Way of the Willow

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

following: starting at the stream, plant five rows of trees, two rows of shrubs and a band of grass 24 feet wide. Plant trees in a 4-foot by 6- to 8-foot spacing and shrubs in a 3-foot by 6- to 8-foot spacing.

This research team used willows, oaks, walnut, ash, and maple species in the tree rows. Shrub species included ninebark, chokecherry, and red osier dogwood, and switch grass was used for the grass strip. Other native shrubs, such as hazelnut, shrubby St. John's wort, and spicebush could be used.

Supplementing the switch grass with other warm season grasses, such as big bluestem, and Indian grass, is certainly appropriate. Some agencies provide cost-share programs to establish vegetation along streams and rivers and may have specific requirements for the number of trees per acre you plant. If necessary, the rows of shrubs can be eliminated and replaced by trees, but do not restrict the grass strip to less than 20 feet. Recent studies show that native warm season grasses, such as switch grass, big bluestem, and indian grass, provide more filtering and absorbing power than introduced, cool season pasture grasses.

The appropriate tree and shrub species to plant depend on the location, soil drainage and topography. Start with water loving tree species, such as willow, cottonwood, maple, poplar, green ash and box elder. These species grow fast and are adapted to a riparian habitat that is subjected to flooding.

If your soil is well drained, moderate-growth species could be planted. These species include river birch, hackberry, shellbark hickory, swamp white oak, pin oak, Ohio buckeye and sycamore. If you live in the Bootheel region of the state you might select cherrybark oak, bald cypress, Nuttall oak and swamp chestnut oak for the tree rows.

In the Bootheel Region shrub rows might include deciduous holly, spicebush and swamp privet, while big cane and other warm season grasses could be used for the grass strips. Landowners in the northern third of Missouri might pick different species. Trees such as white oak, bur oak, shellbark hickory and cottonwood are appropriate. Shrub and grass plantings would include hazelnut, aromatic sumac, shining sumac, side oats grama, little bluestem and switch grass. This is not a complete list.

Several other species would work fine. Planting different species will increase diversity and reduce the risk of losing all the plants to a pest, flood or drought. The trees and shrubs you decide to plant may also depend on whether you want primarily wildlife habitat, timber production or both. Take a look at what nature has planted around your riparian areas and use that as a guide. Your local forester can help you make the selection of trees, shrubs and grass to plant.

Riparian buffer strips cost around $400 per acre with $20 per acre for maintenance for the first 5 to 8 years (mowing, and weed control). However, you can recoup some of those costs. The wood could be ready for fiber products or firewood in 5 to 8 years, and timber products in 15 to 20 years.

Planting high-value hardwoods, such as walnut and oak, provide benefits for you and wildlife. Horticultural products, such as seeds and cuttings, can be grown for nurseries or the floral industry. The grass strips can be used for forage, if properly managed.

The greatest joy will be catching that smallmouth bass from a cool creek pool on a warm summer evening.

Streamside areas serve several functions in our ecosystem. They reduce floods and erosion, trap nutrients, store water and provide homes for wildlife. Beyond this, riparian areas are for people too. An abundance of cool shade and natural beauty provide a place for wildlife viewing, fishing and other water related activities. Riparian forests can be a special place for the family and visitors and are an indication of wise land management.

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