In permaculture, water is one of the primary concerns because all life, from animals to plants to fungi to bacteria to permaculture designers, need it to survive. So, we aim to catch it, soak it into the landscape, and store it for not so rainy days. While rain barrels and water tanks are good for household water, the real loot in rainwater storage are dams and ponds. Even a relatively small dam can equate to thousands… tens of thousands… of liters of water waiting to be accessed.
The other great thing about ponds and dams is that they present the opportunity to produce literally tons of food every year. Small bodies of water have the potential to produce way more food per square meter than an equivalent piece of land. Different fish and shellfish can occupy different depths, and they more or less fend for themselves. Then, there are plants. Once established, edible aquatic plants are super low maintenance (no watering) and highly productive.
But, this article isn’t so much about what to cultivate in the pond as it is about what to grow along the edges of the pond. Edges are another positive in permaculture because they provide a melding of environments that is ripe for growing lots of things. Around ponds and along the back reaches of dams is a prime spot for growing useful plants and trees, and it is some of these that we’ll explore today.
Functions Of Plants Around The Pond’s Edge
Before delving deeply into individual plants that could fill this space, it’s worth noting some of the functions that these plants can perform:
1. Erosion prevention: The roots of these plants, particularly those with fibrous, matting roots like willows and grasses, can keep tight hold of the soil along the edge of the ponds so that it doesn’t erode into the body of water.
2. Food for wildlife: In addition to the plants themselves being fodder for forage fish, more relevant is the insects that flowering plants and trees attract. These insects inevitably hang around the water’s surface, feeding the fish and other predators, like frogs and lizards. The frogs and lizards, in turn, feed the bigger fish.
3. Habitat for wildlife: Animals love to be around water, and all of them, at some point, must visit it to drink. The trees and plants around a pond’s edge serve as shelter for all sorts of insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals to boot.
4. Nutrient absorption: Usually we think of plants in the water, such as reeds, as being helpful to absorb excess nutrients that might find its way into a pond, but the plants along the edge can help with that, too.
5. Shade: A shady spot is great for us humans to relax in, but animals like it just the same. When the days are hot and the sun is blazing, it’s good to have some shady spots around the pond where surface-dwelling creatures can find some refuge.
6. Pollinator Attractors: Lots of pond edge plants flower and are great for attracting bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. The more diverse the flora available, the wider the range of pollinators and bigger the population will likely be. Don’t leave out the pond edge in this eco-systemic design tool.
7. Food production: Without a doubt, there are tons of food-producing plants to be grown around a dam or pond. While the “well-drained soil” adage is so common as to be cliché, some plants are super thirsty and love living along shoreline, where the soil is frequently saturated.
Productive Plants That Will Grow By The Water
In reality, we can plant all sorts of stuff just a few feet from the water’s edge, where the ground is elevated and there is no worry with flooding, but the following are those plants that either prefer a boggy bed in which to lie or will be more cooperative with a constant source of water from which to feed.
Blueberries love acidic soil, which is often what we get at the edge of ponds, as well as plenty of moisture. They are great food for humans, if the wildlife doesn’t get them first. There are tons of varieties to choose from. Mulch them well with pine straw, and plant them in clusters to help with pollination.
Bulrushes, a type of sedge or genus Scripus, and not to be confused with cattails (Typha latifolia) are common in many of the temperate growing zones found in the United States. The young shoots and inner stalks can be eaten as vegetables, either raw or cooked, and the roots can be as well. The roots can also be dried and ground into flour.
Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) are not edible plants, but they are renowned for their medicinal value in traditional medicine, though it is now listed as toxic. The root has been used to treat epilepsy, stomachaches, cramps, worms, syphilis, typhoid, and so on, and a tea from the leaves treated headaches, fevers, colds, etc. The bright red, late summer flowers are also beloved by butterflies and hummingbirds. It’s a hardy perennial that naturalises well without being overbearing.
Elderberries (genus Sambucus) are another shoreline plant that provides a harvest of fruit, which is excellent for making jams and drinks. The blossoms also smell great and are edible. These shrubs are often growing wild along creek banks, so they are accustomed to having “wet feet”. Elderberry plants have been used medicinally for centuries.
Joe Pye Weed (Eurtrochium maculatum) is a favourite for butterflies. It has lovely plumes of pink flowers that bloom in the late summer or autumn, when flowers are generally on the decline. The whole plant, from root to flower bud, can be used as food as well. Its name comes from a medicine man, Joe Pye, who used it to cure typhus.
Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris) are comfortable in—surprise, surprise—marshy environs. Not only do they have edible parts (Warning: Must be cooked), but also they have early spring blooms to add some colour coming out of the wintertime. This plant does have a toxin, glycoside protoanemonin, that is destroyed by heat but is a pretty serious irritant until then.
Garden Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), though an annual plant, is great at self-sowing, not to mention the fact that they are beautiful, particularly cascading along and down a pond bank. Plus, this is a delicious edible with spicy flowers and leaves, as well as seeds that can be pickled as a low-rent caper. When in season, nasturtium will spread out and fill in as a ground-cover.
Nutsedges (Cyperus esculentas), like bulrushes, have a habit of making themselves a little too at home where they find things comfortable. However, just the same, “nutgrass”, considered a gardener’s nightmare and an invasive weed, has delicious, edible tubers with a flavour reminiscent of almonds. If harvested for food, maybe the spreading can be kept under control.
Scarlet Rose Mallow (Hibiscus coccineus), though not edible, has made the list for being a beautiful plant to have amongst the mix. It’s a type of hibiscus, so the flowers have amazing blooms (a la a Hawaiian shirt) and aroma to match. They are perennial shrubs that keep bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds coming back.
Weeping Willows are a classic waterside plant because their fountain of limbs just somehow seems appropriate next to the water. They also are very useful plants, great for erosion control, as well as creating natural root hormone for other plants. The branches can be used for crafts, wildlife loves them, and the bark has medicinal qualities.