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27 February 2020
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Water Works - Let the Digging Commence!

As work gets under way preparing land for wet farming trials in the Water Works project, there's a starring role for Sphagnum moss, with a strong supporting cast of bulrush, reeds and grain crops. Great Fen Restoration Manager Lorna Parker charts the exciting first steps.

water works digger in action

After many months in the planning and lots of enthusiasm and input from scientists, engineers, growers and construction experts we have taken our first steps in creating a new wet farming system this week.

Diggers, bulldozers and dumpers are working on a precision operation to create 10 planting beds and a water storage pool which will become home to hundreds of thousands of plants plugs of flowers, grasses and mosses which thrive in moist soil. The moisture in the soil will protect it from being lost through chemical reactions and erosion, offering a new way to reduce the carbon footprint of farming.

As soon as the first planting bed is complete we will be filling it with bulrush – an amazing super hungry plant which will strip the incoming water of impurities and feed clean water to the rest of the beds. This crop can be turned into fuel, building materials, animal feed and cavity wall insulation. The other beds will be planted with reeds, future grain crops, and flowers which could be the next thing in medicine or flavourings – think tasty beer or a new gin botanical!

Finally when the last beds are laid down to moss in the summer we will have planted the star of the show – Sphagnum moss – an amazing plant which sounds almost too good to be true, and could be one of the answers to climate change gas release from farming.

Excavating a drainage ditch

What’s so hot about moss?

The stars of our wet farming pilot are Sphagnum moss, a wonder plant with special qualities which already has a rich history of use - and could become a common sight on peaty farmland across the UK. Sphagnums are a group of beautiful mosses that grow naturally on bogs in the UK. They are simple plants with lots of tiny pores that suck up water from their surroundings: as well as absorbing 10 times more fluid than the same volume of cotton wool, they are naturally antiseptic – so have been used in bandages and nappies as recently as World War 1. The moss can gather moisture from the air in misty weather, collect rain water, and draw up soil water to where it is needed.

Once it grows into a continuous lawn, sphagnum can out compete weeds and doesn’t need fertiliser; the soil beneath is protected by remaining moist and, as the sphagnum grows, it can trap additional carbon and actually grow soil. One of the other key benefits of this moss is that you can harvest the top (it grows right back) then dry and mill the harvest to create a substitute for peat compost for growing seedlings. This means that we could grow our own ‘compost’ for vegetable producers and horticulturalists to use – preventing peat from being harvested from wild, natural bogs and wetlands and transported from as far away as New Zealand or China.

I’m also told by those in the know, that Sphagnum is a contender for the longest lived plants on the planet. Each strand of moss grows ever longer, with the bottom turning slowly into peat. As many of our bogs have been forming since the ice age some of the individual strands may have been alive for as long as 8000 years.

As part of the Water Works wet farming project research bursaries will be used to develop medicinal uses and technology to use living sphagnum walls to purify air in cities, thanks to the support of Players of People's Postcode Lottery. There really is no end to the potential of this future wonder crop!