Uses of Marsh Land

An expert on natural development offers some food cultivation tips for marsh land.
By John Quinney
July/August 1983
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The suitability of marsh land for wild rice or any other other crop depends on water pH and soil conditions.
Photo by Fotolia/jdwfoto

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Our family lives on several acres of “serpentine pine barrens” in a lovely rural area of southeastern Pennsylvania. The land is swampy at its lowest point, which adjoins a large pond, and our water is remarkably alkaline. We're thinking about growing wild rice there, but we've been unable to find a source of seeds and plants. How do you suggest that we use our marsh land, keeping in mind our desire to work with the resources at hand, rather than alter the landscape?

Using the resources at hand as your base is a good perspective to bring to land development, whether your aim is agriculture, forestry, wildlife enhancement or whatever. Unfortunately, in response to the scant information you've given, I can only make two general suggestions about managing your property: First, very carefully define your goals for this piece of the countryside, considering the entire site as you do so. Then gather information about all of your resources (soils, water, on-site vegetation, climate, skills, dollars, markets, materials available, and so on) that you can use to meet those goals.

To give more specific suggestions, I'd need the answers to several questions. Are you trying to produce most of your food on this property, create a wildlife habitat, or establish a small business? Would the wild rice take care of most of your grain requirements, or would it be only a supplementary element? Is it possible to fulfill the large part of your grain needs more easily by raising a crop elsewhere on your land? Are you looking at the pond as a major or additional source of protein (or don't you eat fish at all)?

In any case, you can purchase wild rice (Zizania aquatica). The plant can be sown in water 6 inches to 3 feet deep, provided the area is connected with a stream. But it doesn't tolerate an environment that's salty or highly alkaline. Because your own pond is quite basic, you probably shouldn't attempt more than a small trial planting (broadcasting the seeds in fall or spring), until you learn if wild rice will grow there at all.

You might consider cage culture of fish in your pond, if the species it contains are desirable. This method of raising fish at high density has the advantages of easy feeding and harvesting. [EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information, consult the Fish and Wildlife Service and see the article Farming Fish in Cages.] 

Your marsh is also potentially productive. Obtaining the highest yield from it depends on matching useful plants with their appropriate niches. For example, some species prefer the edge environment between the marsh and drier land, while others grow beneath the water or are rooted in the bottom mud with their tops emerging above the waterline. To help you estimate the feasibility of further expansion, I'd suggest that you grow trial plantings of the following crops: Japanese millet (Echinochloa crus-galli), duck-wheat (Fagopyrum tataricum), chufa or nut grass (Cyperus esculentus), sesbania (Sesbania macrocarpa), bushy pondweed (Najas flexilis), wild celery (Vallisneria spiralis), elodea (Anacharis canadensis), and watercress (Nasturtium officinale).

John Quinney is the research director at the New Alchemy Institute

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