We need to stop thinking just in terms of trees, and more about whole systems!

Oct 2023

Hey, we LOVE planting trees, BUT restoring our planet requires so much more than that! Now, more than ever, is the time to embrace the concept of WHOLE systems, ecosystems to be precise. Let’s take a deep dive into how the ground-up techniques that ecosystem restoration communities are using alongside tree planting are working to create long-lasting success in their restoration initiatives. And these are things that you can do too. 

ERC Elk Run Farm, Colorado USA

What is an ecosystem and why is it important?

An ecosystem in general contains all life that is interconnected with one another. This includes the soil with its micro-organisms, root systems, mycelium and fungi, insects, decaying debris, etc. Then there are the ground dwellers, both flora, fauna and non-living elements like mosses, grasses, snakes, rabbits, bushes, water sources and rocks. Then you have your larger elements, like trees in all shapes and sizes, the animals, birds and insects that rely on them and other large non-living objects. All of these factors play a role in an area’s microclimate which creates specific habitats for specific wildlife (and us). 

So why is this important? The healthier an ecosystem is, the more ecosystem services it provides. And yes, that makes a BIG difference in our everyday lives as well as to the survival of other animals and plants. Some of these ecosystem services include plants cleaning air and filtering water, or root systems from plants and trees holding soil in place, preventing wind and rain erosion. Also, think of the pollinators that must be attracted to something in order to do their jobs to give us food. There must be flowering plants present for that to happen!  These are just a few examples, but there are endless reasons why we need thriving ecosystems. 

ERC Corcovado Foundation – Costa Rica

Thinking holistically and making connections 

We’re not saying that planting trees is a bad thing. It’s great! But we also need to think holistically, just as nature intended. When restoring a degraded plot of land, we must have a sense about what was there before and what’s there currently. Just as important to ponder is how does water flow on the land? Is there any ground cover already established? These questions help us to understand not only what is appropriate to grow in the region, but what will replenish the soil and allow us to be more successful in attracting back animal biodiversity, long-term plant and tree survival and whatever kinds of regenerative food crops we wish to grow. 

And we’re not only talking about forests here, because this is not the only landscape on the planet. A vast number of communities (animals, plants and humans of course!) live in drylands and grasslands. Again, these are just a few examples of biomes. By focusing on building back health and resilience after mechanical or extreme weather events from the ground up, we are better defending our communities from floods, drought, and wildfires, and actively restoring our precious water sources. And of course, enabling carbon capture and sequestration. 

ERC Chocaya, Bolivia

Getting ready to make the planet a little (or A LOT) greener 

The next time you get the wonderful opportunity to plant a tree, do earth a favor and ask yourself these 3 things first… 

  1. Is this soil healthy and stable enough to support this tree on its own or does the soil need some tender loving care?  There could be soil compaction and permeability issues going on, or maybe significant wind/water erosion. You may notice cracked or flaking soil (not good!) Or you may notice a lack of topsoil (also not good!), which is generally darker/richer in color than the soil underneath. That’s all the yummy stuff that nature leaves behind from decaying plants, animals and microorganisms!  

*A note about soil health. Don’t let this part intimidate you. The simple act of observation is the key. Once you have the inclination that something is wrong, there is so much knowledge and information out there to easily remedy this ( you could try an ERC or Earthed course for example ????.) 

  1. Did anything disturb this land before that might have contaminated it like mining, chemical spills, pesticide/herbicide use, land fill waste, or oil and gas extraction?  All these things can be remedied, albeit each having their own timeline and level of difficulty, but that does NOT mean you cannot plant. You just need to make the right decisions about what, where and when to plant. This is to help give your trees/plants the best survival rates as possible and to ensure a thriving ecosystem. 

  1. Maybe this tree would be happier with a few buddies next to it? Meaning, could the soil benefit from some nitrogen fixing plants? Or maybe you have determined that the soil is compacted and non-permeable so the soil could benefit from adding a couple plants with long tap roots that can penetrate and break up the compaction.  These long taproots can reach nutrients and water deeper in the ground. One good way to gauge this is by looking around the immediate parameter to see if there are other similar trees thriving in the area.

Photo credit: Joel Caldwell. ERC Via Organica, Mexico  

This may seem like a lot of prep-work to do before popping in a tree but the very small investment in time spent doing a little research about the land you are on will pay you back a zillion-fold in the future. Your tree will have the best chance at surviving long-term and the surrounding soil and ecosystem will be happier for it. 

So, why not pop in a native plant or two, a nitrogen fixer and some lovely flowers that will attract pollinators? It’s like a concert. One instrument may sound beautiful but a whole orchestra brings the music alive! And think of what will happen now if you’ve created a mini habitat. Life is restored! 

Author: Melissa Croteau, ERC