This is my backyard forest. We planted it about 18 years ago, and this picture was taken about 10 years after it was planted. Northeastern North America was once entirely covered by forests, interspersed with meadows on very wet, very dry, or recently burned sites. Any piece of ground left to itself quickly reverts to forest. So forests are the easiest type of ecosystem to create and maintain—basically, remove invasives and enjoy (as you continue to monitor and remove invasive species). From an ecological point of view, forests are also the best ecosytem you can maintain: the most friendly to wildlife, the most protective of our air and water. Once established, forests grow and change but remain for a long, long time. They are the definition of sustainability.
A forest doesn’t have to be large. Perhaps you have an unused strip of ground a couple of feet wide along the edge of your property. Stop mowing it. Within a few weeks the grass will grow long and wildflowers such as lobelia, asters, goldenrod, and milkweed will spring up. Within the first growing season woody growth will appear—native sassafras, black cherries, and oaks, but also invasives such as Norway maples and multiflora rose, depending on what’s growing around you. Pull out the invasives and allow the natives to grow. In just a few years, you will have a little strip of woodland, complete with woody plants and understory flowering plants and grasses. If you like, you can plant additional species such as ferns beneath the trees, or you can add once-common shrubs such as serviceberry, which birds adore. You will have a productive ecosystem that provides food and cover for wildlife year-round where you once had waste ground.
A forest can occupy any part of your property that is now unused. For example, leave the center of your backyard as lawn but plant trees and shrubs all around the perimeter. Or plant additional trees and shrubs around a specimen tree on the front lawn. Or join two or three widely spaced specimen trees with shrubs, vines, and groundcover. My forest stretches across the back half of our backyard. It was formerly lawn.
Start your forest with free plants—use what grows—or purchase trees and shrubs. My forest now contains a combination of plants we bought and plants that have appeared over time–volunteers. Choose fast-growing species and you’ll have a beautiful native ecosystem within five years. Whatever native species you choose, you will have improved your local environment for many years to come.