courtyard landscaping in scenery style

Chicago Home and Lifestyles – A “pocket forest” for your landscape

courtyard landscaping in scenery style

If you are thinking of adding a tree to your landscape, why not plant a few trees close together? A “pocket forest” can provide many advantages like providing runoff control for water and cooling the surrounding landscape. It can also increase biodiversity and provide animal habitat!

Prepping beforehand 

This will be your timetable: 4 months before planting, pick out your space and measure to decide how many plants and trees it will fit. Now you can remove any existing plants as you need. 

3 months before, lay down a layer of cardboard and cover with leaf compost. Cover this with three inches of wood chips. This will prepare the area and kill off anything else in the space. 

1 month before planting, choose your trees and shrubs to plant considering their size of root systems and sun needs. Getting your plants early is a good idea as it will be a big order. Contact your local university extension or municipal government to find trees that thrive in your area and that will suit your needs and space requirements. 

When and what to plant

When to plant can differ as to your climate including temperatures and rainfall. This is information that can also be found at your university extension. The rule of thumb is to plant in the dormant time of year. This allows the plantings to establish before summer’s heat. Around the Midwest this will be in the fall. 

You start with multiple native species of trees which will provide shade. The initial investment may be more than a lawn, but they are nice to look at, use less water and need less maintenance, saving you time and money. You can choose two or three one and two-year-old native trees and shrub saplings. If you need to plant close to buildings, choose species that don’t have invasive root systems and prune regularly. 

Getting started

At planting time, arrange them in their containers 2-4 feet apart. Plant according to the directions that will come with the tree or shrub, paying special attention to the sizes of the holes. You can do this in a space as little as 200 square feet. 

Mark your plants so that you won’t confuse them with weeds later. Add compost making sure to leave a 4–6-inch space at the base. Water very well making sure to wet the root ball entirely and the ground underneath. 


While this pocket forest will eventually be mostly maintenance free it will need some care the first two or three seasons. Water regularly and well. Do structural pruning by removing less healthy lower branches and those unable to support their own weight. After 3 years when your trees are established, watering is not necessary and only an occasional pruning will be needed.

Kathleen Weaver-Zech and Dean’s Team Chicago