Milfoil Mulch: turning crap into crop

Pond-040105

The pond after snowmelt. Check out this same view in summer in the previous post Purple Loosestrife: a very short battle

When I say we have a pond on our land, you need to realize it is a tiny, little jewel box of a pond.  The former owner, making use of Department of Natural Resources grants available at the time, dammed a little ravine and created a modest water catchment basin.  In the spring, flush with snowmelt and rain runoff, it expands to surround a tiny island.  Because it has never dried up in our 5-year tenure, there is probably a small spring trickling in, but as the summer comes on, our pond pulls in on itself to become more of a magnificent mudhole.

At its lowest ebb of 30×90 feet, the frogs and toads still sing its praises, and we dip out of it to irrigate our current plantings.  We have not yet sunk a well or buried cisterns at the corners of the barn, so it is our only source of water, but I’m sure the fact that it’s a little murky just increases its charms to the plants we pour it on.

Right after the ice melts, the pond is pristine and clear.  milfoil-on-pondThen, it grows a beard of lake weed that we now realize is milfoil.  Latin name Myrophilium meaning too many leaves to count.  I would have to agree and then some. Some milfoils are native.  Some are invasive, and the biggest villain is Eurasian Milfoil, which was once sold as an aquarium plant but  slipped into our waterways in the 1940s.

Washington State Department of Ecology has a great webpage with all the details here

I’m not sure exactly what kind of milfoil is growing in my pond, but it has really taken off the past few years.   Milfoil is clogging lakes and waterways in at least 30 states already.  It has seized its opportunities, and once it’s in a water body, it’s almost impossible to get rid of.  Any little piece broken off a plant can take root and grow – kind of like the brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.  It swells rapidly in the spring, forming a dense, floating mat that shades out native plants.  It also sets the scene for algae blooms.

On top of that, it makes our little pond look like the Swamp of Doom, and keeps it from reflecting the sky and clouds, which is one of my favorite things about a pond.  Sky view, frog song.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

So, this year we decided to get as much milfoil out of the pond as we can reach and treat it like a crop.  As we prepare to to sustainably farm, we are always looking for the natural solution that is under our noses.  Milfoil fit that bill.  We ordered a lake weeder and got to work.  (We got ours here)

This tool has a 28” serrated cutting blade on a long handle.  milfoil-doug-rakingDoug just tossed it out as far as it would go, let it sink to the bottom and hauled in heaps of lake weed.  Soon we had great big globs of milfoil draining on the shore, and a rim of clear water around the pond.  We didn’t go completely around the pond in case the change  upset  the frogs.

milfoil-on-rakeWe piled the dripping milfoil into our Power Wagon and hauled it to all the places where we have new plants and mulched them in with it.  We hadn’t had rain for several weeks at that point, and as we tucked the still sloppy milfoil around them, I could almost hear the butterfly weed, and bottlebrush grass, the lobelia and shooting star and red twigs and willow saplings sighing with relief.  I felt like I was giving the little dears a spa treatment.

We weren’t able to water for over a week, during which there was blazing sun and not a drop of rain, but when we checked under the milfoil mulch – the soil was still moist!  And that glop is dense enough that nothing has even tried to grow through it.  This stuff is the best mulch we’ve come up with yet.  Talk about your win-win scenarios!

These prairie grasses I started from seed I collected are growing on the site of a bonfire.  Before mulching, that blackened dirt really baked but they seem to enjoy their milfoil mulch.

These prairie grasses I started from seed I collected are growing on the site of a bonfire. Before mulching, that blackened dirt really baked but they seem to enjoy their milfoil mulch.

When you cut milfoil, it basically says, Thanks, I needed that! then revs its engines.  I have read of cases where divers make repeated plunges in certain water bodies (those whose lucrative recreational use is being compromised) to pull out complete plants one by one and try to trap every broken-off bit.  But for our circumstances, I think we will be able to put all the milfoil we can haul to good use in perpetuity, so eradicatioin is not our plan just now.

While researching this piece I saw speculation that milfoil might have a use as biofuel some day.  I have mixed feelings on this whole biofuel business, but I can tell you milfoil makes darned good mulch right here and now.

Exciting news flash! My next post on Tuesday July 28 will be guest written by Della Hansmann, the architect who is designing our Whole Tree house.   I can hardly wait to read it myself.

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4 replies

  1. This a creative rather than destructive solution to the problem!

    Fritzi Cohen, President of Fearless Fund, owns the Moby Dick Hotel and Oyster Farm on Willapa Bay in Nahcotta, WA. She has, for 18 years, been fighting the use of inadequately tested pesticide combinations sprayed over her tidal flats which contaminate her oysters and threaten the entire ecosystem of the Bay–all in the cause of eradicating a non-native grass, Spartina. [This same grass is revered and preserved on the East Coast where another plant is targeted with a similar chemical cocktail.] The oyster farm sees Spartina as an asset: as compost, animal nutrition [if not poisoned by spraying], protection against coastline erosion and an aid in carbon capture. They even made paper out of the grass they manually managed.

    Now, The West Coast Governors Agreement on Ocean Health [WCGA] lists among its ecological goals the eradication of Spartina along the entire west coast. Perhaps eco-illogical goals would be a better heading.

    Our concern is that the panic to eradicate [not manage] ‘invasive species’ is giving ‘green’ cover to the chemical industry, ‘throwing precaution to the wind’ -and water- and land!

    We are eager to network with others who are alarmed by this dangerous new trend. Please let us know how we might collaborate to replace pesticide pollution with positive and productive practices!

    Virginia Daley

    Communications Specialist
    Fearless Fund Board Member

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