Pocket Forests: reconnecting people with nature and rewilding Ireland

WRITTEN BY Bronagh Loughlin

February 20, 2023

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Pocket Forests: reconnecting people with nature and rewilding Ireland

Bronagh Loughlin

20 Feb, 2023

Pocket Forests is a social enterprise working to bring native forests the size of tennis courts and parking spaces to back gardens and urban areas around Ireland. Founded in 2020 by Catherine Cleary and Ashe Conrad-Jones, the team work with the community to build these small native woodlands. 

Already, the duo on a mission to rewild Ireland has worked with hundreds of people and planted well over 2,000 trees and shrubs in towns and cities. Most interestingly, neither Ashe nor Catherine come from a botany or horticulture background. Ashe is an Australian tree nut and Co-Founder of an event company, Gorilla Design, while Catherine is an award-winning writer who loves living in a city but equally hankers after the solace of nature. However, it is a reminder that two passionate people can take on entirely new challenges and spark positive change. Both Catherine and Ashe couldn’t stand back and allow nature to be depleted further. 

Ashe was tired of looking at concrete and wanted life to feel greener for everybody in the neighbourhood. She sees forests as a constant source of wonder. Catherine believes planting trees is something we can all do to help create ecosystems on our doorsteps while still bringing beauty into our cities. 

Speaking on the inception of this fantastic initiative, Catherine Cleary, Co-Founder of Pocket Forests, says, “Ashe Conrad Jones and I set up Pocket Forests after hearing about other urban foresting projects around the world. During our 2k lockdown in 2020, Ashe came across the concept of Tiny Forests, and we thought they would be great for our area of Dublin, which has the least amount of green space per person. We have under one metre squared per person, and the WHO recommendation is more than nine times that amount.”

A pocket forest is this social enterprise’s own method of planting native trees, wildflowers, and shrubs in small urban spaces. It was adapted from the work of Akira Miyawake, a Japanese Botanist who created Tiny Forests. What they do is recreate layers of a forest – a canopy layer of tall trees, a shrub layer, and ground cover. In the natural world, it is beautifully organised chaos with birch, alder, and ash trees with hazel and holly bushes under the trees and wild garlic underfoot.

Catherine explains how their method differs from the work of Akira Miyawake, “We adapted the Tiny Forest model using permaculture methods. Permaculture is a system of working with the resources already there, finding creative ways to use ‘waste’ like food waste, coffee grounds and cardboard, and regenerating the web of life in the soil. We planted test plots, contacted nurseries and other organisations doing similar work, built a website and social media accounts and started work. Over two years on, we’ve planted more than 40 pocket forests in Dublin and beyond, between 6sqm and 100sqm in size.”

Trees grow in communities of plants; they collaborate with one another and create networks in the air and soil. The Miyawake-style forests speed up this natural evolution as lots of species of young trees, wildflowers, and shrubs are densely planted and grown from wild seed. This concept has spread from Japan across the world, and Miyawake-style forests are finding their way into more urban areas. 

The main difference with the Pocket Forests method is that Ashe and Catherine tap into the richness of resources that already exist. They do this by reusing materials to bring life back to exhausted soil. The permaculture approach they utilise encourages microbes and earthworms to do the heavy work of digging. This means anyone – despite their age or ability – can get involved in each step of the process.

Talking about the collaboration and community connection making pocket forests create, Catherine, says, “We hope we can introduce the idea of nature-based solutions to people in inner city areas with little or no connection to soil or growing or creating natural ecosystems. Feedback from teachers in schools has been fantastically positive about how empowered students feel when they are able to create their own green spaces and watch their young trees and shrubs thrive.”

It’s not only pocket forests this dynamic duo is creating. Through a partnership with The Digital Hub, Catherine and Ashe have also been holding workshops to help people live more sustainably too. For instance, workshops on how to compost food waste correctly, explaining the pocket forests methods and ideas around soil health, and its vital importance to our health.

Catherine adds: “Dublin’s tree canopy cover is well below what it should be and the majority of the city’s trees are in private gardens. We would like this small project to grow, for street forests to be planted as well as street trees, and for schools to incorporate pocket forests into teaching spaces, forest classrooms, science, art, and English lessons.”

Catherine and Ashe’s work has ultimately brought the community together. As an all-island social enterprise, to date they have worked with Tidy Towns groups, the GAA, schools, colleges, St Francis hospice, and Dublin City Council, to name a few. Working with a community group based in Newry, they planted 400 trees and shrubs with a group from a local national school. 

They also established a small native tree nursery in The Digital Hub on Dublin’s Thomas Street. Initiatives like these give us hope that we can successfully rewild Ireland while simultaneously helping people get their vitamin tree! These inspiring women are showing us that we can all take action to change the world, even if it is just one pocket forest at a time. 

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