Summer in the Riparian Buffer

One mowed row in the riparian buffer

The Riparian Buffer Native Food Forest project is well underway. It’s an ever-evolving work and while it will never be “finished”, the initial planting phase is on track to be complete this year. With every new year, we gain new knowledge and encounter new obstacles. This year, the dominant obstacle has been mowing. Little growing trees are not as tall as weeds, and they need help to get their quotas of sunlight and fresh air. Most farmers in a similar situation would likely spray herbicides to control weeds around the young trees, but we won’t do that here because we value the diversity of our ecosystem.

If I could start this project over again, I would have been mowing this area regularly this whole time with a regular riding lawn mower. But I had some misconceptions at the start: that I could maintain the area by mowing infrequently with a scythe, that frequent mowing wouldn’t be necessary, and that I’d be able to delegate the bulk of my mowing work to a few happy little sheep by now. I’m a natural researcher, but there isn’t a lot of documentation available on this subject, and none of those hopes panned out. Now I’m facing some pretty serious weeds. Three year old saplings, chest-high invasive grasses… add to that driftwood and large miscellaneous debris that regularly floats into our field on floodwater currents, and you’ve got an expert-level mowing situation. We have a riding mower with a pull-behind brush hog, which is able to handle the rough terrain. We’ve used it a few times to mow large spaces between planted rows, but the handling is not precise enough to be trusted anywhere near the small trees, and the operation is a complicated, multi-day effort involving two people guiding and coordinating the unwieldy beast. The riding mower alone could get fairly close to the saplings, but the deck cannot handle this much overgrowth. I was almost about to purchase an expensive new machine, when I saw my husband using our tiny electric battery-powered push mower to mow down some sturdy mulberry saplings near the rooster coop. I knew immediately that this unassuming little machine was up to the task.

An American Elder sapling, hidden among weeds

And so began the painstaking work of reclaiming the planted rows. Of course, the first job is locating the saplings, so I don’t accidentally mow them over. As you can see in the photo to the right, they’re hard to find. Especially because most of the stakes I used to mark them with last year floated away in one flood or another.

How do I find the trees? This treasure map! Actually, it’s a modern day treasure map, in the form of a google sheet. Every cell represents a 5’x5′ square. Text inside the cell tells me what species might be planted in that square. Highlighted colors denote topography. I’m able to update this sheet in real time from the field on my mobile device.

I use a surveyor’s tape (300′) to mark the row, joining the first tree in the row and the last tree in the row based on my spreadsheet notation. Then, I reapply marking stakes to any trees in the line that lost their stakes to flood currents. After the trees are all marked, I run the mower along the right side, then the left side of the planted row, coming as close to the little trees as possible. I often have to angle the front of the mower upwards, like a munchy mouth, then chomp it down over tall, tough weeds. After mowing along both sides of a planted row, I make a final pass to clear the area between planted trees. It takes 2-3 battery charges and about a day to complete one 300′ row. The maintenance work is much easier though, as long as the weeds stay short. I’m leaving wild strips between the rows, for wildlife habitat. These wild strips host important wildflowers such as milkweed, and give small animals safe places to hide, nest, and rest.

Permaculture Guild Area
This area was an attempt at a “Permaculture Guild” style design, and it was the hardest to mow. The trees aren’t planted in rows, they’re planted in concentric circles. That made them really hard to find, and created a lot of extra mowing work. This area was an experiment that will not be repeated. Yet, I mowed it!
Me standing next to a 3 year old pecan tree
This three year old American Pecan tree is nearly as tall as me! Delicious pecans in T-7 years!
All the hard work is worth it when I find a healthy little tree thriving with new growth like this yearling Swamp White Oak! Edible acorns in T-19 years.
A tiny American Cranberrybush hiding amongst the weeds. Hard to find, but worth it! T-3 years to fruit! This plant is a whole topic unto itself, and I’ll write a lot more about it. For now, suffice it to say, it’s not a cranberry.

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Resolutions and Accomplishments

Crimson Clover
Crimson Clover after one month of growth (9/2/16)

Last year was my first year of farming here at Strawberry Moon, and it was a great one.  Sorghum-sudangrass flourished in our fields, loosening the soil and covering it with a thick layer of mulch.  In September, crimson clover was overseeded into the sorghum-sudangrass, and we are hoping for a breathtaking, honeybee-luring carpet of blossoms come spring.  I also attended several conferences and workshops to learn more about beekeeping, permaculture, winemaking, grape growing, and small scale farming.

Inside the house, all 58 incandescent and halogen light bulbs were replaced with energy efficient LEDs.  Drafts were blocked, insulation was installed.  DH even completed a training course to become a certified solar panel installer, so we can build our own solar energy system at a substantial savings.  All these things will help us achieve our goal of a self-sufficient, eco-conscious farmstead.

Last year was an important and necessary foundation-building year for the farm, but this year I want to see some real action.  These are ambitious goals for someone with a full time desk job, and I’ll need help if I’m going to pull this off.  With a little but of luck and a lot of hard work, it will happen.

  1. 1,000 Trees!
      To jumpstart the edible riparian buffer project, we will plant 300 elderberry trees and 300 wild plum trees in our wetland!  These will comprise the majority of the understory in that area.  Additional edible tree and shrub species will be added to the wetland later, when seedlings become available.  On higher ground, we will plant 100 Norway Spruce trees for an edible windbreak (needles and new growth “tips” have culinary and nutritional value), 100 red oak trees as a short term timber crop (we will later grow mushrooms on the cut logs), and 100 each of pawpaw and persimmon to kick-start our orchard.
  2.  Honeybees
      Before winter is over, I intend to build two top bar bee hives and four swarm traps. If we are lucky, some wild honeybee swarms will find our clover fields, and then decide to stay.
  3. Chicks
      I’m nearly finished building the first coop and brooder, so I’ll be ready whenever our chicks are born. I expect a call from the breeder in April, but the exact arrival time is unknown.
  4. Solar Panels
      If all goes as planned, we will install an array of solar panels large enough to cover most or all of our electricity usage. Although solar energy is not a vegetable, it is nevertheless a valuable resource we can harvest from our farm.
  5. More Cover Crops
      Last year, I had planned to grow a third cover crop of tillage radish. This didn’t work out because the sorghum-sudangrass never stopped growing! Rather than kill the sorghum-sudangrass with chemical sprays or risk re-compacting the soil with heavy tillage machinery, I let it grow until the killing frost. That meant I couldn’t plant the radish seed I had already purchased, but it also meant we received extra value from the sorghum-sudangrass. Since I already had the seed, and I believe tillage radish will greatly benefit our soil, I decided to extend the cover crop project by one year. After the spring bloom of crimson clover, we will grow a short summer cover crop (probably buckwheat), followed by the radish in August. The pasture grass will be postponed until next year.

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Farming The Wetland

Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse
Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse

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.

A creek overflows, creating flooded corn fields and road floods
Our natural wetland, flooded by an overflowing creek

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!

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