Making Your Ditch More Eco-Friendly
Historically, ditches have served the purpose of quickly moving floodwaters away from our properties and roadways. Ever notice that when it rains local waterways sometimes look like chocolate milk? That’s because of all the sediment in the water that got there because of erosion. When a ditch has been sprayed with an herbicide or scalped with a weed wacker there are no longer any root systems to hold soil in place and the banks erode. The loose soil is then carried into local waterways like the Nanticoke River and then into the Chesapeake Bay. For fish, soil in the water is like is like smoke in the air for humans. Excessive sediment in the water also blocks light from reaching the bottom, which can kill bay grasses and oysters. These aquatic plants add oxygen to the water through photosynthesis and provide critical habitat for young fish and shellfish. Aquatic plants also help reduce wave energy, thereby further reducing the erosion that occurs on the banks of tidal rivers and bays.
By planting native plants in your ditch, you can help reduce the amount of erosion that will occur and help protect the health of the Bay and other local waterways. Native plants have root systems that are much more extensive than the typical turf grass that is commonly seen lining ditches. These root systems help hold the soil in place while also allowing for more water to soak into the soil around the roots, which can reduce storm surge downriver during rain events. Native plants in your ditch will also help to reduce the amount of pollutants, like phosphorus and nitrogen, that can wash off the land and into waterways.
Ditches act as key conduits for pollutants to get from the land into the Bay. Excess nutrients that wash off the land fuel algal blooms, which block sunlight and kill bay grasses. Plants reduce the amount of pollutants that reach our waterways by allowing more nutrient rich water to soak into the ground. Nutrients dissolved in in this water will be used by the plants and will not be freely released into ditches.
Buffers, or wide areas of protected land that minimize the effects of development on the surrounding environment, are used to combat this problem but they might not be possible everywhere. Designer ditches are similar to buffer zones, but are meant to beautify your yard while helping to make it more eco-friendly. Native plants are accustomed to the environmental conditions of this area, so they do not require as much maintenance once established. They also provide food and habitat for critters native to this area as well, including important pollinators that are vital to our natural areas’ success and many family farms.
Colony collapse disorder is affecting bees across the world and there is no clear reason why populations are declining so quickly. With about 1/3 of our food coming from plants pollinated by bees, this is an issue that will affect everyone. One of the best ways that you can help support these important insects is by planting native plants and wildflowers. A particularly important way to support bees, butterflies and other pollinators is to plant flowers that offer them food in early spring. Many insects, like bumblebees, have been hibernating since autumn. As the weather warms, these insects become more active and need plenty of food and energy. Plants that flower in early spring can be a critical for the survival of hungry pollinators who have not had much to eat in a while.
Designer ditches are a great way to make your yard more eco-friendly, but proper care must be given to the plants and ditch to ensure that it does not end up causing more harm than good. Regular weeding is necessary and the removal of woody material is imperative to avoid blockages and flooding of ditches. Ditches should not be a burden, but those interested in designer ditches should be aware of the implications of a poorly maintained designer ditch.
How It’s Made:
Designer ditches are a great way to help reduce the amount of pollution and sediment that reach the Bay. Their structure is the same as any other ditch, aside from the fact that these ditches are lined with native plants.
Zone 1 is the bottom of the ditch. This area is generally wet and will hold water at times. Marsh plants should be used in this area because of their tolerance for standing water. When planting this zone be careful to ensure that plants will not get washed away or cause unnecessary obstruction to the flow of water. This could lead to flooding and problems with drainage.
Zones 2 and 4 are situated along the sides of the ditch. These areas will be very wet at times but will not hold standing water. Plants that can tolerate both wet and dry conditions are suggested for use. Zone 4 is the slope that is closer to the road. Road maintenance crews regularly mow and maintain roadsides so it is important to make sure that you clearly mark the beginning and end of your designer ditch with “No Mow Zone” signs that let road crews know that your native plants are meant to be there and should not be mowed*.
Zones 3 and 5 are the areas around the top of the ditch. These zones will not be nearly as wet as the other zones and should be planted accordingly. Planting in these areas is helpful in filtering run off before it reaches the ditch as well as creating more habitat for birds, butterflies and other local wildlife. Zone 3 is the side closer to your yard and can be planted with larger natives that offer a barrier between your yard and the road. While you want to keep the ditch free of woody materials, trees and shrubs can be planted in zone 1 to really give your ditch a professional look. Zone 5 is closer to the road and is located in an area that is usually always mowed by road maintenance crews*. When planting in this area it is suggested to use plants that grow no larger than two feet to avoid obstructing motorist’s line of sight. “No Mow Zone” signage must be used if this zone has been planted because road maintenance crews regularly mow these areas.
*Depending on ownership and maintenance roles you may want to leave Zones 4 and 5 as mowed lawn.
Building a designer ditch is easy if you know what you’re doing. Luckily the NWA wants to help you create your own beautiful designer ditch.
What you’ll need:
- Aquatic Approved Herbicide
- Native Plants and Grasses
- Compost (optional)
Spray with an aquatic approved herbicide a few weeks before planting. Do not clean up the dead grass; the new plants will be planted within the dead turf grass to prevent erosion until the plants have grown and spread.
A beautifully landscaped ditch can be a great addition to your yard and even improve property values. Native plants are suggested for use because they have evolved for thousands of years to survive on the peninsula. They require less maintenance once established and provide excellent habitat for native critters like the monarch butterfly and other local wildlife. Some native plants also provide critical early spring food for pollinators, which are vital to this region’s family farms. Click here for examples that will help you start designing your own ditch.
A variety of plants must be selected thanks to the different levels of moisture found in different parts of the ditch. Wetland plants are suggested for use in the middle zones, while drought tolerant plants should be planted on the sides and upper zones. You should also think about the environment in which the plants will be living. Is there often more sun or more shade? Is there frequently standing water? Does the roadway receive a lot of salt during the winter? Salt tolerant plants can be purchased for use on the road side of the ditch if you do receive larger amounts of salt in the winter. Click here for a list of Native plants selected by zone.
Below are some resources that can be used to find and purchase native plants:
Native Plants in MD, VA, WV: a resource to find native plant nurseries in Maryland.
Native Plants in DE, NJ, NY: a resource to find native plant nurseries in Delaware.
Adkins Arboretum: a link to the arboretum’s nursery, which sells native plants.
US Fish and Wildlife Service: locations of native plant nurseries in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Planting your Ditch
Once you have designed your ditch and selected your plants it’s time to start getting them in the ground. Plant your native plants among the dead turf grass to help them stay in place as their roots begin to take hold. Be careful not to overcrowd plants as they need room to grow.
Do not plant any shrubs or woody plants in the bottom or along the side of the ditch to avoid possible problems with blockages and flooding. Make sure that the plants you put in Zone 1 have been pushed firmly into the soil so there is a reduced chance of them floating up and out of the soil and being washed away downstream.
Once all your plants are in place be sure to water them to help the soil settle in around the newly placed roots.
After you have planted, the ditch will need to be weeded approximately every two weeks. Plants will also need to be watered frequently during the first two years growing seasons. Once the plants have grown and filled in, much less maintenance will be required.
Since the ditches play an important role in flood control it is important to trim and remove any woody material from the ditch in the fall. This will help water pass through unimpeded and ensure downstream pipes don’t get clogged.
Keep an eye out for any areas that appear to be eroding. These areas can be planted more densely or, if needed, stones can be placed in the area to prevent erosion.
DO NOT MULCH YOUR DITCH. Mulch can get washed away and clog pipes downstream.
Ideally water should soak into the ground or flow downstream within 3 days to avoid mosquito breeding. If water is sitting, mosquito management options need to be considered.
Designer Ditches Handbook:
Designer Ditch Site Plans:
Plant Selection and Photos:
The Nanticoke Watershed Alliance wants to thank Environmental Concern and Frank McShane for creating these layouts, informational booklet and the list of native plants. Use these tools to get started creating your own Designer Ditch that can help reduce pollution and support local wildlife.