Farmer John: Plant a tree for a healthy ecosystem — or just a nice spot to nap

J.D. “Farmer John” Wilson


SIGMA — I woke up from a nap the other day, after reading about trees, and I had a visceral feeling of being tethered to the atmosphere by my lungs and breath. There is a bubble of air around our planet, in the back woods of space. It is a critical protective layer which allows us to live and, of course, breath. 

I felt like a CO2 producer designed for the trees. My whole body felt like one big breath. I heard one of my brothers in my mind say, “Yeah, you’re a windbag, alright.”

I am highly inspired and excited to elevate trees another notch on my list of VIPs, MVPs and most important life forms on the planet. We watched a documentary the other night titled Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees.  It features Irish-born botanist Diana Bergsford-Kroeger, and I urge you all to watch it as soon as you can. Bergsford-Kroeger has also written books, and she had one out just this past year, To Speak for the Trees.

I am also a lover of trees and have been since I practically lived in them as a kid growing up with a 100-acre wood behind our childhood home. 

On the last farm I owned, I dedicated almost two acres out of 22 for a perimeter planting around the farm. It was a cost share program through Natural Resources Conservation Service with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

And the Virginia Department of Forestry has its own nursery to grow and sell native trees for each region of the state. I think we planted over two hundred trees. We planted some native grasses and wildflowers, as well.

I visited the site of that farm recently and was rewarded with a nicely growing mini-forest around the property. We created an eco-system, albeit a small one. Biodiversity, a topic I write about frequently here, is essential to a thriving ecosystem. Each plant, tree, shrub, weed, flower and grass adds its input to the greater whole.

We planted these trees for the ecosystem effects but also for other reasons. Some are nectar producing, and you know I love honey. They are essential for the survival of the bees. Some produce nuts and fruit. Some produce food for the eyes. Some produce nitrogen from the air, for the soil and its neighbors.

And, yes, some trees and shrubs are legumes. A legume is any plant with bacteria colony nodules on its roots taking nitrogen and making it plant-available to itself and its surrounding neighbors.

This planting also created a windbreak on the two long sides of the property. This helps slow or eliminate wind erosion and, to a certain degree, water erosion. 

If I had decided to certify organic it would create a buffer from overspray coming from neighboring farms. I always appreciated the nearby farmers watching and waiting to spray during low wind conditions to prevent overspray. Helicopter and airplane sprayers were not always as careful.

Having permanent habitat and food for beneficial insects and other wildlife resulted from this planting.  And, of course, trees store carbon, filter air and water as well as create shade for my tired old bones to sit beneath. This reminds me of another good book about trees, a favorite of children and adults, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It delivers the “felt sense” of its message.

The movie I mentioned goes into much more scientific and folkloric detail than I can here. It delivers on both counts deeply and beautifully. It also goes into one of my favorite topics – humus. This is the left over microbial digested remains of organic matter and dead microbes. It’s important to identify what kind of carbon is in your soil and humus is the kind you want.

While I mostly write about sustainable, organic and regenerative agriculture, it needs to be said that for carbon sequestering, water holding and air purifying – even food production – trees need a bigger place in the discussion. I am glad the city of Virginia Beach is including reforesting among the tools in its tool kit to help prevent recurrent flooding.

Do you have property with empty space where you spend your valuable napping and book reading time mowing? Think about more trees and shrubs. There are so many benefits. Trees are our biosphere solution, and maybe they will give you some extra free time as well.

So for the benefit of the bugs, birds, animals, carbon cycle, food production, shade and extra free time — plant some trees.

Wilson, a farmer and consultant, writes about sustainable farming and gardening for The Independent News. Reach him via

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