On Becoming a Bee Farmer

There is a lot of responsibility when you take on the role of ‘bee farmer’ or ‘pollinator steward’. Most people are aware that honey bees are in danger and need our help to provide the plants and habitat needed for them to survive. If you eat almonds, pears, cherries, peaches or apricots, bees are instrumental in making sure those crops are productive and available to consumers.

Farmers have leaned on honey bee hives placed near their fields for decades to promote pollination. Some now even plant hedgerows between fields so the pollinators have a varied diet. Orchardists have learned that clover and other low-growing, bee-loving plants seeded between fruit trees are not only beneficial to entice bees to pollinate their orchard, but also help control erosion and weeds.

But what about home gardeners and community gardens? They can also do their part to encourage pollinators to visit. One of the most sought-after bees are the mason bees, or blue orchard bees (aka BOB). These small solitary bees quietly go about their business, rarely sting, have no queen and no hive. They are active in April and May in the Pacific Northwest, busily collecting pollen, laying their eggs, and sealing their colonies with clay mud. They need a nearby source of clay or mud and pollen producing plants within 300 feet. They aren’t as fussy about the weather as honey bees and will work in the rain. 

Mason bee lodges or nesting blocks are much more available and affordable too, as people become aware of the benefit of healthy colonies of mason bees to garden and orchard production. However, if you take on a mason bee lodge, you need to be diligent about cleaning it in the fall, and removing the cocoons and gently washing them. 

Mason bees are subject to two primary diseases or pests, Chalkbrood Fungus, and microscopic hairy pollen-eating mites. These affect mason bees in our area mostly as a result of our ecology (i.e. wet, damp winters). The mites infect bees and can build up over time in a colony. Chalkbrood fungus is airborne and lands on many plants. Female bees can collect poison pollen not knowing it and transport it back to the bee lodges. The larvae eat the poison pollen when they hatch from the egg. The larva is the brood stock of the bee. The larva will turn a crispy mocha brown color and die. By cleaning the colonies out every fall, the infection can be cut by 95 – 98%. 

The Bee Queen and her Leaf Cutter Pollinator Partner

There is no doubt that having a mason bee lodge in your yard is both beneficial to you and your garden, but also beneficial for supporting pollinator populations. But not everyone wants the responsibility of cleaning and sterilizing the bee colony in the fall, or hand washing bee cocoons. Enter Missy Anderson, the ‘Bee Queen’ of Bothell. 

Missy operates a business tailored to providing bee colonies in early spring to people throughout the Puget Sound area and then taking the lodges back in early June to clean them to help try and stop the spread of disease in the colonies. 

Missy began this endeavor innocently enough, raising bees for her own garden in Bothell. Realizing how much better her garden produced, she decided she needed more bees. She first learned about mason bees at Seattle Tilth, when a friend invited her to tag along. In 2005, she went through the WSU Master Gardener program and was asked to speak on mason bees as part of the volunteer hours she needed to give back to the program. By then, she was giving bee kits to friends, rolling paper bee tubes endlessly (22,000 tubes one winter alone) and delivering boxes for free. A friend suggested she schedule pickups (ten minutes apart) at her house through an online program which worked for a while but became overwhelming too – Missy was retired after all! 

Enter Jim Watts, a large-scale producer of leaf cutter bees for commercial agriculture through his company Watts Solitary Bees (wattsbees.com) Jim also lives in Bothell but has facilities in Portland and Ontario Oregon, as well as Bothell. His warehouse distributes 70 million leaf cutter bees to producers of almonds, cherries, pears, peaches, and apricots all through the West. He took an interest in the demand for mason bees that Missy was faced with and eventually bought her business. Together, they manage ‘Rent Mason Bees’ (rentmasonbees.com) and now serves 700 customers throughout the Puget Sound area. They hope to reach 1,000 customers this spring. 

Research is Paramount to Success with Pollinators

Research is an ongoing endeavor for Jim and his cousin Craig Watts, who is propagation manager for the company and lives in Portland. Together, they work with the USDA Ag Research facility in Wenatchee researching pollination in cherry production and with Oregon State University on another joint venture studying cherries. Farmers and orchardists are also making use of a program through APHIS (the US Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) which provides seed to growers as a cover crop between rows. There is also bee research being conducted in Logan, Utah where Jim partners on research projects. 

For the rent-mason-bee project, lodges were needed to send out to customers for the season. Originally, Missy’s late husband Jim made the simple houses, but Watts has taken that over at his Bothell facility. The Watts Company used 50,000 board feet of linear lumber last year for the production of nesting blocks for the mason bees (both for commercial agriculture producers and home gardeners) and will likely use more this year. 

How Can You Help Mason Bees?

Helping mason bees is easy and a fun activity for the whole family. According to Missy, all you need is sun + clay-based mud + bee pollen and you can become a bee farmer. Missy is so excited about her role as bee queen that she teaches classes all over Puget Sound and is working with the Girl Scouts on a patch program. Missy suggests that one of easiest ways to help pollinators is to leave dandelions, chickweed, shot weed (or spit weed), buttercups, and clover in your yard while they mature. If you can leave them at least through the end of May, that will benefit the foraging mason bees. This also gives the bees multiple sources of pollen. According to Missy, “A single nutrition element is never a good idea – have diverse bee food”. Leaf cutter bees are more active in July and August, while honey bees can range over several months. 

To contact Missy Anderson about speaking to your group, email her at queenbee@rentmasonbees.com. 

By Lois Ruskell, Public Relations Coordinator | From Volume 28: Issue 1 of The Nexus

Horses for Native Plants

Horses for Native Plants

More and more frequently now people are recognizing that people, wildlife and the environment all benefit from a landscape of native plants. To promote the use of native plants, Conservation Districts in Washington State hold native plant sales every winter. This is a great opportunity to purchase native plants and the price can’t be beat—plants are sold at wholesale cost. Read on to learn more about native plants and how they can be used to enhance your horse property.

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Conservationists in our Mist

Conservationists in our Mist

2016 marks the 75th anniversary of Snohomish Conservation District. There have been so many great leaders who have championed conservation here in Snohomish County, on Camano Island, and in the Puget Sound area. Some have been recognized, others not so much. Here are a few who have worked with us, or in the area, that we'd like to recognize, along with three books which highlight the life and work of these pioneer leaders.

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Strike While the Fire’s Hot – Get Help with Your Farm Projects Now

Strike While the Fire’s Hot – Get Help with Your Farm Projects Now

Have you had a new farm project on the back burner that always seems to be waiting for the right moment or enough extra cash to begin? Maybe a manure bin, soil improvements or gutters and downspouts for the barn (the muddy season is fast approaching, after all). Fortunately for residents of portions of the Snohomish and Stillaguamish River watersheds, the time to begin may be now. 

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Fall is Perfect Time to Get Your Cover Crop In

Fall is Perfect Time to Get Your Cover Crop In

Cover cropping builds soils health by increasing organic matter which in turn can help drainage, retain soil moisture, increase nutrient availability and reduce erosion. Ideal planting dates will vary regionally but here in the PNW many growers will seed in the coming weeks. This means that some tough decisions will need to be made concerning which cover is right for you!

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Focus on Hemlock ~ Dwarf Mistletoe

By Kevin Zobrist, WSU Extension Forester

Summer’s a good time to take a walk in your woods for more than recreation and exercise. You can look for danger trees, areas to thin or harvest, and signs of disease. 

Western Hemlock’s Live-Aboard

Do your Western hemlock trees have structures that look like the ones shown in the photo? These are called “witch’s brooms.” They come in all shapes and sizes but are always characterized by swollen, deformed, and overlapping branching patterns. This is caused by hemlock dwarf mistletoe, a parasitic plant. 

Dwarf mistletoes are different from true mistletoes, but all mistletoes are parasitic. The plant roots into the branch of the tree, causing swollen, deformed growth. There are a number of dwarf mistletoes out there affecting different tree species (most are host-specific). Hemlock dwarf mistletoe is the only one of significant consequence in Western Washington, and it is specific to hemlock trees, though there is some evidence that it may occasionally inhabit Douglas-fir (rare at most). 

In the summer, mistletoe launches sticky seeds that can travel 20 feet. If the seed lands on a hemlock, it sticks and begins a new infection. This can eventually cause mortality in a heavily-infested tree by deforming the branches, and by robbing the tree of resources. 

What to Do if Your Tree has Mistletoe

What should you do? Not necessarily anything. Dwarf mistletoe is native, and it is a normal, natural agent in the forest. It has ecological benefits of providing some great structures for wildlife. If you are trying to grow hemlock though, it may cause concern as it can spread pretty aggressively from tree to tree. 

Young hemlocks in the understory are particularly vulnerable because mistletoe seeds rain down from above. If you have only a couple of affected trees, you can remove them to prevent the spread (important if you have other hemlocks not yet infected or young understory hemlocks you want to encourage). 

Actually, you don’t have to fully remove the tree--you can kill it and leave it in place as an excellent habitat tree (it will be a snag with diverse structures). You do this by girdling the tree. Killing the tree (the host) kills the parasite, so it won’t spread from the dead tree. If you girdle the tree near the base, that will be the point of failure in the future and eventually the whole tree will fall, so consider if this will pose a hazard. Another option is to hire an arborist to girdle the tree higher up, but you would have to prune off all the live branches below that point. This way it will fail up higher, and when that breaks off you still have the bottom portion available as a good wildlife snag.

And Then Again…

If you have a lot of hemlock trees and widespread infections, it may not be practical to try to eliminate the mistletoe. You can encourage a shift to non-host species by under-planting (or encouraging natural) Western red cedar seedlings, replanting non-host species after a harvest, or favoring the retention of non-host species when thinning. Otherwise, it’s really nothing to lose sleep over.


Girdling, also called ring barking or ring-barking, is the complete removal of a strip of bark (consisting of cork cambium, phloem, cambium and sometimes going into the xylem) from around the entire circumference of either a branch or trunk of a woody plant. No nutrients can then be transferred down through the phloem layer. It's this severing of the phloem layer that kills the tree by starving the roots.

For more in-depth reading on dwarf mistletoe, check out:

  • http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5187427.pdf
  • http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsbdev2_025978.pdf
  • https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfp/publications/00198/Hemlock_dwarf_mistletoe


Commercial Compost Application on Western Washington Farms

by Doug Collins, Hallie Harness and Andy Bary, WSU

Reprinted with permission in BioCycle March/April 2016, Vol. 57, No. 3, p. 63; visit www.biocycle.net for more articles about compost utilization.

Over the past several years, the Snohomish Conservation District has been partnering with Washington State University Snohomish County Extension on the Compost Outreach Project. 

The District has participated in the compost trials by: 

  • generating landowner interest 
  • participating in trial set-ups 
  • helping at harvest
  • contributing at stakeholder meetings

Demonstrating the benefits of compost to local producers has the potential to close local waste stream loops while building the tilth of cultivated soils. 

Combining diverse skills on this project has created relationships and opportunities that will allow all institutions and landowners involved to continue to work towards these goals even after the grant has ended. It has also contributed greatly to our knowledge of the effects of compost in commercial agricultural operations

                - Carrie Brausieck, Resource Planner

With at least 13 commercial composting facilities, and more than 900,000 tons of food scraps and yard trimmings composted annually at these facilities, Western Washington is at the forefront of organic materials recovery. Although compost is available on a large scale, agricultural markets make up less than five percent of the total compost market in Washington State. The Washington State University (WSU) Compost Outreach Project is working to evaluate the benefits of compost on local crops and address the challenges faced when using compost.

Since 2011, WSU Cooperative Extension in Snohomish County has collaborated with local compost producers, county offices and local conservation districts to promote and evaluate use of commercial food scraps and yard trimmings compost on farms in Snohomish and northern King County (WA) through compost use trials. 

While farmers are consistently seeking sources of organic matter, in 2015, 81 percent of farmer respondents (35 out of 43 WSU Compost Trials Participants) had not used food scraps and yard trimmings compost prior to participating in the trials. Local compost producers, Bailey Compost, Cedar Grove Composting and Lenz Enterprises, have donated over 4,500 tons of compost to the project since 2011, with the goal of expanding its use in agriculture.

The research trials and on-farm demonstrations conducted as part of the Compost Outreach Project are described in this article. Scientific research trials validate use of compost on local crops, while demonstration trials provide the opportunity for farmers to get firsthand experience using commercial compost and test it out in their operations.

Correspondence and focus groups with farmers in Snohomish and King counties have revealed several challenges to using compost. The most significant barriers to using more compost in agriculture are compost price, compost spreading (time and equipment), and lack of information.

Pre-2015 Research Trials

Research trials conducted through the program prior to 2015 compared two treatments: A growers’ Business As Usual (BAU) chemical fertilizer application vs. BAU + Compost. Trials took place on several farms in Snohomish County. At Carleton Farm, trials evaluated the effect of cumulative multiyear compost applications. In 2012, two years of compost application (approximately 20 dry ton/acre) increased pumpkin yield by 28 percent. In 2013, with three years of compost application (2013 application rate was approximately 15 dry tons/acre), sweet corn ear weight increased by 24 percent. In 2014 at Carleton Farm, no additional compost was applied and the three previous years of compost application resulted in a 35 percent increase in cucumber yield. 

In 2014 at Darrell Hagerty Farms, a light application rate (6.5 dry tons/acre) of registered organic compost increased organic green bean yield by 19 percent. Beet seed at Williams Farm showed a 21 percent increase in yield with a 20 dry ton/acre application. Each of these results was statistically significant and used commercial food scraps and yard trimmings compost. 

On-Farm Demonstrations in 2015

There were 49 demonstration trials in 2015, which involved qualitative observation of crop growth with compost applied next to a no-compost treatment. 

Crops included sweet corn, hay, mixed vegetables, berries, tomatoes, pumpkins, Christmas trees, salad greens, cut flowers, hazelnuts, brassicas, and more. 

Farmer feedback was collected through the Compost Outreach Project’s annual survey (conducted since 2012). Farmer collection of yield and/or soil testing data is optional in the demonstration program. While the drought in 2015 posed significant challenges, farmers reported that compost improved crop production in 68 percent of the trials (out of 47 trial crops). Fifty-five percent of farmers found compost increased soil water retention.

Christmas tree farmers have observed improved tree growth and health, and hope to sell the trees mulched with compost earlier than anticipated. This translates to potential increased profit for these growers. A farmer using compost on sweet peppers reported larger and more productive plants. Blueberry plants have thrived in rows mulched with compost, and compost consistently has shown positive crop yield and health results on pumpkins. Several participants reported the compost did nothing. There was no obvious observable effect of the compost on their crops.

2015 Research Trials

Experimental Design

Research trials in 2015 were designed to evaluate the nitrogen contribution from compost as well as changes to soil physical properties on two separate farms with sweet corn as a crop. The design was a replicated strip-plot experiment where compost was either applied or not applied in strips and nitrogen fertilizer (urea) was broadcast preplanting at four different rates within the strip, including a zero-N application. The authors hypothesized that compost would compensate for some nitrogen deficiency through mineralization of the organic nitrogen in compost to plant-available nitrogen. 

A different high rate of nitrogen fertilizer was chosen at each farm based on preseason soil testing and estimated nitrogen contribution from organic matter. In addition to the high rate, three other rates were applied for a total of four, where “X” is the full rate: 1.0X, 0.75X, 0.5X, and 0.0X. Corn ear weight, plant biomass, soil nitrate concentration, and bulk density were evaluated. Soil nitrate concentrations are an indication of nitrogen availability for plant uptake.

The two collaborating farms (A and B) have been involved in the Compost Outreach Project since 2011. At Farm A, compost (from Cedar Grove) was applied at a rate of 7.8 dry tons/acre and at Farm B, compost (from Bailey) was applied at a rate of 8.6 dry tons/acre. The difference in application rates was due to differences between manure spreaders used at each farm. At Farm A, the 1X rate of nitrogen was 196 lbs/acre and at Farm B the 1X rate was 100 lbs/acre. Other pre-experiment soil properties are shown in Table 1.


Neither corn ear weight or plant biomass were significantly affected by fertilizer or compost. Mid-season soil nitrate concentrations were not affected by compost, but were significantly affected by fertilizer nitrogen application (Figure 1). 

The mid-season soil nitrate test was meant to be taken around the same time farmers would test their soil to decide if a sidedress application of nitrogen is necessary. This test, also known as the pre-sidedress nitrate test (PSNT), can be used to guide mid-season nitrogen applications. 

Fertilizer rates should be made based on soil nitrate levels when sweet corn is at the five or six leaf stage. If soil nitrate levels are less than 10 ppm, then as much as 145 lbs N/acre are recommended. If mid-season nitrate levels are greater than 40 ppm, then perhaps no fertilizer nitrate is necessary (Hart, 2010). 

Mid-season nitrate levels were nearly 100 and 175 ppm at the zero nitrate fertilizer rate, much greater than what would suggest that crops would likely be deficient in nitrogen. There was likely no compost or fertilizer effect on crop yield because of naturally high levels of available nitrogen from previous management. Fields with a history of application of manure or other organic amendments are not likely to result in a yield increase from compost. In previous experiments on different fields, compost resulted in a 20 percent or larger increase in yield on several specialty crops. 

Bulk density was decreased by compost applications at both farms, though the effect was only significant at Farm B where there was a 6 percent decrease (Figure 2). Bulk density (weight/volume) is a measure of soil compaction. Practices that improve soil structure (cover cropping, reduced tillage, or organic matter application) can reduce soil bulk density. The 2015 research study designed to evaluate the effects of fertilizer and compost use will be repeated again in 2016.

Additional Project Activities

Farmers have continually pinpointed compost price, spreading (equipment and time), compost delivery, plastic contamination of compost, and lack of information as challenges to using compost. Educational workshops and presentations have increased farmer knowledge of when and how to use compost. An ongoing dialog with composters and farmers is shaping a mutually beneficial relationship. 

Conservation districts continue to enhance their focus on compost education, targeting farmers and landowners. Snohomish and King County Solid Waste Divisions, with support from Waste Management, continue to develop and expand the agricultural end use market to ensure the success of the local composting industry and the continued availability of compost for use on local farms.

Nitrogen fertilizer was applied at different rates in the 2015 trials based on preseason soil testing and estimated nitrogen contribution from compost. 

The Compost Outreach Project has achieved notable success, working with 73 farmers since 2011. In 2015, 62 percent (23 out of 37 participating farmers) reported they are motivated to continue using compost and nine farmers purchased loads of compost outside of the program in 2014 and 2015. 

The Compost Outreach Project continues to leverage diverse funding sources and partners to break down barriers to increased farmer use of compost. Financial support comes from Snohomish County, a Washington State Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant, and King County. Additional partners include Snohomish and King conservation districts, compost producers, and Waste Management.           

Doug Collins is Extension Specialist at Washington State University. Until recently, Hallie Harness was the Program Coordinator of the Compost Outreach Project at WSU Snohomish County Extension. Andy Bary is Soil Scientist at Washington State University Puyallup. Photos courtesy WSU Extension


Hart, J.M., D.M. Sullivan, J.R. Myers, and R.E. Peachey. 2010. Sweet Corn, Western Oregon. Oregon State University Extension, EM 9010-E.

Weeds: If You Can’t Beat them - Eat Them!

By Alan Shank, Former Resource Planner

That is to say, let goats eat them. Goats, those little ruminants with the funny expression on their faces, are browsers. They actually prefer the taste of shrubs, trees and broadleaf plants like weeds instead of your luscious grass. According to Craig Madsen at Healing Hooves LLC, “This is especially true later in the summer as the brush and broadleaf weeds tend to hold their nutritional value longer than grasses. Timing is a critical component of targeted grazing. If you want to favor grasses, wait until they are more mature and the goats will focus on the broadleaf weeds and shrubs, allowing the grasses to go to seed.”

Thorns, you ask? No problem, blackberries are delicious. Weeds hard to reach? Not a problem. Goats are nimble and light on the soil. Goat droppings also quickly decompose into and improve soil. However, too many goats can erode a sensitive bank and should not be allowed in or near fish-bearing streams. 

Poisonous Plants

Some weeds and many landscape plants actually are harmful to goats. Madsen says “there are some plants that are poisonous to other livestock, and not to goats, such as yellowstar thistle. Other plants such as tansy ragwort, nightshade and peavine can be browsed by goats in limited quantities and it shouldn’t be a problem. Goats should not be turned into a solid field of tansy ragwort as they can’t balance their own diet and may eat too much, which could cause problems. Some plants should be totally avoided such as poison hemlock and rhododendrons. In my experience goats do not know which plants to avoid.” So, whether your challenge is knapweed, oxeye daisy, common tansy, Canadian or scotch thistle (to name a few), goats are thinking “dinner!” Just give them variety and make sure they’re not starving, and keep an eye on them if possible.

Browsing goats can be ideal weed controllers in situations where they’re rotated through the same pasture as cattle, horses and other grazing animals as well. By putting grazing pressure on the weed population, goats give grasses the advantage, allowing them to thrive. But don’t expect instant results. It may take several years to see substantial improvement in a weed-infested pasture. Plus, on-going weed management is necessary for a number of years due to residual weed seeds. Other considerations for pastures are soil fertility, pH, grass species, stocking rates, and grazing by other livestock.

People own goats for a variety of reasons, including as pets and for meat, milk, milk by-products and breeding. That means raising goats to control your weeds may also produce a marketable product while providing you a valuable service. Goats do need a mud-free clean and dry shelter, hay in winter, regular worming and shots, some company, regular hoof trimming, plenty of clean water, and goat-proof durable fencing.

If you don’t want to raise goats, but still like the idea of using them to control weeds, you can hire a goat herding service two to four times a year. Consider that goats eliminate the use of fuel, heavy equipment, herbicides and pesticides–while also conditioning and fertilizing your soil. So, hiring a herder may be a cost competitive option worth trying.

What Do Grazers Prefer?

Cattle and horses prefer grasses, which promotes the growth of broadleaf plants and shrubs. Sheep prefer broadleaf plants and grasses, which promotes shrub growth. Goats on the other hand, as browsers, prefer broadleaf and woody plants, which allows grass growth by eliminating competition from shrubs and woody plants.

Flash Grazing

Madsen uses 250 goats on an acre to acre and a half, but says it depends on the weeds you’re trying to eradicate and your site.

If a weed seed-bank is present, it may take persistent grazing. His goats tackle mostly blackberries and English ivy but have also been used on Japanese knotweed. With knotweed, it may take a couple of treatments with goats annually and it likely won’t completely eradicate the knotweed.      

Grazing by Type of Goat

Pygmy goats are not a good choice for clearing land and are better suited as pets and 4-H projects. Fiber, fainting, dairy and meat goats are good for browsing but need supplemental feed during winter. All goats need good fencing. Five-foot chain link or New Zealand-type is excellent. Field fencing tends to bend when they climb on it, which they will. If you’re thinking of raising goats, check out this online guide: How to Raise Goats by Carol Amundson (you can google the online version at ‘google books’). For more information on raising livestock, including goats, contact Joan de Vries at the WSU Extension Skagit County at 360-428-4270 ext. 240.

Sources for this article

Photos/content-Craig Madsen, Healing Hooves LLC http://healinghooves.com/

WSU Extension Livestock Advisor Nikki Fee

Why Use Goats?

Goats Can Handle Tough Sites

  • Agile goats can easily handle:
  • Steep slopes
  • Rocky or uneven terrain
  • Soft soils + light animal = low impact
  • ·Goats are not deterred by dense thickets of thorns
  • (blackberries, Russian olive)
  • Goats like eating plants that irritate humans:
  • poison ivy, poison oak, English ivy
  • Goats love to eat brush and weeds more than grass

 An Alternative Tool

Goats can...

  • Be less costly than other options in the right situations
  •  Reduce or eliminate the use of herbicides
  • Prevent seed production - plants may go to seed below the cutting level of a mower, but can’t evade an agile goat
  • Be selective depending on timing of grazing and how well the goats like their choices
  • Reduce risk to hand crews and machinery by opening up a site, making it easier to avoid dangers

Goats are Fun

  •  Relaxing to watch - proven employee morale booster
  • Entertaining - young goats love to play king of the mountain
  • Good publicity and public relations
  • Green choice - less fuel use, noise and soil disturbance
  • Peaceful to listen to - satisfied eating noises and mothers communicating with their kids

A Closer Look at Wetlands

by Alex Pittman, Habitat Restoration Specialist

Let’s go ahead and start from the beginning. What exactly is a wetland? Most people have some sense of the value and/or limits of having a wetland on their property, but it’s not always easy to explain why wetlands have value or where the line is between wetland and upland. There are an overwhelming number of wetland definitions floating around. Most of them will leave you less clear than before, but there is one definition that lies at the core of most wetland policy in the U.S.

Wetlands are areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.

Crystal clear, right? The key words here are water, soil and vegetation. A simpler way to say the same thing is that wetlands are areas that are wet enough— long enough and often enough — to support plants that thrive in wet soils. How wet that actually is can be very different from wetland to wetland, and what the soils and vegetation look like as a result of that wetness can also vary a lot between wetlands. There’s tremendous variety in what a wetland actually looks like, and there are several different wetland classifications that you’ve probably heard before which reflect some of that variety: bog, fen, swamp, marsh, etc.

Why Should We Care About Wetlands?

Wetlands have long been viewed as wastelands, which is understandable. They typically look messy, they’re often full of bugs, and they make it really difficult to grow crops, raise livestock, or build a home. It’s really only been in the past handful of decades that we’ve really started to understand the value and benefit of wetlands to fish, wildlife, and people, and it’s really only been in the past couple of decades that any real regulation of wetlands has taken place.

To be sure, there is a lot left to learn, and it is not an easy thing to craft laws and policies around features as complex and nebulous as wetlands often seem to be. However, there is real reason for us to take another look at these often neglected areas of our landscape and appreciate the functions and values they add to the landscape. Improving water quality, reducing the impacts of big storm events (flooding, etc), and keeping streams flowing with cool, clean water during the hottest months of the year are just some of the benefits to fish, wildlife and humans alike.

Wetlands have often served as backgrounds for scary monsters and legends.

The exact mechanisms for providing these functions vary widely from wetland to wetland, but the core of their ability to provide these functions is that wetlands are areas where water has a chance to slow down and hang out for an extended period of time. As a general rule of thumb, the more time water is held in a wetland, the more processes are able to work to clean that water. More time in a wetland means more time for plants and microorganisms to filter some of those pollutants. It also means more time for sediment to settle to the bottom and for water to soak into the ground.

Excess sediment in our water can be very detrimental, as soil particles tend to be really great at latching on to other pollutants and nutrients. Too much of this sediment in our waterways can also have a big impact on fish. These soil particles can trap salmon eggs in the gravel, and can stress fish navigating the stream – imagine one of us trying to go for a walk in the middle of a dust storm. Wetlands essentially act as stepping stones as water moves down through the watershed. Rather than allowing the water to run straight through the system as fast as it can, picking up whatever debris it may and wreaking havoc downstream, wetlands give the water an opportunity to slow down. As water slows down, it loses its ability to move debris, and much of this sediment drops out, resulting in cleaner water downstream.

This slowing of the water is also critical in allowing wetlands to protect against the effects of larger storm events in a watershed. If you were to remove all the wetlands in a watershed, the result would be a much more direct path for water to travel from the top of the watershed to the bottom. This means water is moving faster than it otherwise would be, piling up on itself as it gets to the lower watershed. In other words, it floods.

Wetlands add complexity to the water’s pathway downstream, slowing the water down and spreading the storm’s influx of water throughout the watershed, reducing the flood impact in any one spot. This also benefits us in summer, long after the storm has passed. The current climate trend in the Pacific Northwest is towards warmer, wetter winters, and hotter, drier summers. From a watershed perspective, that translates roughly to too much water in the winter and not enough in the summer.

Wetlands not only protect against the impact of too much water in the winter but keeping the water held higher in the watershed during the wet season allows more of it to soak deep into the groundwater, where it is released more slowly as cooler, cleaner water downstream. As a result, wetlands also help keep our streams flowing with cool, clean water even during hot and dry summers.

Wetlands also provide great habitat for birds and wildlife. The unique soil and vegetation conditions, along with an abundance of decaying plant material, lays the foundation for robust populations of macroinvertebrates, amphibians, birds and mammals. Snags, brush piles, and downed wood — staples of many healthy wetland systems — contribute valuable nutrients and building material to promote the health of these populations, as well.

Wetland Restoration in Practice

Starting this fall, keep your eyes peeled as you drive along Highway 2 between Monroe and Snohomish. The Snohomish Conservation District recently secured grant funding to complete a wetland restoration project at the Monroe Wetland Park, which is owned by the City of Monroe. For the next few years, the District’s Washington Conservation Corps crew will be establishing native, woody vegetation throughout eight acres of wetland and streamside habitat just north of Highway 2 near Lake Tye. Replacing the existing vegetation, primarily invasive reed canary grass and bittersweet nightshade, with a diverse mix of native, woody vegetation will increase shade to the stream and restore healthy wetland hydrology to the site. This will also improve groundwater recharge and reduce flooding in the agriculture-dominated floodplain directly downstream.

What Can You Do?

If you have a wetland on your property, there are a lot of things you can (and cannot) do to help protect and improve its health and ensure its ability to provide the functions we all depend on.

Plant Native Plants: Native plants can help restore some of the functions of your wetland. Many native plants are adapted to growing in the unique saturated conditions of wetlands in the Pacific Northwest. You can check out SCD’s Wetland Plant List Fact Sheet at http://www.betterground.org/wetland-planting-list/ to get started!

 Keep it Messy: Wetlands are inherently messy. Learning to love the mess can go a long way in ensuring it stays healthy and functional. It’s okay to leave snags, downed wood, and brush piles!

Call for Help: District staff are available to evaluate the wetlands on your property. We can help you develop a plan to restore or improve your wetland and connect you with valuable resources. If you have a project in mind or would like more information, email habitat@snohomishcd.org or call Alex at 425-377-7013. 

Keeping Your Soil Resilient in a Changing Climate

By Carrie Brausieck, Resource Planner

Our climate is changing. The University of Washington Climate Impact Group (CIG) has done extensive research and modeling on climate patterns in the Pacific Northwest. Based on this research, they have compiled predictions for what our climate will look like in the coming decades. Changes in our climate patterns are predicted to include:

  • Warmer winters with low snow packs and early peak stream flows    
  • Warmer, drier summers with summer stream flows decreasing
  • Drier years will be intensified

As our climate trends move towards these new patterns we may begin to experience the effects of these new trends on our landscapes. The possible effects of these different climate patterns are:

  • Longer growing seasons with increased demand on low summer water resources
  • Possible yield reductions due to heat and/or drought stress
  • Crops viable to the region may change
  • Possible yield reduction in forage crops
  • Lower growth rates and milk production in livestock

While these predictions may seem alarming, there is some good news. By looking to the soil, we can find ways to mitigate the impacts of these trends on our landscapes. Through building health and resiliency into our soils, we can better adapt to a changing climate. 

What is Resilient Soil?

What is healthy, resilient soil and what is its function? Healthy soil is a living substance teaming with a wide diversity of life, from arthropods to fungi to protozoa to small mammals. Soil is the living interface between the geology and the biology of the earth. It serves as a transformative layer converting stone into the biodiversity that the planet sustains.

Some basic characteristics of healthy soil are:

  • A soft crumbly structure with clumps and pore spaces (like a sponge)
  • Reactive to the environment, warms quickly in spring
  • Maintains the capacity to soak up large amounts of water (heavy rains) with little run-off
  • Has the capacity to store water during drought periods
  • Resists erosion and nutrient loss
  • Produces high yields of healthy plant life without large amounts of chemical inputs

Soils, as described above, could go a long way in maintaining our crops or landscapes through extreme weather events and would adapt better to changes in long-term climate patterns.

Building Healthy, Resilient Soil

There are many ways to nurture health and resiliency in our soils. One of the best models is to manage our soils in the same way that nature manages soils. Undisturbed soils tend to be more resilient to changes in climate than soils that have been cultivated or managed in yards and recreational areas.

As you observe the environment, you begin to see that nature manages soils in the following ways:

  • Soil is always covered - bare soil is a rarity
  • Polycultures – many species function together
  • Reliance on soil organisms to till the soil
  • A closed loop of organic input, breakdown, and re-uptake of nutrients (a cycle of fertility)

Armed with the above observations, we can begin to devise management strategies for our own soils that mimic nature to build health and resiliency back into degraded soils, or to maintain the integrity of soils that are already healthy.

The following are ways we can manage our soils for increased soil tilth and productivity:

  • Keep soils covered – use multi-species cover crops, dense crop plantings with companion crops, mulch, and residue
  • Consider diversity – diversity among plant communities builds symbiotic relationships, creates more complex exchanges of nutrients and natural pest controls, and increases diversity of life within the soil (i.e. the whole system functions better)
  • No-till or low-till practices – this can be implemented in large scale cropping systems, or in small scale backyard garden beds
  • Build organic matter (cycle of fertility) – allow leaves or lawn clippings to decompose into the soil, add compost or manure, roll cover crops, and/or leave residue to decompose into the soil

Help for Farms, Pastures, Lawns, and Landscapes

Soil health techniques can be practiced at any scale. Whether you are a large-scale crop producer or you’re trying to maintain a backyard lawn, you can incorporate all of the above techniques into your land- use activities.

Lawns can be diversified with many different grass species as well as legumes and forbs. Cropping systems can be diversified through crop rotations, companion plantings, and cover cropping. There are so many different ways to put soil health techniques into practice.

Focusing on the health and resiliency of our soils will not only create a healthier system overall but will prepare all of our landscapes for changing patterns in the future. For help with keeping your soil healthy, or to request a soil test, please contact Carrie Brausieck at 425-377-7014.

Reforesting the Arney Farm in Oso

Guest Feature by Sarah Arney

More than 25 years ago, after deciding to build a house in a pasture on my father’s dairy farm, I started planting trees around the site of my future home. When neighbors saw me planting trees, some commented that those farmers who cleared the land 100 years ago were rolling over in their graves, after all their hard work here. Clearing land for hay and critters was the thing to do in those days, here in the Stillaguamish River Valley.

Things have changed

Now, with changes in agriculture and the dairy industry, the thing to do is to plant trees along streams and the river to enhance fish habitat and water quality. 

It was March 2014 when I first learned about the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (or CREP), a government program coordinated in Snohomish County by Snohomish Conservation District. At a public meeting in Oso, I learned the District was offering assistance for planting Northwest native trees and shrubs along 300 feet of my river frontage and on both sides of a creek that crosses my land.

Soon after that public meeting, my brother Bob and I met with a resource planner from the Conservation District and did a walkabout on the property left from Dad’s original Arney Dairy Farm. She said it was perfect for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

A Blue Tube and Native Plant Forest is Born

In November 2015 we signed a contract and received a map showing the areas to be planted and an extensive list of plants to be planted. The list ranged from classic Douglas fir and Western red cedar to willows, birch, cascara, Pacific crabapple and big leaf maple, to name just a few. Shrubbery to in-fill between the bigger trees included red osier dogwood, snowberry, Nootka rose, beaked filbert and too many more to remember. 

The planting was done in March this year by a contractor, Calypso Restoration, and the field was full of blue protectors. It looked a bit like a war memorial cemetery. Now, thanks to the rapidly growing field grass, there’s no sign of blue — until the hay is cut this summer.

It was a long and complicated process, but it finally came together, and we are excited to watch this new riparian forest outgrow the canary grass and blackberries. I don’t believe my father would begrudge our decision to reforest the farm. I’m quite sure he would honor our contribution to the future of this earth. By the way, those trees I planted in 1990 in preparation for building my home? They are now 30 to 40 feet tall!

The next task for the Arney Farm, also funded through CREP, is maintaining the new plantings for five years to make sure plants have a fair chance to survive. Crews and private contractors generally provide this service by mowing and weeding annually. 

-From 2016 Summer Nexus

Eight Tips to Prevent Weeds in Pastures

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered.”

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

1.     Grow a healthy forage sod. Up to 95 percent of your weed control can come from a thick, vigorous sod that prevents weed establishment and discourages soil erosion. Soil test, fertilize, clip, aerate and irrigate pastures, if possible. Manage livestock grazing and keep animals off wet pastures.

2.     Seed areas around troughs, salt blocks, barnyards, and roadsides. Open soil is an open invitation to weeds. New weeds often show up in these places. Consider seeding these areas annually.

3.     Clean equipment. Brush or hose down equipment from weed-infested pastures before entering new pastures. Monitor cleaning areas for new weeds.

4.     Control weed seeds spread by floods. Weed seeds can float on water. Install seed screens on outlet pipes and control weeds near irrigation ditches.

5.     Quarantine animals new to property or pastures. Animals can deposit weed seeds with their manure and start new infestations. If animals have been grazing a weed-infested pasture, keep livestock in the barnyard for a few days before moving them to a clean pasture. Before spreading manure, compost it to kill weed seeds.

6.     Buy weed-free seed. A pound of purchased seed can contain 400 weed seeds. If you ask to see the detailed seed label (and not just the one on the bag), it will list the weeds present by species. This way, you can “select” weed seeds already on your land and avoid planting seeds of something new.

7.     Buy weed-free hay. Grow your own hay, inspect grass stands prior to harvest, buy high quality hay, or buy from a reliable source. By following these practices, you will bring less weed-contaminated hay to your property.

8.     Cooperate with neighbors in controlling weeds. A neighboring field of weeds gone to seed can invade your property. Or your weed spray may drift and damage the fruit trees on your neighbor’s property. Their problem is your problem and vice versa. 

- From Summer 2016 Nexus

The How and When of Pasture Renovation

The How and When of Pasture Renovation

Western Washington and more specifically, Snohomish County, has an ideal climate for growing grass. One of the reasons for this is due to our temperate climate with plenty of rainfall. For example, the city of Snohomish averages 50 degrees Fahrenheit and has about 275 frost-free days per year. This is accompanied with about 35 inches of annual precipitation.

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Making Progress on Church Creek

Making Progress on Church Creek

Improving watershed health takes everyone. It takes landowners of all types – urban, rural, farmers – coming together and figuring out how they can do their part to keep the watershed healthy for the near- and long-term. Since 2013, the Snohomish Conservation District has been working to accomplish exactly that in the Church Creek sub-basin, thanks to a grant.

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