Multi-cropping is a common agricultural practice that is used to get more production out of one of piece of land. In Missouri, you often see this when wheat is planted in the winter and soybeans follow in the summer. At first glance, natural habitats like wetlands may seem to be quite different. However, if you look closer, multiple “crops” occur here as well.
A Different Discovery
This month as I walked across a wetland unit at Duck Creek Conservation Area I noticed that nature had a slightly different twist to double cropping. As I was walked across the mudflats along the edge of shallow water and the light green carpet of small seedlings of wetland plants, I noticed something stretching out between these two temporary boundaries. It was a mat of decaying vegetation, with narrow stems intertwined like a muddy mess of angel hair pasta. I had seen this plant before in its greener form last fall as I stooped over to pick up my decoys at the end a waterfowl hunt. You may remember I highlighted common water starwort in my “Whole Foods” article. It’s an annual plant that grows under the water during the fall and winter instead of during the “normal” growing season.
With the attempted draw down in the past month, this plant has begun to die back. Algae, microbes, and a slew of plant shredding bugs began to dive into the temporary buffet that was extended by the recent rain events. Along the higher flats where water disappeared, but the soil has stayed moist and saturated, the wild millet seeds have germinated from the seed bank and started sending small green shoots stretching skyward.
This is when it hit me square in eyes. I know wetlands are productive. I’ve read it in books and I’ve learned it through my education. Heck, I’ve seen it firsthand by catching buckets full of critters teeming with bugs, tadpoles, fish, and crawdads. But, here before me, I saw a completely different example of how productive these habitats are through the evidence of multiple “crops” being produced within the same wetland pool in a single year. The diversity and differences among species in these wetlands naturally cultivate a multi-cropping system. In the fall I happened to stumble upon the growth of the common water starwort in the cool season. This small plant provided nutrients to ducks through the consumption of their small narrow leaves. Now the remaining nutrients were being released as the rest of the plants decomposed on the mudflats. Similar to soybeans coming in after winter wheat, millet is the secondary crop that is now taking advantage of the warmer growing season. As the millet grows, it will set seed and be the basis for first flooded food available in the coming fall.
While the average person may not recognize wetland plants as crops, they are in fact part of the complex wetland food web linked by a continuous cycle of growth and decay. While my observations include just two plants, many other species also grow under alternate times and conditions throughout the year, which is why wetlands are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. Sometimes it just takes a walk and a closer look along the mudflats to see this twist on multi-cropping.
photo credit – U.S. Department of Agriculture