Designing and Validating Plant Communities/Cropping Systems for Multiple Benefits

2005 Annual 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:

Designing and Validating Plant Communities/Cropping Systems for Multiple Benefits

Summary

DESIGNING PERENNIAL PLANT COMMUNITITES

Meet Paula Westmoreland, an urban sustainable farmer and owner of Ecological Gardens in Minneapolis. For the past five years she has grown certified-organic garlic varieties, heirloom vegetables, berries, greenhouse plants, nut trees, and other woody perennials.

Westmoreland received a 2004 SARE grant for her proposal to build an extensive plant database, with features that will allow farmers throughout the Upper Midwest to design plant communities. Three farmer participants will help ensure that the process becomes a “living knowledge tool.” The group also plans to produce an evaluation protocol for the database and software that can be distributed to farmers. Westmoreland will share her database broadly with farmers through conferences, the Third Crop Network, and on the internet. Westmoreland explains that, “Third Crop refers to a multitude of agricultural and non-agricultural products that will diversify the landscape.”

Westmoreland developed the idea for a database for identifying plant communities through her own frustrations as a farmer. “For the last few years I have been looking to diversify my income and introduce cropping systems that would create real environmental benefits for the land and wildlife,” she says. “This led me to look at diversified perennial cropping systems.” It was difficult to find information on the ecological properties of plants, their potential uses, plant associations, and production cycles, so Westmoreland utilized her background in databases to organize her research. The database, currently indexing 1200 plants for Zones 3, 4, and 5, can now be used for designing plant communities from agricultural crops to backyard plants and wildlife habitat. It includes about 85 different plant communities.

Learning about plant uses and potential markets “is especially critical to farmers in perennial cropping systems where income isn’t realized for several years,” Westmoreland says.

Project Objectives:
1 – Design a query tool that will be easy for farmers to use
2 – Identify data that might be missing or necessary to evaluating plant communities
3 – Trial plant communities and develop evaluation protocols
4 – Identify additional plant communities that farmers might need

Progress on Objectives:
The query tool is currently being developed using Visual Basic.net with Microsoft Access as the database. The developer is doing it as an evening job and the first release should be available online this winter. This past year I did project presentations at the University of Minnesota – What’s Up in Sustainable Agriculture and the Windy River Energy Fair in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Data has continued to be added to the database particularly on wetland and potential “energy-producers”. A University of Minnesota graduate student intern is working with me. We are adding economic data for the agricultural plant communities.

The following plant communities were designed and planted this year:
Mark Shepard – Viola, Wisconsin.
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 community objectives that will be measured include
• 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 and are different age-classes and 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 that will be measured include:
• Usefulness for horses
• Windbreak value
• Wildlife value for birds
• Limited labor required to maintain health of plant communities

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 that will be measured include:
• 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. The student farm is a new participant in testing plant communities.

Perennial Agricultural Plant Communities
Hazelnut – Rugosa rose
Grapes – Scented geranium – Chives
Pear tree – Red currant

The plant community objectives that will be measured include:
• Ease of harvest
• Productivity of plants (harvestable food)
• 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 that will be measured include:
• Harvestable cut flowers
• Minimal pest damage
• Perpetual harvestable crop throughout the season

Plans for 2006
1 – The majority of the computer development, additional data entry and testing should be completed this winter.

2 – Outreach will be done at the following conferences in 2006:
Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, Feb 2006

MOSES – Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, Feb 2006

ACRES USA, Dec 2006

3 – The plant communities planted in 2005 will be evaluated and new communities designed for each of the trial sites. Participants will use the database to design these plant communities and record site trial information.

4 – Westmoreland will continue to present at other gatherings and gather types of plant communities most useful to farmers.