agroforestry spicebush berries

Spicebush berries. Credit: Tracey Coulter

By Tracey Coulter, Agroforestry Coordinator, Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, trcoulter@pa.gov

Over an inch of rain fell on our one-acre homestead in this past weekend. That’s the equivalent of over 27,000 gallons and nearly 113 tons of water! 

We are at the bottom of a drainage, and we are the stewards of a culvert—essentially a funnel—that collects runoff from a state highway and our neighboring lots. This culvert empties directly to a tributary of Spring Creek, a wild trout stream that contains some of the highest-quality naturally reproducing trout populations in Pennsylvania.

Thankfully, about half of our lot is wooded and the runoff from the highway is filtered through a rain garden before it reaches the stream. This perennial vegetation slows the stormflow that would carry sediment and attached pollutants from the road into the stream. Our woodlot, albeit small, intercepts and infiltrates water that could otherwise flood our home.

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Permanent vegetation, such as trees, shrubs and grasses, helps to slow runoff from surrounding land uses, provide habitat for beneficial insects, grow food and florals for your table or farm stand, slow erosion, and enhance water quality for your downstream neighbors and anglers. Perennial vegetation is the cornerstone of agroforestry—the intentional integration of trees into agricultural systems—or productive conservation.

Agroforestry practices can benefit farmers by mitigating heat stress to livestock (silvopasturing), reducing wind erosion and snowdrift (windbreaks), enhancing crop diversity (alley cropping), deriving crops from woodlots (forest farming) and reducing streamside erosion and contamination (riparian buffers).

Each of these practices can reduce flooding and flood damage by reducing and slowing the movement of rainwater, but streamside plantings of trees, shrubs, and grasses provide the last chance to slow and filter runoff before it reaches your stream. Apart from the ecological benefits, choosing edible native species such as elderberry, serviceberry, black chokeberry, pawpaw, persimmon, black walnut and American hazelnut can add diversity to your table and to your customers’ baskets. Silver maple and black walnut are adapted to grow along our streams and rivers and can be tapped for syrup. Even spicebush berries can be added to jams and jellies—and when dried can be used as “Appalachian allspice” to flavor soups and stews.

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The Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry and PASA are collaborating on a cookbook to celebrate our diversity of native foods. The cookbook will share information on native trees and shrubs that enhance our landscapes, as well as recipes that use the fruits and nuts produced! We invite you to submit your favorite recipes that include our native fruits and nuts. Our hope is that by sharing these foods with farmers and consumers through this cookbook, we can encourage productive conservation and reconnect to our native bounty.

To learn more about agroforestry in Pennsylvania, contact Tracey Coulter, Agroforestry Coordinator, Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry, at trcoulter@pa.gov.

Author: Melissa Cipollone