Designing and Validating Plant Communities/Cropping Systems for Multiple Benefits

Final Report for FNC04-506

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2004: $13,733.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $15,275.00
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


I am owner of Ecological Gardens LLC and farm two acres of land in Ramsey, Minnesota. For the past six years I have grown certified-organic garlic varieties, heirloom vegetables, berries, and greenhouse plants. In the past three years I have diversified into perennial cropping systems including fruit trees, hazelnuts, and other woody perennials to diversify my income.

My goal was to produce long-term environmental and economic benefits but also get an economic return in the short-term. That meant I had to design perennial plant communities that would include early-income producing plants. It was very difficult to find information on the ecological properties of plants, their potential uses, plant associations, and production cycles.

I have a background in databases and started to build a plant community database for the Upper Midwest. The database information is the foundation for assembling diverse plant communities for agricultural cropping systems, sustainable backyard landscapes, alleviating environmental problems, and improving wildlife habitat.

My project goals were to:
1. Design a database query tool that would be easy for farmers to use so they could design multi-functional plant communities themselves based on a list of ecological criteria and product goals.
2. Identify data I might be missing in the database
3. Work with other farmers to conduct plant trial and develop evaluation protocols
4. Identify additional plant communities that farmers might need.

Process and People – Year One: The first year of the project I worked with Mark Shepard, Renne Soberg, and Meagan Keefe. We used the plant database to design plant communities based on each farmer’s criteria. The following guilds were planted at each farm:

Mark Shepard – Viola, Wisconsin.
Perennial Agricultural Communities
Apple tree – Grapes – Sunchoke (fodder for pigs)
Elderberry – Grapes – Comfrey
Apple tree – Sea kale – Yarrow – New England Aster – Ox-Eye daisy
There was a decision to limit agricultural plant communities to five members. The plant community objectives were:
• Ease of harvest
• Animal feed
• Juice or saleable crop
• Benefit to other systems

Renne Soberg – Spring Valley, Wisconsin.
Windbreak and Medicinal Herbs for Horses
Plant community members were selected based on their adaptation to clay soil. The windbreak includes trees and shrubs that have high wildlife value, belong different age-classes, and have different growth rates. All plants are non-poisonous to horses. The medicinal herbs are organized and planted in compatible groupings.

The plant communities include:
Northern Red Oak - Cornelian Cherry Dogwood – Mullein – Tansy – Borage
Hawthorn – Meadowsweet – Stinging Nettle – Lavender
White Oak - Beaked Hazelnut - New England Aster – Chicory - Prairie Sage
Hackberry – Lilac - Culver’s Root – Wormwood – Plantain

The plant community objectives were:
• Nutritional & medicinal value for horses
• Harvestable herbs
• Windbreak value
• Wildlife value for birds
• Self-maintaining with limited labor required

Paula Westmoreland – Minneapolis, Minnesota
Fruit Tree Plant Community for Family Use
Pear tree – Alpine strawberries – Chives – Sweet alyssum – Borage – Wild Blue Indigo – Yarrow - Daffodils
Plant community members were selected for their food value and to meet the needs of the fruit tree for pollination, pest management, beneficial insects, and nitrogen fixation.

Perennial Companion Garden for Family Use
Gourmet Greens – Pole Beans – Peas
Beets – Kale – Chives
Broccoli – Zinnia
Tomatoes – White Clover – Basil
Peppers – Sweet alyssum – Calnedula
Strawberries – Bachelor Buttons - Asparagus - Coreopsis

The plant community objectives were:
• Harvestable food (fruit, vegetables, edible flowers, herbs)
• Harvestable cut flowers
• Minimal inputs of nutrients and labor
• Minimal pest damage

Meagan Keefe – Minneapolis, Minnesota - University of Minnesota Student Organic Farm.
Perennial Agricultural Plant Communities
Hazelnut – Rugosa rose
Grapes – Scented geranium - Chives
Pear tree – Red currant

The plant community objectives were:
• Ease of harvest
• Harvestable food for farmer’s market
• Minimal pest damage

Interplanted among plant communities will be cut flower gardens with plant community groupings.
Verbena - Love in a Mist - White Upland Aster - Butterfly Flower
Anise Hyssop – Oregano - Peppermint
Liatris – Scabiosa - Delphinium
Columbine - Showy Goldenrod - Tulips
Queen of the Prairie - Tall Meadow Rue - Monkshood
Peony - Black Eyed Susan - Alliums(Ornamental Onion) - Ox Eye Daisy
Daffodil – Yarrow – Veronica - Astilbe
Fragrant Hyssop - Sky Blue Aster – Lilies - Purple Coneflower

The plant community objectives were:
• Harvestable cut flowers
• Minimal pest damage
• Perpetual harvestable crop throughout the season

Based on the first year’s experience I did the following:
• Developed programming specifications for a query tool and a data entry system
• Developed a set of site trial forms (evaluation protocols), and
• Organized people to populate the database with missing information.

Process and People – Year Two: The focus in the second year was on developing the programming tools, entering data, gathering feedback, and validating the site trial forms. I worked with Dan Halsey this year. Dan’s farm was closer to where I lived so I was able to participate more frequently in the review and validation process.

Dan Halsey – Prior Lake, Minnesota.
Perennial Agricultural Plant Communities
Robust plant communities were designed for a variety of fruit trees, nut shrubs and berries including: Fruit trees – apple, cherry, pear, plum, and apricot
Nut shrubs – hazelnut, filazel, trazel
Berries – raspberry, boysenberry, blueberry, loganberry, seaberry
Cover crops were designed that included over 25 different species designed to fix nitrogen, attract beneficial insects, and repel pests.
Insectory islands were scattered among the berms.

The plant community objectives were:
• Variety of harvestable food and flowers
• Minimal long-term inputs (water, fertilizers, and labor)

Dan used the site trial forms & evaluation protocols to record data on the plant communities every two weeks during the summer and fall. Based on his feedback, changes were made to the forms.

A query application was developed in the spring and a data entry application was developed in the summer. The query application allows people to design a plant community based on a set of ecological and product criteria, search existing plant communities, and display characteristics, functions and uses of individual plants.

The data entry application allows people at different locations to enter new plant communities and report results from site trials. This information goes into a temporary database that I can review and then post the results to the query application. I worked with three programmers to build these applications – Gary Hayden-Sofio, Michael Bombyk, and Ben Stallings. I worked with three other people to enter new information into the database – Jennifer Adams, Milena Klimek, and Lindsay Clarke. Guy Trombley, a teacher and evaluator, reviewed the query application for ease of use and data accuracy. Jim Kleinschmit has been invaluable in providing feedback and assistance during the project.

The query application is in a final round of testing based on the recommendations from Guy Trombley and should be available online in the next few weeks.

The query application is in a final round of testing based on the recommendations from Guy Trombley and should be available online in the next few weeks. A set of useful site trial forms and evaluation protocols has been developed and field tested. The database now contains information on 1400 plants for zones 2-5. It has been met with great enthusiasm by the people who have worked with it and there is now a small group of people willing to continue to enter data on a volunteer basis.

One of the major challenges was that two years is a relatively short time to track performance and productivity of mixed perennial-annual systems. So far, the farmers have been pleased with the performance of the plant communities that were designed since each of them had some harvestable crop in the first year. I intend to continue working with these farmers so we can monitor the productivity of the plant communities over time.

Another challenge was to determine what data needed to be collected for useful monitoring. How could it be streamlined so farmers would actually use it but gather the necessary information? The forms went through about four revisions.

It took longer to get the query application done that I had hoped it would since the market rate for programming is much higher than what I could offer and I had to work with three different programmers to actually complete the work.

I learned a great deal from this project. The two year time frame for working with perennials was too short. I also didn’t realize that reimbursement for perennials was at 50% instead of 100%. If you want to encourage more perennial-based projects this should be addressed.

Having the database available for designing cropping systems created new opportunities for the farmers to use plants they hadn’t even thought of. Everyone working on the project has learned a great deal about plants and their ecological functions - which plants fix nitrogen; accumulate calcium; attract which beneficial insects; etc. I am very hopeful that these tools will allow farmers to consciously select for specific environmental benefits such as improved soil health, nitrogen scavenging, nitrogen fixing or wildlife food. By its use it will encourage landscape diversity.

I would encourage other farmers to conduct small scale experiments on mixed perennial and annual systems to help diversify their income and improve their soils.

I presented the project at the Sustainable Farming Association’s Annual Conference in February 2006. Tim Gieseke, a farmer and staff member of the Minnesota Project, and I did a joint presentation. We used the database to design black walnut and grape plant communities for his farm. We walked through the process with the audience. I got over 40 names from people in the audience that were interested in using the database once it was available.

I also gave demonstrations of the database at the following meetings – Crow Wing SFA chapter’s annual conference (Delano, MN), Windy River Sustainable Agriculture & Energy Fair (Little Falls, MN), What’s Up in Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota, permaculture workshops in Minneapolis, Sandstone, and Pine River. All together these events included over 200 people.

I did an article for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Greenbook 2006.

For the last few years I have been working closely with Linda Meschke from Rural Advantage, a non-profit located in the Greater Blue Earth watershed in south central Minnesota. Rural Advantage has been organizing farmers to participate in 3rd Crop demonstrations. (Third crop agriculture refers to a multitude of agricultural and non-agricultural products that will diversify the rural landscape and rural income from the two crop corn-soybean rotation. Third crops include hay and small grains, flax, amaranth, hazelnuts, energy crops, hunting, agritourism, and wildlife habitat.) We will be using the database to help design potential cropping systems for biofuels.

I intend to continue doing outreach on the project over the next several years. My goal is to have this become a true ‘knowledge tool’ so farmers and others can participate in trialing plant communities and reporting results.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.