Engineer Shubhendu Sharma dreamed of making trees grow in the heart of India’s ever-expanding cities. He started in 2011 by cultivating his very own small forest on land he owned in Kashipur, in northern India. Since then, he has become a regular Johnny Appleseed and made a business of planting trees across India. He’s also inspired others to follow in his footsteps.

A few months after he had planted his own 270-tree forest, Sharma launched a business specialised in creating small forests. Since then, his company Afforestt has created 75 forests, 70 of which are in India. He has also planted forests in Singapore, Pakistan, the Netherlands and the United States.

Using Sharma’s method, a forest can be grown in just two years. This is important in a place like India, where about 45% of land has been degraded by deforestation, unsustainable farming methods and excessive groundwater extraction. India does still have about 68 million hectares of forested land, which makes it no. 10 on the list of the most forested countries in the world.

This is the first forest that Shubhendu Sharma created. Photo taken roughly 20 months after the trees were planted. (Photo by Shubhendu Sharma)

“I plant forests because I like to see nature regenerate itself in a natural way”

I learned how to plant forests in 2008, when I was an engineer at Toyota. We invited Akira Miyawaki, a Japanese botanist who specialises in plant ecology, to teach a workshop for us. Thanks to his guidance, over a six-month period, 300 volunteers together to plant 30,000 trees on land owned by Toyota.

After just two years, the forest we planted had reached impressive heights. In November 2010, I started thinking about how the methods that Miyawaki had taught us were quite simple and that we should be using them elsewhere, too. So I got started -- first by planting trees at my own home and then planting trees for others.

This squirrel now lives happily in the first forest that Sharma planted. (Photo by Shubhendu Sharma)

This is how our method works: before we plant a tree, we inspect the soil to see what nutrients it might be lacking. We also make the soil more porous by adding biomass [Editor’s note: such as dried leaves] from the surrounding environment. This helps water to easily penetrate and reach the growing tree roots.

To produce the nutrients naturally, we add micro-organisms like bacteria and microscopic mushrooms that feed off of the biomass mixed in with the soil.

The next step involves a little bit of detective work. We have to identify the kinds of trees that used to grow on the site where we want to replant a forest. To do so, we inspect neighbouring parks and check out regional natural history museums.

Sharma poses next to a forest that he planted on land belonging to a company in Chennai, a town in southern India. (Photo by Shubhendu Sharma)

When we identify the kinds of trees that grew there, we divide the trees into four types: bushes, small trees, regular trees and trees that create canopies. We decide roughly how many of each category we want in the forest and then we start growing seedlings, using seeds that we’ve collected from trees in the area.

The forest planted on Shubhendu Sharma’s property is home to different plants and animals (Photo by Shubhendu Sharma)

"We’ll soon create a forest in the Val de Loire region in France”

Even if the business is going strong these days, it was very difficult at first because no one was interested in growing their own forest. People only started getting interested in what we do after they saw photos of the forests that we had already planted.

In 2011, there were only two of us working on this project. Now, there are six of us. We provide consulting, but we also work on the ground. For example, a week ago, we started working on a project in collaboration with the Indian government. We are going to transform a park there into an urban forest by adding in as many trees as possible.

We also have a project in the Val de Loire region in France, which we will start in November 2016. In Europe, we charge 40 euros per square metre. In India, we only charge 10 euros per square metre.

More than anything else, I create forests because I like doing it. I like seeing land transform into trees and I like seeing nature regenerate. If my initiative helps to improve the environment in India or elsewhere, I’d be honoured.

"We planted 7,000 trees in a single day"

Dr Vivek Nagarajan is a professor at the University of Technology in Coimbatore, in southern India. He and his students used Shubhendu Sharma’s method to plant a forest.

Our project started in 2013, when we were building our university. It is located next to a foundry that emits a lot of pollution, so we were looking for a way to limit the effects of this pollution on our institution.

Students who planted the forest organised a picnic three years later. (Photo by Vivek Nagarajan)

At first, some people didn’t believe in our project, because they didn’t know how simple it was. We organised a training workshop with Mr. Sharma, who demonstrated his methods. Thirty-five people attended, including students. Once the participants understood the method, they started planting trees.

Word spread, and we ended up bringing together more than 300 student volunteers to participate in the project. Each of them planted between 20 and 30 trees. In one day alone, we planted 7,000 trees.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Imane Moustakir (@imanemoustakir).