Effects of controlled disturbance within early-successional northeastern forest habitat: Evaluating soil quality, plant production, and economic feasibility
We have proposed to employ techniques of agroforestry and permaculture to allow us to expand berry production into marginal, forested areas of our property while still managing these areas for the overall health of local forest ecosystems. This will allow us to determine which cultivation methods will produce the best balance between environmental sustainability and cost of production.
The main research objective of this project is to examine changes in soil quality as a direct effect of experimental land management and cultivation techniques, viz.
• Establishing small plantings of perennial woody berry crops that are common in transitional ecosystems — chokeberry, elderberry, and honeyberry — into early-successional habitat which has received treatments of varying levels of soil disturbance;
• Maintaining land in an essentially arrested state of early-successional development to increase biodiversity and habitat for wildlife, including native pollinators; and
• Recycling the high-carbon waste produced by such management practices through the construction of specialized sheet compost-cum-raised beds known as ‘Hugelkultur’.
Secondary objectives include measuring plant growth as an indicator of health and future production value, and economic analysis of the costs associated with the execution of each treatment.
The experiment will be conducted over the course of three years as the changes in soil health and composition which we will be monitoring tend to happen slowly over time, and a longer time-frame for data collection will also provide more meaningful results in the face of uncontrollable environmental variables like weather.
In the first year of our project, we completed initial site preparation and machinery work for all of the experimental plots, and we obtained all of the nursery stock necessary for the project. We began construction of the hugelkultur beds, and took and analyzed soil samples for the project once in the spring, before site work began, and once in the fall.
In 2013 we have completed construction of the experimental hugelkultur beds, completed planting of nursery stock in all plots, and took and analyzed soil samples for the project in the spring and fall. Our project has one more year scheduled before completion, although continued soil sampling in the future may be required to reveal significant insights from the data. Remaining tasks include: care and maintenance of the plots, continued soil sampling and analysis, and data analysis and outreach.
Project One of our upcoming challenges for this project is going to be addressing the nutrient deficiencies in our soils without compromising the integrity of the project. Application of organic matter and fertilizers will need to be handled so that each plot receives the same quantity and concentration is not localized or distributed unevenly across plots. Control of established woody perennial competitors in early-successional habitat and control of weedy herbaceous species throughout the plots without resorting to chemical herbicides will present new challenges.
In winter 2013-14, had very little winterkill, and observed that about 90% of plants had full leaf out in early spring, 2014. During the 2014 growing season, there were no observable changes in plant growth from the previous years’ plantings with most plants outcompeting perennial weeds in spite of the fact that we did not have sufficient labor for any extensive manual weed control throughout the 2014 growing season. We did no soil sampling in 2014, and incurred no costs for maintenance. At the farm this fall, we hosted our second small fruit production class from University of Massachusetts. This class is about 25 students interested in fruit production using permaculture methods such as hugelkultur. During the 2015 growing season, we will be using volunteer students from UMASS as part of a curriculum we are developing this winter utilizing the SARE experimental plots as a “living laboratory.” In spring 2015, we will take soil samples, measure root growth and do a final soil sample in fall 2015, with a final report in December 2015.
The large scale farm projects we implemented this year include enhancing existing trail systems through the early-successional habitat and continued to work on a trail signage system to encourage visitors. We hosted two open-house tour and talk about the grant project and the importance of early-successional habitat for biodiversity. We had two volunteer workshop leaders one on native plants and a grad student from UMASS in entymolgy. Within the SARE plants and the immediate areas, we caught, identified and released 5 species of native bumblebees.
Sonia Scholemann, our project’s technical advisor, will be helping us address issues of soil quality and treatment options this coming year, as well as monitoring plant growth and helping us begin to analyze gathered data.
University of Massachusetts Extension
Department of Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences
West Experiment Station/UMass
Amherst, MA 01003
Office Phone: 4135454347
Bug Hill Farm
P.O. Box 516
502 Bug Hill Road
Ashfield, MA 01330
Office Phone: 4192629960