There are trees called ‘fertilizer trees’ that make it possible to restore the degraded lands of the earth, even in areas of drought. Trees for the Future well understands the strength, versatility and vital contributions these trees have to offer damaged ecosystems. Since 1989 they have, by partnering with communities, planted over 127 million fertilizer trees as the foundation of projects that have collectively improved the soil and fertility of thousands of acres of land.
Fertilizer trees are naturalized trees, so not invasive, that are planted first in a degraded area to start the process of rehabilitating the ecosystem. The trees are planted just before the rainy season and can grow up to 15 feet in the first year. All fertilizer trees produce useful products within a short period of time such as protein and nutrient rich leaves used for livestock feed and coppicing branches for fuel wood (‘coppice’ is when a branch is cut and many branches grow back in it’s place), as well as food and medicine.
They are also drought resistant because their deep, strong taproots bring water and nutrients up from way down within the earth. Their tiny nitrogen rich leaves get right to work enriching the soil while also creating a thin canopy that allows for food and medicinal plants to be intercropped while also shading from the intensity of the sun’s heat, cooling and protecting the earth below. These trees have what it takes to transform the most extreme circumstances into a resource rich opportunity.
The Creation of the Forest Garden
It is important to understand that not only do these fertilizer trees have the potential to restore small and large scale ecosystems, they do this while improving the livelihoods of the people. Trees for the Future supplies seed, education and in-country training to assist farmers that are struggling to get by, to learn a new way of farming that integrates food, medicine, livestock and trees in what is called a Forest Garden. They teach the principles of permaculture and agroforestry – titles that describe information and process rich, rather than costly and input heavy, land management systems.
In much of the developing world a reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other agricultural technologies have proven to be too expensive, putting farmers in debt, while also being ineffective in the long run. Farmers have found that after a few years their soils are depleted, compacted and unable to hold moisture, making them more reliant on these expensive inputs, (and caught in a downward spiral). Many areas where monoculture, meaning planting only one crop, has been promoted have also left farmers vulnerable to disease and pest infestations. Forest Gardens integrated with fertilizer trees offer a very low input system that supports the kind of biodiversity that keeps ecosystems thriving through changing circumstances. They can also increase the income of the farmers by up to 400% within 4 years.
The Many Advantages of Fertilizer Trees
While these fertilizer trees are helpful in bringing degraded land back to sustainably productive use, they are also storing a massive amount of carbon. The trees themselves store about 50 pounds of CO2 per year while also creating living soil, which has the potential, over time, to store up to 3x the carbon of the above vegetation. The power of these regenerated ecosystems to capture and store carbon is better understood by looking at the big picture. For example, planting enough trees, along with the understory and living soil, has the potential to store our total annual global emissions – and bring our atmosphere back into balance.
Climate change combined with deforestation has been increasing the incidence of flooding and landslides. These fast growing fertilizer trees are also planted en mass on hillsides and watersheds to decrease erosion. Trees for the Future has worked in many high risk areas including Haiti and the Philippines, communities who have seen the worst of what landslides can do, to root down the earth and prevent future catastrophes. These trees roots not only hold down the hillsides but they direct the flowing rains into the underground water table rather than rushing down overflowing rivers out to sea.
While the roots and tree canopies help to slow rains and decrease erosion in the rainy season, they also help feed carbon sugars to the many tiny micro-organisms living and breeding in the soil. Combined with the leaf litter on the surface, the roots and leaves together provide a steady source of food for the soil to become more and more alive. This healthy soil is aerated by this vast network of creatures and becomes like a sponge, able to hold moisture and trickle precious rain down into the water table, over time bringing back springs and streams.
Fertilizer trees also help to dramatically increase wildlife habitat and the natural regeneration of native plants and species in the areas where planted. As most are also flowering trees they attract pollinators, which in turn help the overall ecology of the garden as well as surrounding ecosystem. With increased wildlife comes increased biodiversity and therefor resiliency – all this while creating the conditions for plentiful food, medicine and fresh water.
Varieties of Fertilizer Trees
Fertilizer Trees are also called Multi-Purpose Fast Growing (MPFG) trees and there are 12 known varieties that are used in the tropics. The following is a list of Fertilizer trees that have been well researched and used in land restoration and agroforestry projects for decades.
Moringa, Leucaena, Calliandra, Sesbania, Cassia,
Grevillea, Albizia, Gliricidia, Prosopis, Neem, Acacia, Ziziphus
Here are three varieties used in Trees for the Future’s planting programs:
Moringa, also known as the ‘Miracle Tree’ and ‘Multi-Vitamin Tree’ is known for it’s high nutritional value and medicinal properties. This drought tolerant fertilizer tree is used in many agroforestry and land restoration projects around the world and the planting of these trees has even become policy by some governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The entire tree offers food and medicine within its leaves, flowers, pods, roots and seeds. The leaves themselves offer a higher protein content than eggs while also boasting more iron than spinach, more calcium than milk, more vitamin A than a bunch of carrots, more potassium than bananas and more vitamin c than oranges. These leaves, dried in the sun and pounded into powder, can be added to traditional and specialty foods as a super food vitamin boost. A nutritious tea can also be made form the leaves, and is especially helpful for pregnant women and children. Powder from crushed seeds can even be used to purify water.
The scope of medicinal uses of the Moringa tree is remarkable – from parasites and inflammation to diabetes and cancer. It is known for having a higher antioxidant content than other well-known ‘super foods’ such as gogi, acai and blueberries. The leaves also have properties whose antibacterial potentials are highly comparable with that of the antibiotic tetracycline.
Moringa also stands out for having an abundance of Zeatin, which increases the activity of the other antioxidants, helping to protect cells from stress, aging and pollution. Zeatin is known for helping the body to replace cells more quickly than they age and die. Not only does this Zeatin increase health and vitality from within, hair and facial products are also made from Moringa that are applied topically.
Along with nutrition and health, this fast growing fertilizer tree has many uses within the Forest Garden. The super nutritious protein rich leaves are ideal for animal forage and help to increase the health, body mass and milk production of the animals. They can also be crushed and used as a domestic cleaning agent. The trunk produces gum while the bark can be made into rope. The seeds can be pressed for their oil called Ben Oil, a sweet, non-stick oil that resists becoming rancid. This oil is used for everything from salad dressing to machine lubricant to body and hair care products.
A cousin of mahogany, Neem is a very fast growing, broad leaved evergreen tree that can tolerate a wide variety of conditions. Neem is a tough tree with a high survival rate that offers communities a natural pesticide. Azadirachtin is one of 20 active chemicals found within the tree that help disrupt the reproductive capability of numerous insects, fungi, bacteria and even viruses. Neem oil and some of its purified components are used in over 100 pesticide products including toothpaste, cosmetics, soaps, and pet shampoos.
By simply soaking crushed Neem kernels and leaves overnight communities can create a safe and organic pesticide spray to apply weekly to their vegetables and tree seedlings. Soap can also be made from the leaves that have insecticidal and microbial properties. This soap can be for home use as well as taken to market. The Neem tree’s small white flowers also attract many bees, which produce a healthy and delicious honey.
The Leucaena leaves are high in nitrogen and used as organic fertilizer as well as a high protein animal forage that is available well into the dry season. The trees can be inter-cropped into Forest Gardens as well as used for windbreaks and living fences. The dense wood is great for fuel wood as well as pole timber.
An important part of Trees for the Future’s training in Forest Gardens is to teach seed collection and storage. One Leucaena tree can give 17,000 seeds in one season. Communities harvest and store these seeds for the following year’s planting projects as well as share them with the neighboring villages. This is one of the ways that this great work continues to spread. Villages will often see the results obtained over a relatively short period of time by participating communities and they want to learn what is creating this new growth of resources. These often very remote and rural peoples are able to create their own seed banks so that long term they are not reliant on an external source for seeds. Their forest gardens also produce a great diversity of seed, which is very important to overcoming the challenges of a changing climate.
As you can see, fertilizer trees are what make the idea of reforesting our planet possible. Much of the estimated 5 billion acres of currently degraded land available for restoration is in the tropics where these trees grow fast and strong. By you helping to plant a Trillion Trees, and inspiring others to also help plant trees, we can restore tree cover to those parts of the world that need it most, all while reversing climate change and restoring the water table. There is no more powerful action to improve life for everyone, everywhere, than planting trees.