silver plains from east on 205 10JN27

approach to Silver Plains

The name Silver Plains was derived from the bright grasses growing in the area—Geographical Names of Manitoba, 2000; Page 252"When the grass seed has fallen, it has a bright colour."—when the area was first settled by Europeans in the late 1800s. In the intervening years there was a rudimentary start to a village centre which included a grain elevator, a general store, and a CN train station. By the mid-1990s, all that remained were two houses, an anhydrous compound adjacent to a nearby railway siding, and the "shed" and garage which is on the property being developed here. In 1997, Silver Plains, along with the entire Red River Valley, was under water. After the "flood of the century" one house (right next door) was relocated some distance away and another was abandoned (it was burned and the foundation was demolished in 2014). In 2007 the anhydrous compound was dismantled and removed.

Today several families, who reside within a couple of kilometres west and south of the site of the Silver Plains Project, consider themselves to be residents of Silver Plains.

out there on the plains

aerial view

aerial view

The property is on the north side of a secondary highway in the Rural Municipality of Morris, Manitoba, Canada. (Please note: The Town of Morris is a separate entity.) It is 1.987 hectares (4.91 acres) surrounded by farm fields in all directions with a couple of smaller vacant lots immediately to the west. Just beyond these lots is a service road then train tracks with a siding where local farmers used to load grain. There is a small grouping of trees on the adjacent lots and one, almost dead tree on the southwest corner of the site. With the exception of those few trees, hydro poles along the highway to the south, and occasional rail cars on the siding to the west, there is an uninterrupted view to the horizon which is reminiscent of the days before European settlement when Tallgrass Prairie extended in every direction, as far as the eye could see.

yard front 07NO07

west, front & east yard(s) ~ November 2007

east yard 07NO07

east & back yard(s) ~ April 2009

silver plains landscape - site

site plan

In the fall of 2002, the previous owner — with assistance from the Government of Manitoba — had the ring dike built to protect the yard and the two buildings on it from flooding. Accomplishing this led to making a dugout pond in a piece of land added on the northern edge of the site. The pond is the size of a Canadian football field and approximately 3.5 m (11.5 ft) deep when full. It fills each spring with water from melted snow from the surrounding area (including the highway ditch out front). When the highway ditch drains the flow is reversed; excess water in the pond runs back to the highway ditch then to the Red River, 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) to the east. Because of high water levels during periodic floods the pond has Asian carp and Bullhead catfish in it. (The carp are a significant problem — they stir up the bottom, which prevents aquatic plants from growing — but there is nothing we can do about them.)

pond 11AP05

pond ~ April 2011

pond 11AU29

pond ~ August 2011

Except for the dike, the site is almost flat with a total change in elevation of about 1.22 m (4 ft). The dike is 1.8 m (6 ft) higher than the lowest parts of the yard; the top of it is a 0.7 m (2 ft) higher than the level of the 1997 flood.

one extreme: periodic flooding

The Red River of the North flows north from between Wahpeton, North Dakota and Breckenridge, Minnesota to Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.
silver plains map

silver plains map
from Natural Resources Canada

The site of the Silver Plains Project is in the flood plain of the Red River of the North. As the topographic map illustrates, the elevation of the property is a little higher than most of the surrounding area and, prior to 1997, this site was spared from flooding. During the flood of 2009 — the second highest since 1826 — the site, inside the dike, stayed dry. High as the water was around the property it was much higher on the south side of the highway out front. Because of the highway, a short stretch between this site and the closest neighbours to the west remained above water while fields to the east, north, and south (of the highway) became temporary shallow lakes for about six weeks. Fortunately, road access to the site was not affected.

ditch highway east 09AP21

Silver Plains Project ~ 09AP21
The white spot on the side of the dike near the driveway is from sand bags
over the outside of a culvert which drains the east yard.

another extreme: a lot of snow

yard nursery 08MR09

back & west yard(s) ~ March 2008

silver plains landscape - winter

winter

Since having a dike built around it, the yard, inside the dike, can collect a lot of snow. All the snow melts in spring, of course, which often makes for temporary lakes. However, the property inside the dike drains quickly:

The west yard drains through the back yard to the east yard. The front yard drains to the east yard. And the east yard drains through the dike — by way of a culvert — into the highway ditch.

The two photographs below were taken just as the various culverts and ditches, inside the dike, opened upCulverts and shallow ditches are filled with ice at the beginning of spring thaw. When it melts the water flows. .

yard west front east 08AP15

west, front & east yard(s) ~ April 2008

yard east back 08AP15

east & back yard(s) ~ April 2008

The west, back, and front yards drain in about two hours. The east yard may require several days and some water stays behind to be absorbed into the ground. All of this happens before water rises on the outside of the dike if a flood is pending.

site drawing thaw

spring thaw

site drawing drainage

drainage

soil

This region of the Great Plains of North America was once the bottom of prehistoric Lake Agassiz. After glaciers to the north receded and the lake dried up this whole area was a deep bed of clay. The clay was eventually covered with what is called Tallgrass Prairie. During the 10 - 15,000 year period in which the grasses and forbs, et cetera, evolved and adapted, trees and shrubs were kept in check by dry lightning fires and grazing by huge herds of Plains bison, deer, and antelope. Once settled by North American aboriginals humans also set fire to the grass to flush out game and to clear out dense thatch. Over thousands of years periodic fires, regular grazing, and decomposition of what remained produced rich "black chernozemic" soil. In fact, it was the most productive soil on the planet. Subsequent farming, erosion, and grading has, however, altered the soil in much of the region. In fact, the soil on most of this site has a high clay content; for whatever reason the layer of clay/loam mix is gone. Today the soil here is what is called vertisolic. In areas that have been prepared for planting (no vegetation) visible crevices appear — especially on the top of the dike — when the soil dries out. They close when it is moist. In the meantime organic matter falls into the cracks; the soil is amending itself.

dry soil

dry soil

soil water

soil under water

Working this soil can be a challenge. It is like stone when almost dry, it crumbles and turns powdery when completely dry, and it's like thick stew when soaking wet. Yet, if conditions are right — when the soil is moist to moist/dry — it is very malleable. The soil distributes and retains water very well. Often, when it is dry and cracking on top, it is quite moist below the surface.

particulars

While there are a few pockets of the original black chernozemic, the soil is pretty much the same throughout the site. However, moisture conditions vary. There are six variables:









dry dry
moist dry dry/moist
moist moist
wet moist moist/wet
wet wet
wet aquatic
terrain

terrain

For the purpose of planting, we split the yard into seven regions. We intended to have different components of the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem growing in different parts of the yard. We have, however, found that the plants growing on site have "plans" of their own. As a result our original planting plan has been thrown out. We are currently following the plants' lead.

And, while not part of the property, the highway ditch is also to be replanted.









dry front
moist dry west
moist back
wet moist east
wet dike
wet pond
wet east ditch
wet highway ditch
regions

regions

We had also planned for the west yard to be a sedge meadow (artificial wetland) for which we installed irrigation. We have, however, realized that the east yard — where it drains through the culvert — is the natural wet area and keeping the west yard wet in dry years requires way too much water. As such, we will, in the next couple of years, begin moving the sedge meadow to the east yard.

west, front, east yard(s) ~ August 2014

west, front, east yard(s) ~ August 2014

Comments (3)

  • Courtney

    re carp, you can make a carp exclusion fence; my dad is involved with testing them in Netley Marsh for the Lake Winnipeg Foundation.

  • Alison Balciunas

    This is amazing! I am not starting from scratch like you, but we have an area in SW MB that has clay soil like you describe and my goal is to retain as much of its native flora as possible. Our farm is in a unique area, also surrounded by farmland, but we are in hills. We have such a diversity of plants and habitats in the area. From dry, open rolling hills to aquatic areas and everything in between. There is a marsh that separates our property, on one side, clay. On the other sand. Very interesting to me how drastically different these two areas, and the plants that grow in them, are. I would love to know more about the history of the area, plants, land and soil from a geological standpoint. This is inspiring! :)

  • Robert G Mears

    Thanks Alison for your kind words.
    I don't know a lot about the geology, except that when the glaciers retreated they left a mix of soils in their wake. Sand or gravel ridges being one of them. We, too, have noticed how different the vegetation is in different soils. Some will grow in both types, while others will only grow in their preferred soil.

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