Multifunctional Riparian Buffer Project at Riverdale Farm and Forest, Spring 2020

Ron Frisbee Wednesday, 11 November 2020

5.0/5 rating (2 votes)

As a forester and farmer actively participating in the Watershed Ag Council's (WAC) Easement, Small Farm and Forestry Programs, I decided it was time to “walk the talk” and get some more trees in the ground. The talk has been about the importance of establishing and maintaining vegetated buffers along our streams to filter or slow down overland flow from ag lands into the NYC water supply.

There are several cost-share programs that a farmer can participate in if they are located in the NYC Watershed. These programs assist with the cost of the trees and weed mats or herbicide treatment (to give the new transplants a fighting chance of survival!), the actual planting, and the cost of fencing animals out of the buffer (if applicable). The USDA Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is combined with funds from NYC through WAC to cover most of the costs associated with riparian buffer establishment. As a contractor in the past for CREP, I was party to success and failure of plantings on many area farms. I recently witnessed the bulldozing of part of one of the successful plantings at the end of the CREP lease. Given that the CREP contract with the landowner pays a lease over 15 to 20 years, there is to be no other economic activity on the buffer...no harvesting of fruit or berries or Christmas trees; no other function except buffer. So when I designed my buffer project, I decided to go it alone and demonstrate how a buffer can be designed to both protect the hallowed NYC water supply and provide a source of food from trees and shrubs to the farm and future farmers Wyatt and Porter.

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Wyatt helping me with the planting. This photo encapsulates what this project is really all about: the future viability of the farm and the surrounding watershed.

Resources for other NYC Watershed residents include funding through the WAC Forestry Management Assistance Program (MAP) and the Catskill Stream Buffer Initiative. Outside of the NYC Watershed, CREP is available to farmers and for non-farmers, NYS DEC’s “Trees For Tribs” program can provide assistance.

In 2018, I experimented with a planting of 25 hazelnuts between the fence line of a pasture and our binnekill (flood flow channel of the Delaware River’s West Branch). Thanks to the tree tubes, weed mats, watering and weedwacking, they all lived. Encouraged, this year I ordered many different species of trees and shrubs from two nurseries in NYS and the one in Wisconsin that had sold me the original batch of hazelnuts.

The quantity of each species was determined by how much space is needed for their site requirements and future production methods. As I will be experimenting with hedges of coppice growth hazelnuts rather than individual trees, they are planted 8 feet apart. The Chinese chestnuts will be cultured as individual trees and are planted on a staggered 25 foot spacing.

Most of the staggering occurred after I started planting using the "scalp sod and dig hole" method for the first 6 holes! I switched to an excavator to pre-dig and prepare the planting sites. This involved sod scalping with the bucket, stockpiling the sod to use on disturbed stream banks, digging a deep planting hole, removing the biggest rocks and returning the (mostly) rock-free soil to the hole.

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Scalped sod planting site

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Hole dug deep enough for roots

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Tree planted with root collar at soil line (red arrow). Roots spread out against side of hole (yellow arrow)

A soil type map from the Web Soil Survey stated that the Lewbeach soils were "very stony"! Who knew until the first swing of the mattock resulted in ring and sting! Ring of steel on stone and sting of pain in wrist. Ahh, the fun of tree planting in Delaware County, where there are "two stones for every dirt". 

My reasoning behind using the excavator to pre-dig was of course to make it easier and to better prepare each hole for future root growth. In reality, I created much more disturbance and had more rocks to move and sort out than if I had just used the mattock.

Prior to planting, I realized the need to stabilize the "stream" that I was buffering. The "stream" is actually an intermittent channel, meaning it only flows when there is enough water coming down the channel to overwhelm the extreme percolation that occurs upslope. The channel banks had become unstable due to a 4-inch rain event in 6 hours several years ago that dug the channel deeper during the peak flow and then filled it in with sediment as it slowed and the rain stopped.

I had determined what the channel dimensions should be and chose to rebuild the channel after removal of invasive multiflora rose and barberry that had taken over the sediments filling the channel. I constructed some massive rock crossvanes (red arrows) at the upstream and downstream ends of the project to prevent the water from downcutting through the materials disturbed by the project.

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Due to the steep 17% slope of the channel, I chose to install Rosgen log rock n roll structures (yellow arrow) to handle the potential energy of higher flows by mimicking the natural process of trees falling across streams. This large wood creates resistance to flow and expends stream energy in water falls and onto rock formations.

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Please understand that all the disturbance involved in this stabilization project occurred when there was no water flowing in the channel. I took the pictures when the channel resumed flow following a period of heavy rain. Work in streams is not allowed without a permit. Don't get me started about Article 15 of the Clean water Act and its "interpretation" in New York! Ok, enough about what really makes my socks go up and down and back to the planning and planting!

Given that the soils were the same on the project site, I chose to locate some elderberries and raspberries closest to the channel to take advantage of the opening that the channel would afford in the future when the nut and fruit trees created a shading canopy. This site is too dry for the decorative ornamental floral use willows I wanted to use, so I planted them in a nearby spring run. The spring run also received aronia closest to the wet area with chinkapin, mulberry, and one hackberry upslope. I hope to get my order in earlier for hackberry next year! The main buffer area also received mulberry near the edges where shading is present from neighboring trees; persimmon and pear out beyond the hazelnuts. I'd be happy to show a well-drawn 3-D schematic rendition of my planting design, but it was pretty much sketched on the back of an envelope or two while boiling sap. When sap season overlaps tree planting and calving seasons AND trout season, there is trouble. Good thing I don't hunt turkeys!

So, the trees were ordered and the shipping date was as vague as “ya can't get them until the ground is thawed enough to dig 'em”. I always figure on "healing the trees in "when I receive them so as to choose my planting date on my own terms. Care of the trees starts when you open the shipping container. Notice how the roots were protected from drying. My favorite is roots coated with a gel, but roots packed in wet shavings and wrapped in a plastic bag seems to work. If the roots get dry at any time, those trees are toast. I have a spot under my barn bridge that will be close to 50 degrees most of the time. I have a series of trenches available to put the trees roots in, backfill with soil and water and cover with the moist shavings or newspaper packing materials. “Watering in” is important to force air away from the roots and to carry soil into those spaces.

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Most contracts for tree planting in the NYC Watershed require completion before June 1st. I shoot for getting the trees in before they break dormancy. I wasn't sure what to do with the willow cuttings that came before the ground was thawed, so I used Rootone and stuck them in pots. They were too much work to water, etc and they were difficult to plant when the time came. Refrigerator space could have been negotiated if I had given up beer storage. Who wants to make baskets from the willows? If the trees do break dormancy before you get them planted, you will have to become a weather geek and be aware of frost. This year we had some frost AFTER May 31st! Horticulturist Mr. Winters in Delhi would never sell you a tomato plant until after the original "Decoration Day".

As I planted the trees and shrubs, each received a weed mat and several pails of wood chips for mulch and to retain moisture and reduce vegetative competition. Then a half pail of water to remove the air from around the roots as per "healing in". Unfortunately for some of the mulberry, the slugs and snails found shelter in the woodchips and ate the leaves. So slug and snail bait should be applied if needed or you can fill slug traps with the beer in the fridge. The method you decide to use to protect the trees from deer predation must be in place or be applied immediately after planting. Assuming the deer would rather eat peas instead of the aronia planted near the garden was incorrect. Fence, rugged wire cages, tree tubes, voodoo dolls… something must be deployed to deter deer and voles and pesky rabbits!

Once the planting is established, a system of watering is necessary. Bucketing water out of the channel only lasted a week before the rains quit this spring. So I resorted to a gravity-fed system... sap collection tank on the farm truck and a hose with a shut-off valve worked well. Assume the trees need watering not only in the year of establishment, but for at least the next growing season as well. Relying on the rain may not be enough depending on your soil type. Soils with poor drainage need more site preparation as you would not plant a tree in a pond would you?

Please enjoy the process of planning your Multi FUNctional Riparian Buffer either for planting in the fall or spring. If you plan on using herbicides to reduce vegetative competition, that process needs to happen in the fall when the competing vegetation is translocating resources to the roots. In the spring, the translocation is primarily from the roots to the above-ground portion of the plant. The fun part, of course, is ordering the species of trees and shrubs that are a good match for your site and your palate. As pictured below, some of my trees and shrubs have grown out of a 4 foot tree tube! Again…do your best work on your best available site and be your best. Best trees last!

Ron Frisbee

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