It’s a sunny, windy day in the Liberties as Ashe Conrad-Jones and Catherine Cleary are sitting in Cleary’s front garden, dressed in green jumpsuits.
They are putting soil in pots around baby trees that they hope will be the start of a tiny, native forest.
Conrad-Jones takes out a turquoise rope and throws it on the ground, it forms the rough shape of a triangle, no bigger than a parking space.
She says this is all the space you need to start your very own tiny, native forest in your garden or neighbourhood.
The pair of friends have recently founded Pocket Forests, a social enterprise which aims to recreate a real Irish woodland in the city.
For a fee they’ll plant a tiny forest in your front garden, then use the money towards transforming further disused patches of ground and public spaces into woodlands.
Native trees are better for biodiversity and this way you can start a real ecosystem right here in the inner-city, says Cleary.
The Would from the Trees
Conrad-Jones says she loves all things that are tiny. That’s why her partner showed her an article about the tiny forest concept. “Just cause he knows I like small things,” she says, smiling.
This planted the seed of an idea for an initiative of her own. The article was about a tennis court-sized forest in the UK, but she decided she would attempt to scale it down and plant one in her own neighbourhood.
She investigated and found a Netherlands-based group called IVN, who were happy to share information about their model for planting forests, which was smaller again, she says.
People can decide the size, shape and design of their own tiny forest, says Conrad-Jones. The pair will facilitate whatever the garden owner wants.
After three years the tiny forest will be very low maintenance, the only work will be pruning if required, she says.
In the purest model pruning is not allowed, but that wouldn’t work with small gardens and neighbours. So they say they will plant trees that can be pruned.
“As wildness intended it would get quite dense, but you can just prune it back,” says Cleary.
A Growing Idea
The idea was born during lockdown, when everyone was very conscious of staying within a 2km vicinity of their home, says Conrad-Jones.
Most of the trees that have been planted around the city are not native, says Cleary, which is a problem because native trees can support so many more types of insects and wildlife than imported ones.
For the public spaces, the pair will aim for around 10 metres by 10 metres, which is around the size of a tennis court, says Cleary.
Those larger pocket forests will have little paths through them, making them a valuable educational resource for local primary schools, which Cleary says is a fantastic opportunity for getting kids involved in both working on and designing them.
“This smaller model may be good for odd places around the city too, though,” Conrad-Jones suggests. Anywhere there is a disused space could soon be converted, if the idea takes off, she says.
The great thing about the pocket forests is they can be pretty much just dotted around neighbourhoods, says Cleary. “You can put one anywhere.”
They are starting with the tiny garden ones though, says Cleary. They want to get to know their trees. “We are not the experts,” she says. “We are going to learn about these species of trees and we are going to put them into people’s gardens.”
They do have backing from a lot of interested supporters with expertise who will help them and guide them along the way, she says.
They say they will start planting trees in mid-winter. The ones they plant won’t take long to start to sprout, says Conrad-Jones. She hopes to see little green shoots within six months.
Obviously trees also clean the air, soak up flood water and are good for health and well-being. “You can have this incredible burst of biodiversity in the city,” says Cleary.
The Hidden Life of Trees
They will get native seeds from a nursery called None So Hardy in Wicklow, says Conrad-Jones.
They visited the nursery recently and it transpired that the owners there had some whips (baby trees) they hadn’t sold, she says.
They were alder trees and the nursery donated them to get the pocket forests started. “So we got a hundred trees effectively for free because they were coming to the end of the season,” says Cleary.
Conrad-Jones is glad they were alder trees. They are her favourite, she says.
“It is not a fussy tree so we think it is quite serendipitous that the first trees we got are the alder tree,” says Conrad-Jones. “It is kind of like the quiet survivor,” she says.
They have a few experts onside helping them with advice, including the biodiversity officer with the Office of Public Works, Leif Barry, she says.
“Leif told us that if you were collecting seeds from a tree in the wild, that you should take a little bit of soil that is growing around the tree as well because that will help the seed to feel at home,” says Conrad-Jones.
As well as planting the forests, they want to help to educate people about trees and plants she says.
A book called The Hidden Life of Trees has demonstrated that trees can communicate with each other and even help each other, says Cleary.
“They now know that the biggest tree is sharing nutrients through the soil with the smaller trees,” says Cleary. “They can send out signals through vapour or oils to warn if there is a pest coming.”
Still, she says, you don’t have to believe in that to benefit from being around trees. “You don’t have to believe in aspirin for it to work, if you just go into a woodland environment, humans feel better.”
The native tree mightn’t have the prettiest flowers, but we need them, says Cleary. “It is a little bit like picking your food for flavours instead of how it looks,” she says.
[Correction : This article was updated 15 July at 04.42pm. A paragraph inaccurately said that an educational book about trees was called The Secret Life of Trees when in fact it is called The Hidden Life of Trees. We apologise for the error]