Willows and Dogwoods provide erosion control and provide habitat for fish.
Fall is coming and the leaves on the trees and bushes are just starting to turn yellow. The white ash were first to show some signs, now I see some maples in my area turning. It won’t be long before we have the full spectrum of fall colors. What a great way to start the day, admiring nature’s slide show. Cows and turkeys in the pasture and deer eating under the wild apple trees, all in view, while we look out a window over morning coffee.
As the day length grows shorter, it signals the trees and bushes that winter is on the way. The plants start to undergo a dormancy preparation process. The willow leaves will start turning yellow. As a fisherman and stream restoration guy, the yellow leaves get me thinking about bio-engineering and fish habitat.
In the past many civil engineers would use concrete, rebar and large stone in various projects to control erosion. In many places this type of stream stabilization is required due to high velocities and steep banks. However, due to costs and a greater understanding of the stream morphology process, woody materials along with live plants are being considered more and more.
Bio-engineering is a mix of hard core engineering along with biological methods. The bio in bio-engineering means biological. This means we utilize plant species such as willow and dogwoods along with other trees to help stabilize road and stream banks.
For the “do it yourselfer,” stream side landowners, who wish to stabilize their stream banks, bio-engineering is perfect. Using willow and dogwood plants in the form of cuttings, fascines, stakes and posts can make a seemingly complicated and expensive process simple and low cost.
Once the willows in your area turn yellow, it means that they are going into winter dormancy. This means that all the carbohydrate storage for their roots has been completed. The plant has stored enough energy to get through the winter, so taking cuttings will not harm the plants.
Cuttings are just that, you take a pair of hand nippers or brush trimmers and cut off sections or cuttings of the willow. The best cuttings are taken near the base of the plant. Try to cut the stems that are about the thickness of your finger. You then slice the cuttings into one or two foot sections and then just poke them into the soft moist mud along the shoreline. Try to get them into the mud as far as possible. One half of the cutting should be in the ground getting moisture, and the other half out worked for me in the past. You need to leave part of the plant out of the ground so the sun gets to the new leaves that will form in the spring.
I have seen the upside down planting mistakes happen in the past, so, don’t laugh. Make sure you don’t put them in upside down and put them in a sunny place, willows need lots of sunlight!
Fascines are tied bundles of willow or dogwood plants that are partially buried along the stream bank. Each bundle has about a dozen cuttings, each being about 4 to 6 feet long in length.
You need to dig a shallow horizontal trench, just above the waterline pointing downstream at about 45 degrees to the stream bank. Bury the bundle in the trench, with the tip end of the plants sweeping out in the stream. You only need about a foot of the plant sticking out of the trench. Too much of the tops sticking out will allow the water to catch them and possible pull them out. The soft tops should flex with the waters flow. Once the bundle is buried, I like to place some large rocks on top of the buried fascine to prevent scouring and to hold the plants in place until they root the following season.
Stakes can be taken from the same plants, but they must be from thicker branches, about one or two inches in diameter. The stakes can be about one or two feet in length. Sharpen one end and then pound the stake in with a hammer or sledge. Try not to smash the top where you pound. Once you have the stake in place, cut off the top where you pounded, so there is a clean even cut to form new growth in the spring. A good pair of brush trimmers with a sharp edge will do the trick.
Willow posts are large cuttings that are taken from a black or weeping willow tree. I have taken posts from a willow cut down in July, and had a successful planting. I recommend fall though, while the trees are dormant.
To plant the posts use a 3 point hitch fence post auger. The auger should be larger than the post so you can easily backfill the hole. Six to eight feet long posts, each about 4 to 6 inches in diameter can be cut with a chainsaw and planted in the 4 foot deep augured hole. This method works great in sandy soils where shallow plantings die due to the lack of moisture in summer. Posts can also be pushed into the soft muddy bank with a backhoe or excavator, especially if a pilot hole is done first.
Bio-engineering is a simple and cost effective way for the do it yourselfer to stabilize your stream banks, reduce soil erosion and create some quality fishery habitat.
Now is the time to get the willows and dogwoods planted, so you can get out fishing for the fall browns and rainbows, lurking under those overhanging willows, planted by some stream bio-engineer in the past.
No matter whether you use cuttings, fascines, stakes or posts to stabilize a stream bank, you may need a permit. Check with the Department of Environmental Conservation before you do any work and remember to be safe out there!
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.