Berkeley schools sow the seeds of climate progress with ‘pocket forests’

Elementary students asked how they could do their part to stop climate change. A year later, their science teacher had an answer: micro-forests.

Students plant saplings in the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on November 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Students plant saplings in the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Berkeley science teacher Neelam Patil had been educating students about the effects of climate change for years. But one thing had been been missing from her curriculum: a solution.

Last year, after learning that one football field of trees was lost every six seconds, Patil’s students wanted to do something good for the planet. Inspired by an internet celebrity who donated $20 million to reforestation efforts, they told Patil they wanted to plant more trees, too.

An idea began to take root in Patil’s mind.

First, she helped students organize a community fundraiser: They raised $6,000 and donated the money to global reforestation efforts. It was around that time that Patil learned about an innovative method for planting trees popularized by a Japanese botanist named Akira Miyawaki. Compared with a monoculture forest typical of reforestation projects, Miyawaki forests grow 10 times faster, store 40 times more carbon, and are 100 times more biodiverse.

Two years later, students at three Berkeley schools — Cragmont, Malcolm X, and King — have planted 3,300 saplings in three super-dense forests on small pockets of their schoolyards.

The forests are the first of their kind at any school in the United States.

“My goal was to teach my students that, just because you’re 5 years old, 6 years old, you don’t have to watch as our planet goes up in flames,” said Patil, who has long worked in climate education and advocacy. She is the founder of Bliss Belly Kitchen, a summer and after-school program of cooking and yoga for children, helped elementary students organize a climate strike in 2019 and plans to write a series of children’s books on sustainable living.

Science teacher Neelam Patil embraces the saplings ready for planting at Cragmont Elementary on November 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Science teacher Neelam Patil embraces the saplings ready for planting at Cragmont Elementary on Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Students at Cragmont Elementary planted the first batch of seedlings in what Patil deemed a “plant party” on Monday, Nov. 15. Kids ages 4 to 10 grabbed baby shrubs and trees of all sorts, including California buckeye, white sage, and bay laurel. In the course of the week, over 1,000 students, 60 volunteers, and 46 teachers would get their hands dirty in the micro forests.

There is something we can do about climate change as kids and part of that is planting trees,” said Indy Stone, a fifth-grader at Cragmont. “We’re doing something great for the planet, and what’s even better, we’re doing it as a community.”

To get the forests in the ground, Patil partnered with forest-maker Ethan Bryson and SuGi, a nonprofit specializing in pocket forests, which raised the funds for the project. A team from Berkeley Unified, including Director of Facilities Steve Collins and Genaro Machiavello, BUSD’s arborist and grounds supervisor, worked behind the scenes to get the district on board, prepare the ground for planting and purchase native plants from nearby nurseries. Women from the Muwekma Ohlone and Yakama tribes provided guidance on the selection of plants.

The students planted four layers of forest — a shrub layer, a subtree layer, a tree layer and a canopy layer. Designed to be self-sustaining, the forests shouldn’t require any maintenance or watering after two to three years, according to Bryson. In a year’s time, many seedlings will grow to be double the size of the kids who planted them.

“Thanks to the rapid growth cycle of these Miyawaki Forests, in 10 years our students enjoy 100-year old forests,” Superintendent Brent Stephens wrote in a statement.

The forests were planted to help the district reach its sustainability goals as well, providing shade and natural cooling for some classrooms and reducing the district’s water usage in the long run.

Students plant saplings in the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on November 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Students plant saplings in the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The micro-forests will become an educational tool in line with the district’s new climate literacy initiative, a home-grown effort to educate students at all grade levels learn about the effects and solutions of climate change. Students will be able to take care of the forests, measure tree growth, and observe the organisms who will make the forests their home. Alex Atkins, 10, said he is excited to watch the squirrels the forest attracts.

“We call them outdoor classrooms,” said Tamsin Smith, head of strategy at SuGi. Already, a science teacher at King Middle School is planning a time-lapse photography project that will allow students to observe the forest over time.

The forests are meant not only to reduce emissions, but to reshape the role that we envision nature playing in our lives.

“You have to allocate space for public utilities like power lines, sewer lines, things like that,” Bryson said. “But why don’t we look at nature with the same importance? Why can’t we set aside wild spaces?”

The students themselves bear no illusions about the modest impact the forests will have on the global crisis of climate change.

“We have done so much bad to the earth so far. So it’s going to take a while for it to like be fully fixed. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we plant some trees and now the world is fixed,” said Avery Aki, 11. “Climate change has always been in the back of my mind, since I’ve learned about it when I was younger. I’m glad that we’re finally doing something, even if it’s like baby steps.”

Still, the forests have their detractors. Nancy Van House emailed Berkeleyside after seeing a sign about the forests in front of King Middle School, criticizing the location of the forest — students sit on the lawn waiting for the bus where the trees will be — and expressing concern that the density will make the nearby sidewalk undesirable to walk on at night. She called the idea “ridiculous.”

Patil, who’s gotten certified as a Miyawaki forest-maker, hopes to expand the micro forests to all the Berkeley schools and into the city’s parks, lawns, and traffic circles. She met with Councilmember Sophie Hahn last week and left feeling hopeful about the possibility of reforesting Berkeley’s tiny spaces. Her students have even bigger dreams for the forests. “They’re ready to go talk to Joe Biden,” Patil said.

“Climate change is such an overwhelming issue. And often times my students feel, and I feel, very hopeless,” Patil said. “This is just a very, very targeted solution that people can get extremely excited about.”

You can reach Neelam Patil at neelampatil@berkeley.net.

A student selects a huckleberry to plant in the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on November 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
A student selects a huckleberry to plant in the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
An evergreen huckleberry (vaccinium ovatum), native to California's west coast, is ready for planting in the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on November 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
An evergreen huckleberry (vaccinium ovatum), native to California’s west coast, is ready for planting in the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on Nov. 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Mary Lee Jones, an Indigenous member of the Yakama Nation, uses white sage and turkey feathers to smudge the young saplings ready for planting at Cragmont Elementary on November 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Mary Lee Jones, an Indigenous member of the Yakama Nation, uses white sage and turkey feathers to smudge the young saplings ready for planting. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Mary Lee Jones of the Yakama Nation (left) and Monica Arellano, Vice Chairwoman for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe (right), plant sacred white sage in the Miyawaki forest at Cragmont Elementary on November 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Mary Lee Jones of the Yakama Nation (left) and Monica Arellano, vice chairwoman for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, plant sacred white sage in the Miyawaki forest. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Posing for a photo as part of the Miyawaki forest project team are: Top row from left: Vernon Medicine Cloud of the Assiniboine and Turtle Mountain Chippewa nations, Alisha Graves, Marlene Hunt of the Yakama Nation, Tamsin Smith of SUGi, Joelle Jones of the Yakama Nation, Jeff Smith, Mary Lee Jones of the Yakama Nation, Ethan Bryson of National Urban Forests, Monica Arellano of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, Elise Van Middelem of SUGi, Kat Livingston, science teacher Neelam Patil, Sofia Peltz of BUSD, Travis Andy of National Urban Forests. Bottom row: Principal Candy Cannon, Grounds Supervisor Genaro Macchiavello, and Stephen Collins at Cragmont Elementary on November 15, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Posing for a photo as part of the Miyawaki forest project team are, top row from left: Vernon Medicine Cloud of the Assiniboine and Turtle Mountain Chippewa nations, Alisha Graves, Marlene Hunt of the Yakama Nation, Tamsin Smith of SUGi, Joelle Jones of the Yakama Nation, Jeff Smith, Mary Lee Jones of the Yakama Nation, Ethan Bryson of Natural Urban Forests, Monica Arellano of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, Elise Van Middelem of SUGi, Kat Livingston, science teacher Neelam Patil, Sofia Peltz of BUSD, Travis Andy of National Urban Forests. Bottom row: Principal Candy Cannon, Grounds Supervisor Genaro Macchiavello, and Stephen Collins. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.