I have been learning about farmscaping in California this year. Specifically the process of farmscaping with native plants on agricultural landscapes. From the outside looking in, this task comes across as dry as an over-baked potato, however I can promise to you that the process of building new habitat on farms is more akin to an appropriately-baked potato, with sourcream, chives, cheese and all the fixings you could ever imagine. I am going to get a bite to eat because I am clearly very hungry, but then, let's get into it.
Let’s take it way back first. What the heck is farmscaping anyway? Farmscaping is the process of planting vegetation on an agricultural landscape as a means to fix some specified problem or inefficiency. Problems that can be addressed through farmscaping include flooding issues, dust and pesticide drift, lack of pollinators, temperature or wind issues, insect, rodent, and avian pest issues, soil health deficiencies, erosion, and more. In addition to providing farms with all these benefits, farmscaping also helps the surrounding landscape by providing natural habitat to insects, migratory birds, and other animals. So, how does a farmer get from identifying a problem on their landscape to having a thriving native plant community working for them? Well, it all starts with an email to Wild Farm Alliance.
So first the farmer will give us a call asking us for some help, and say she heard we can help people with farmscaping. We then jump on a zoom, and talk about the issues she wants to alleviate, and determine how big the project would be, the specifics of the site, and other details. After we know that we can help the farmer, we will try to secure them some funding to implement their project. In my experience this last year, most of the funding has come from the California Healthy Soils Project, or the NRCS. Next we will select the species for the project we will use.
In my opinion, this is the most fun part of the project. At this point we will do some research on the area of California the farm is located in, and the Farmer’s goals to determine which native plants are going to work best for the project. Each project is unique, so the types of plants we decide to put on each property is very specific to the site, and goals. For instance, if we are working on a drainage improvement and erosion control project we might go for a mix of fast establishing wetland loving herbaceous covers such as Sedge (Carex. spp.) , Rush (Juncus spp.), Goldenrods and Asters (Solidago, Euthamia and Symphyotrichum spp.) And Willow (Salix spp.). However, if we are working on a road buffer project in the central valley of California, we will use an assortment of drought resistant, and large native shrubs such as Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis), Saltbush (Atriplex lentiformis) and Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). Since every site is unique, and there are hundreds of native plant species to choose from for each project. The number of combinations for plant lists is endless!
After we have decided on a plant list with the farmer, and we have secured funding for the project, it is time now to start securing plants from nurseries around the state. This is the part of the project where it helps to have good relationships with nurseries statewide, like my mentor Sam Earnshaw does. He and I will call up the nurseries and talk with a person in real life. Sam is adamant that only through having a true conversation can you be efficient with the process. We will give the nursery a list of all the plants we need and then the nursery will tell us how many of those plants they have. We usually then pay for the plants and then if there are some plants that we need that they do not have, we will either get in touch with a second (or third, or fourth) nursery to find those plants, or we will make a comparable substitution after checking in with the farmer.
After all the plants have been secured, it is finally time to plant. The best time to plant a hedgerow is in the fall, or the spring. This gives the plants the best chance of establishing and surviving. However, it is possible to plant throughout the year as long as the necessary irrigation and care is available. On the day of planting we ask that the farmer prepare a bed for the plants beforehand. First thing we do when we get there is make sure all the plants are accounted for by grouping the plants into species and then checking with our lists. This is important because it is actually very common to have the wrong number of plants (unfortunately) and it’s good to know what we are actually working with rather than what we are *supposed* to be working with before we begin planning. After the plants are counted we begin to lay out the plants where they should go. This process takes a long time because there is constant shuffling, imagining what the arrangement will look like in 5 years, and aesthetic considerations at this stage. This is where experience with how the plants look as “adults'' is invaluable.
After we are happy about where the plants will go, it's time to get the plants in the ground. The order goes:
Dig the hole
Fill the hole with water and let it drain (this is important for the plant survival)
Add a handful of compost to the bottom of hole (this little boost of nutrients helps give the plant a headstart in establishing)
Take the plant out of its pot and cut up the roots a bit so the plant does not become “root bound” and become stunted
Place the plant in a gopher basket (This is only necessary if the farm has severe gopher issues)
Plant the plant (it is important that the plant sits a bit higher than the ground and looks convex as opposed to concave to the ground level. This is to prevent water pooling up and causing crown rot)
Apply a layer of woodchip mulch to the planting to inhibit weed growth around the plants (unless “weed” growth is to be encouraged in the case of seeding a grassed water way with native graminoids alongside a shrub planting)
Provide the plants with additional protections from rabbits and deer (again, only necessary if there are specific issues with herbivory)
Lastly, we set up the irrigation for the plants. This is usually accomplished using drip irrigation with 0.5 or 1 gallon emitters depending on the size of each plant. Two emitters are put on either side of the plant 8” away from the plant. This is to account for the stretching or shrinking of the drip line depending on the temperature. It takes a while for the irrigation to “settle” so by placing drips on either side of the plant we ensure that the plant has a good zone of hydration, regardless of what the line does.
And, voila. Once the irrigation is set up the ship has sailed and the planting is set to grow and accomplish its goals on the farmscape. Depending on the project, there will be more or less monitoring and trimming after the initial planting. It is interesting to see how plants “move around” after getting planted. Smaller plants are often crowded out by bigger ones and forced to crawl to vacant spots, while bigger plants grow into, and weave into each other to create dynamic collaborative projects of varying colors, and textures.