FortWhyte Alive’s lake edges are quietly undergoing a magical transformation, thanks to a bit of human effort and some amazing native plants.
FortWhyte Alive is a 660-acre space for humans to connect with nature. We are located in southwest Winnipeg and home to 5 lakes, many wetlands, aspen forests, grassland areas, and trails and facilities which are open year-round.
A close look into FortWhyte’s history shows an industrial past which damaged the land. The 5 lakes were excavated during Canada Cement’s clay mining operations in the area, starting in 1911. Bulldozers and other machinery left steep shorelines and a barren landscape.
As floodwater topped up the pits to form lakes, one by one, the 5 clay pits were rendered obsolete. Fish were stocked, waterfowl were released, and in 1966, a small group of nature-lovers established a new private, nonprofit organization which would grow up to be FortWhyte Alive.
Today, though FortWhyte’s shorelines host a variety of grasses and perennials, the steep banks continue to be prone to slumping and erosion, having a negative impact on lake water quality and wildlife habitat value. To combat this problem, FortWhyte has been gathering groups of volunteers to help improve our shorelines.
Expert advice from Manitoba Conservation Districts Association has us using native willows (Salix spp.), which quickly grow massive root systems to hold soil together. Willows are amazing shrubs, which already grow abundantly on FortWhyte’s property.
Starting willows for planting is almost a magical process. A rooting hormone called indolebutyric acid produced at the growing tips of branches means that clipped willow stems, when placed in a bucket of water, will produce adventitious roots. Willow water can even induce rooting in other shrubs, such as dogwood.
Our willow clipping crew meets up and heads out in advance to clip hundreds of stems for shoreline restoration sessions. We take early spring cuttings, trimmed before air temperatures rise above an average of 5 Celsius, or we cut in fall after leaf drop. Differently sized clippings have been used, from small stems 30 centimetres long and about the diameter of a pencil, or up to 1 metre lengths about 5 centimetres in diameter. Stems are soaked in water for 14 days or more. On planting day, we push or hammer the stems into the ground near water as deep as possible, so only about a thumb length appears above the soil surface.
Water is important for willows, so rainfall and proximity to the water’s edge are considered. Planting in spring can result in better success in a drier area. It’s really one big experiment! With these instructions, why not try to harness this botanical magic and plant your own willows on a shoreline in your own backyard or at the cottage? You’ll protect your property from erosion, and help support a healthy environment.
Interested in being involved in shoreline restoration at FortWhyte Alive? Join FortWhyte Alive and Seine-Rat River Conservation District’s Chris Randall on Saturday, May 4 from 10:00 am-3:00 pm to help install innovative natural erosion control materials and plant living willow stems.