefore, Reith decided to include a miniature prairie as part of Benderson’s microforest. The prairie is designed to be the home of pollinators such as butterflies and dragonflies, which Reith said are at risk because of overuse of pesticides.
Along the shorelines of the pond and lake, vegetation will be planted to provide wildlife habitat and remove nutrients that foster algae.
The microforest will include other sections. Next to the lookout, in one of the most visually prominent locations in the park, will be a dense screening grove. Herrera-Mishler said he wants the grove, which would not be accessible like the rest of the forest, to be one of most beautiful spots in the park.
At the end of the trail where the lookout will be, a ground cover section will be planted. Unlike most of the microforest, the ground cover section will be planted with vegetation that is safe to walk on and more sustainable than turf, though Reith jokingly said you wouldn’t want to play the Super Bowl on it.
Reith said in addition to providing a large area of shade in a hot, sunny climate, the microforest will act as a wind buffer. Herrera-Mishler said the microforest will decrease stormwater runoff, as the water soaks into the ground and helps the plants grow more quickly.
“What's exciting about this project is it's something that directly affects the climate,” Herrera-Mishler said. “It enhances our climate and enhances our water quality. It enhances the enjoyment of this park.”
The park is looking for volunteers to help plant the microforest and donors to help fund it.
“When you plant a tree in a place, somehow, you become tied to it,” Herrera-Mishler said. “You put roots down, literally and figuratively. I think that's something that many Americans are longing for. We're a fairly transient community here, so if you get a chance to come and help us plant some trees here in the microforest or in the park, that's a way to set down roots and become connected to this place.”
Herrera-Mishler said it’s important to make the southern end of Regatta Island more beautiful so park visitors will get more use out of it, but also because it is one of the most visible parts of the park for people driving by on Cattlemen Drive or even I-75.
Reith said he hopes the effort will show the benefits of microforests to the broader Bradenton-Sarasota community and inspire people to plant them in more urban areas that are lacking in green space. Such conditions were the impetus behind the creations of the first microforests in cities such as Tokyo and Amsterdam, according to Reith.
Planting trees is one of Herrera-Mishler’s biggest priorities. Before work on the microforest begins, the park plans to plant 300 additional trees throughout the park. Herrera-Mishler said, if successful, the microforest could create a new model to show how Nathan Benderson Park can be reforested in an environmentally and financially sustainable manner.
“We’ll be able to enhance the soil,” Herrera-Mishler said. “If you have healthy soils, you can have a healthy landscape. Then you spend a lot less money on water, you spend a lot less money on fertilizer, tree removal. All of those things are minimized because you have such a healthy landscape. And it happens to be more beautiful. It sequesters more carbon. It's sort of a win-win-win-win.”
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