Farming The Wetland
My husband and I looked for our farm for 18 months. He only wanted a beautiful house, but I only cared about great land. When we finally found something we could both love, we were both willing to make a few compromises. I had been looking for a flat, sunny, well-drained, rectangular field; a blank canvas I could transform into my vision of the perfect fruit-filled paradise. But this land had woods. It had hills. It had a flood plain. It had its own plans.
We ended up with 10 acres of incredibly diverse land. About 3 acres were wooded, and about 1.5 acres were in a flood plain. The low land was classified as a once in 100 year flood plain for the adjacent creek, but after we moved in, we realized that a more accurate classification would have been three floods every single year. Later, we learned that this part of our farm was a natural wetland, a former creek bottom. I’m not easily discouraged, but this news was disappointing at best. I didn’t think any useful or edible plants could be grown in this type of environment. Luckily, I was wrong.
As it turns out, wetlands can be beautiful, productive ecosystems capable of producing food, filtering flood waters, and sheltering wildlife. If you’re trying to turn land like this into a corn field (which the previous owners were), you’re going to be sorely disappointed. But if you protect the soil and encourage permanent, water-loving trees and shrubs, you and the land will be very happy together. Pecans, maples, willows, and elderberries are just a few of the species that can thrive and produce in this type of environment. By working with the water instead of against it, you can build a lush food forest that nourishes you at the same time as it drains and cleans the flood waters.
The reason why it’s a bad idea to till up a flood plain field and plant it to row crops like corn has to do with erosion. Erosion occurs when water or other forces remove topsoil from the land and move it elsewhere. Usually, this topsoil ends up someplace it isn’t wanted, like in a waterway. The nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediments from the displaced soil disrupt the balance in the water. This can kill fish and generally damage the ecosystem. Meanwhile, your land grows poorer and poorer as all its nutrients and topsoil are stripped away. When you till, or when you leave bare soil exposed, the soil is vulnerable and easy to wash away. But when it is densely covered with plants, myriad roots hold that soil in place. The plants shelter and protect the topsoil, and when floods come, the water is absorbed into the root system or filtered through aerated soil into the groundwater table.
There’s a thing called a Riparian Buffer. According to Wikipedia:
“A riparian buffer is a vegetated area (a “buffer strip”) near a stream, usually forested, which helps shade and partially protect a stream from the impact of adjacent land uses. It plays a key role in increasing water quality in associated streams, rivers, and lakes, thus providing environmental benefits. With the decline of many aquatic ecosystems due to agricultural production, riparian buffers have become a very common conservation practice aimed at increasing water quality and reducing pollution.”
My plan is to create an edible Riparian Forest Buffer. The goal is to have all the benefits of soil and water conservation, but to also harvest and use something from each of the plants and trees in the buffer. Strawberry Moon is not the first farm to try this, but it is not yet a ubiquitous practice. I hope that this riparian buffer project will encourage more people to try this ecologically sound farming style. If farmers can increase yields while at the same time protecting the environment, why not do this? There is even financial aid available from some government organizations to make the transition from conventional farming to riparian buffers easier. I’ll post more about that later, when I have all the facts. Meanwhile, spring is coming. Be ready!