Eat the forest

by Gabriel Rodríguez Rojas

What happens if we let our grass grow? What will happen to our lawns if we completely abandon them and let nature take its course?

Forest layers. Picture by Kenrick Baksh in
Forest layers. Picture by Kenrick Baksh in

Succession is nature’s way of creating forests. This long process allows a place to slowly create the conditions for trees. Let’s think for a second, where do trees grow? Well, trees grow on soil. They don’t really grow on rocks and barren land. And what is soil? Soil is dirt, which is the by-product of a lot of decomposition and vegetation. So, how does soil form? Through the process of succession. Let’s use our creativity for a second. What happens if we completely abandon our lawns? The grass will grow. And end up with a grassland. Those unwanted weeds start to appear on the lawn; maybe those shrub species start to appear too. Mice, rats, and birds start to show up. Then some other larger predators want these animals, so they appear too. Then some bigger tree seedlings like Yagrumo or African tulip. After that, the large trees like avocadoes and mango. This long process where trees have a place where they can grow is what’s called succession, and it takes a lot of time.

Poop: Nature’s soil creator?

Succession illustration

Different strategies are involved throughout the whole succession process, where the different vegetation lives in a place throughout time. The grasses have the capacity to live in the harshest conditions. They’re the firsts to arrive at a place. Throughout their lifespan, they grow, shed layers, and spread seeds around this barren land. That organic matter begins to deposit on the barren land and starts creating soil. Bacteria start to appear, maybe some small insects. Then, other animals start to appear, the ones that eat the grass and small insects. In turn, these start to eat what is available and essentially poop on the ground. Now, poop has an active role for the creation of soil. This will bring other small critters and fungi to eat what is left behind. So, another layer of soil is being created. This then allows for other plants, like shrubs, to have a chance at growing because, what used to be a barren land, now has decades of grassy vegetation, insects, and decomposition on top of it. Now the shrubs are growing larger than the grass, creating shade around them. It’s blooming beautiful flowers for the insect pollinators to feed on. Then, insectivorous birds will start to arrive and have a feast. Other animals start coming into the ecosystem. More animals mean more poop, which means another layer of soil.

Now that some shade is created from the shrubs, some fruit-eating birds may rest on their way to eat from other trees. These birds commonly ingest seeds from other trees. This means that when they’re resting on the shrubs, they’re probably going to… Yep, you guessed it… POOP out the seeds. Now, like pure magic, those seeds have somewhere to grow because there is soil and nutrients on what used to be a barren and rocky land. After the first tree has risen, then the cycle increments. Trees grow, leaves and branches fall on the ground, and then start to decompose. More soil is being created. The end product, A huge forest full of trees and animals.

How can we do nothing and still achieve something?

Okay, so we’ve established that if we do nothing, we end up with a forest through the natural succession process. If we literally strip the land and leave it on bare rock, we will end up with a forest. Now, forests are a place where humans can live. They provide food from trees and animals, wood for building shelter, and water from their rivers and springs. So how could we live off of forests without doing much work? Agroforestry is the answer to the question. “Agro” comes from agriculture, which means cultivating food. Forestry is referred to the forests. So, agroforestry is a way of agriculture from forests. There are a million ways to do this type of agriculture, but I would like to emphasize on the one which combines the principles of humans doing almost nothing and letting the forest grow. Syntropic agriculture, or syntropic farming.

Coffee agroforestry. Picture by Projeto Cafe Gato Mourisco in
Coffee agroforestry. Picture by Projeto Cafe Gato Mourisco in

From a perspective, in this type of agriculture, humans stop weeding and fertilizing. It’s a way in which to grow food by letting nature take its natural course through the process of succession. Its principles rely on studying plant succession through space and time to design an agricultural system that grows by itself, with the least amount of human intervention. In this type of farming, the land goes through all the stages of succession, grasses, shrubs, and trees, and the final product is nature in itself, shown as a forest. The type of forest will completely rely on the purpose of the land. Some might be designed for wood production, others for fruit, and some for veggies. But what characterizes these systems is the intense biodiversity that lives inside of them. A polyculture with all sorts of yields through different stages along the process.

What do forests actually do?

Bird in a forest. Picture by Roberto Nickson in
Bird in a forest. Picture by Roberto Nickson in

With agroforestry, a patch of land can be transformed into a forest. This same forest now has a lot of functions for us and for the earth’s natural cycles. On the human benefits, we can actually go through the forest and pick out edibles. With the high diversity, some areas can have hardwood trees for construction. If we focus more on the natural cycles, having this great vegetation barrier will function as a windbreaker. At the same time, the evapotranspiration that takes place helps with more precipitation. In a top-to-bottom scan of the forest, we can see that the canopy creates a habitat for the birds and bats and shade for the land animals. These same branches and leaves later fall into the ground, decompose, function as nutrients, and transform into the soil. Healthy soil then helps the roots of the forests to thrive and expand. The root structure of the forest then helps with opening the soil for aeration and water trespass. The roots help the water get into the ground instead of being runoff and causing erosion. Root structures can then form symbiotic relationships with fungi and expand the network of living beings inside the forest. A healthy soil then leads to healthy trees that will provide human food. So having a forest really helps us, as well as the planet’s natural cycles. Let’s think back to thousands of years, before colonization periods when the native land inhabitants actually worked with the forests and lived off of them. It’s not about actually going back to how the native lived, but rather learning of their practices and incorporating them into our modern ways of living.

In summary, nature’s patterns will begin if we let the grass grow and abandon our neat lawns. The succession of vegetation will transform our areas into forests. These forests turn out to be very beneficial for humans as well as natural cycles. There’s enough knowledge now that we can then use techniques, like agroforestry, to mimic the forest structure so that we greatly benefit from their presence and the earth’s overall well-being. Having a forest can mean large amounts of food and wood products, as well as cooler temperatures, more plant, fungi, and animal biodiversity, more rain, and reduced erosion. In a way, if we actually let things go, we could make our lives better.

Gabriel Rodriguez Rojas supports the company with an interdisciplinary role. Some of his key roles include the permaculture design, geographical analysis and visualization, drone aerial documentation, assisting in environmental studies, writing technical documents and articles, and translation support. He has a Master’s degree in GIS & Remote Sensing and has been working in the environmental Sector since 2014.

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