Soil Erosion - A big fat problem

Surely, you remember the view from our forest while I was tapping for Maple syrup.  Here's a reminder:
I can not capture the angles or the drop offs, but let's just say my forest is steep. Our house is built on top of a hill that is immediately followed by our steep graded forest.

I'm going to be honest with you - our forest is not healthy. It sustained immeasurable damage from the construction equipment that built all the area houses, built my house, put in drainage systems, water/sewer/electric/gas lines, and a road. The soil became really compacted, tons of water ran down the hill, and many trees were damaged.

A lot of trees actually died. Some lost major limbs. It was not a pretty sight. 

For the last 8 years, I have been watching this and the surrounding forest. I can see the differences. Our forest has barely any understory. The forest at large is covered in green shrubbery and perennials. Our forest is losing soil at a very rapid pace. The rest of the forest seems stable. Both forests lose trees on occasion. Ours used to lose them quite frequently.

Last year, a huge chunk of the forest just "fell off" and most of the soil floated away down a little stream.

This scared me to death! This was erosion bar none!

Here a few shots of that erosion event. The pictures can not fully explain the situation. The eroded area was a cube approximately 10ft tall, 20 feet wide, and 12 feet deep.



This is in addition to the soil that just runs off without making a big "visible clump." 

At this rate, it would probably take a few decades before the soil eroded so much that we had to worry about retaining walls to save our house or anything like that. We might be moved on and long gone by then. So why should I care?

I care....because I care about the health of the forest (and soil erosion in general) whether it directly effects me or not. 

So what have I done? First, I did some observing. I wandered miles of the adjacent forest and inspected the plant life. Which plants grew in full or mostly full shade (the condition of my forest)? Which plants were growing on slopes and holding the slopes steady? Which plants were helpful to the soil but harmful to people? Which were helpful? Which could I readily add to my forest? What was already growing in my forest? 

After this assessment, I had the following answers:

My forest floor contained only a few species - maple seedlings, oak seedlings, basswood seedlings, prickly ash, bloodroot, buckthorn, Virginia waterleaf, jewelweed, riverbank grape, a couple elm seedlings, and gooseberry.

The forest floor in the full-shade sloping, but not eroding forest contained - maple seedlings, oak seedlings, basswood seedlings, ferns, hog peanuts, moonseed, black ferns, wood nettles and stinging nettles.

Prickly ash is a non-edible native plant. It is is twisty and full of thorns. When it gets a hold in the forest, it forms an impenetrable thicket of thorns. It's an okay plant, but not really what I want in our forest (the thicket anyway.) I cut them all down. I did not poison them or yank them out. I essentially coppiced them. If they come back stronger than ever, then I'll reassess. Maybe it would be good for them to sucker across and hold some of the soil. It  will all depend where they show up.

Buckthorn is the same. It's a thorny inedible tangled mess. It's also nonnative and invasive. I cut it all out. I've been cutting it out for 8 years. It basically doesn't come back anymore except where birds plant it.

The maple, basswood, and oak seedlings are all left where they are. In fact, I started transplanting any oaks that the squirrels plant in my garden/yard into the deeper parts of the forest.

The jewelweed is good. It's non-irritating, edible, perennial, and just fine. It only grows in the sunny parts though. The grapes wander the forest edges. They are not stopping any erosion.

Gooseberry is thorny but edible. It is spotty throughout the forest and though it "lives" in the shade, it only thrives on the edges. If I can remember to save some of the berries next summer (instead of eating them!) I will plant a few sporadically in the forest.

Bloodroot only grows in the early spring on the sunny edges. Virginia waterleaf only grows in the spring/early summer and only at the top of our forest. If it feels like spreading, so be it.

The only plants my forest is missing are the nettles, hog peanuts, and ferns.

Ferns and Nettles are perennial. They come up in spring and hold their own until the frost. They are prolific and they can handle shade. They also happen to be edible. 

Nettles are irritating to the skin and may make travelling through the forest annoying or unpassable. It's a risk I'm willing to take. In addition to being edible, they also make fantastic compost tea or liquid fertilizer. I have not ripped any out to inspect their roots, but they are part of the reason why the sloped forests are not eroding.

Ferns probably play a smaller role. While they exist in our forests, they seem to exist in small pockets and near water. They are not rampant like the nettles or hog peanuts. I will still be adding them once spores start to develop. Especially in the wetter areas.

I have already seeded wood nettles (preferred to the stinging nettle) into various spots of the forest. I will assess the effectiveness of that seeding before proceeding with other areas next fall. I have focused my attention on the areas with the most bare ground and steepest slopes.

I have also added hog peanuts. They can grow profusely and they attach to the ground in multiple points  - creating underground growth (the nuts that we could eat) that most likely holds onto a bit of soil.

I am hopeful that we can rejuvenate our forest over the next few years!

In addition to wildscaping with plants, I have put in some procedures to slow the water flow and build up soil.

First - the water slowing.
 Above the drop off - I have used fallen logs and debris to build berms and "swales" to redirect and soak up some of the water before it runs down the hill.
 A dead landscaping shrub joined the pile of debris slowing down the water flow.
 Downed branches to slow the water flow.

These are obviously not going to "solve" the problem. But they should at least slow the water. They were from the forest and will return to the forest as they rot away. 

When we moved in, there was a large hole at the top of the forest (analogous to the hole that is now at the bottom!) We used prunings from our shrubbery to create a "retaining wall" and have been filling the "hole" with yard waste, food scraps, and woody debris for 8 years. There is no longer a hole. The ground is not "soil" but it is slowly becoming soil. Organic matter dissappears to almost nothing when it degrades....
Nothing grows in this compost because my husband uses herbicides in his lawn feed. This is why our lawn scraps are not used in the garden....Eventually, the microflora - including the fungi should be able to break these herbicides down and trees and shrubs can take hold. 

That will happen when we stop adding to the pile and start building up soil in another dead zone within the forest. 

As I write this article - it is September of 2015. I am hoping I can come back to this post in 2017 or 2020 and see how far we've come and I hope the differences we have made were positive and not negative! 

Hackberry
**Update - I have located a Hackberry tree and have gathered some of the drupes. They are sweet and have about 20% protein. Better still, this tree can grow in shade, sends down large erosion stopping roots, and is considered threatened. I will be planting some in the deep part of the forest where the erosion has gotten out of control.




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Thank you for your comments! I appreciate all your tips, advice, and well wishes!

Angela

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