Wetlands Project Brings New Life To Putnam Farm

by Ryan Bray
Drusy Henson, chair of the Orleans Conservation Commission, observes a pond at Putnam Farm that was cleared of overgrowth last week. The clearing is part of an effort to restore the pond and a neighboring shrub swamp to their natural condition.  RYAN BRAY PHOTO Drusy Henson, chair of the Orleans Conservation Commission, observes a pond at Putnam Farm that was cleared of overgrowth last week. The clearing is part of an effort to restore the pond and a neighboring shrub swamp to their natural condition. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – For years, the two wetlands situated in the center of Putnam Farm were shrouded in overgrowth, so much so that they were barely recognizable, even up close.

But on Wednesday of last week, a pond sat in clear view, while work was underway nearby to clear a shrub swamp that had similarly become overgrown.

“We’re going to have to keep up with all the invasives,” said Drusy Henson, who chairs the town’s conservation commission. “We have a great head start because we just ripped them all out.”

The wetlands restoration project has been close to a year and a half in the planning, spurred on by a $15,000 donation from Orleans residents Hardie and Marcie Truesdale. The donation was used to enlist the services of Tom Biebighauser, a wetlands biologist based in Kentucky, who surveyed the wetlands in March of last year and prepared a plan for restoring the areas back to their natural condition.

The goal of the restoration effort, which Henson said altogether cost about $40,000, is to bring back native plants, pollinators and different wildlife, which can be beneficial to the community farming plots that are situated around the wetlands.

“Over the years, we’ll get to see all the new critters that come and all the new plants that thrive,” Henson said. “Hopefully all the pollinators will really help out all the growers. That’s the thing. It’s really synergistic with all the growers around us.”

Biebighauser and Ian Ives, director of Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable, have together developed 16 wetland projects on the Cape, most of which Ives said are smaller projects that serve as “living labs” for school age children.

At a time where more and more wetlands nationally are being drained and filled in, Biebighauser said the Putnam project is evidence of what can be done when a community decides to take action to improve its natural resources.

“Most of the wetlands that are being built nowadays are being built because people have to build them,” he said. “Somebody fills in a wetland and then the government says ‘You need to replace it.’ We’re building these wetlands because we want to help the environment.”

In particular, Ives said the Putnam project is unique in that it involves the restoration of sandplain grassland, which he said is one of the rarest habitats in New England.

“They used to be here in large numbers when we were farming, but now that the farming is over it’s all grown in,” he said. “There are 20 plant species alone that are endangered that call their home sandplain grassland.”

The pond, which has been excavated to a depth of about six feet, will be home to two vernal pools and a wet meadow area, Henson said. The hope is it will provide a fruitful habitat for a number of species, including turtles.

“The pond will be warmer, which is better for some of the little critters,” she said. “There’s more sun and it’s way more open, so we’re hoping things like bats and more ducks and those types of things will come and use it more.”

Across from the pond, an excavator courtesy of AmA Excavating and Timray Backhoe of Brewster was at work Wednesday removing brush and soil in the swamp. Cape Cod Disposal Co. of Eastham was also onsite last week.

Green flags set in the swamp mark protected areas where native plants such as blueberries and winter berries will be given space to flourish.

“And we discovered swamp azaleas this morning,” said Judith Bruce of the conservation commission.

“We have swamp azaleas? Cool,” Henson said.

The swamp will also have vernal pools, which like those at the pond will ideally attract turtles, birds and insects such as bees that can help farmers by feeding on mosquitoes.

The clearing and excavation work done last week alone will have benefits to the wetlands, allowing sunlight to warm the waters and make the areas more inviting to different species.

“It’s got room, it’s got sun, it’s gonna get heat, and it should all start regenerating,” said Rick Francolini, a volunteer and Putnam advocate.

Later this spring, the soils excavated from the wetlands will be used to create wet and dry meadow areas on the farm. The soil will be seeded before being left to rest during the summer.

Henson estimated it could take between two and three years for the work to restore the wetlands to bear fruit. But Ives said the end results will be noticeable.

“It’s like yeast,” Ives said. “You add water and stuff comes up.”

Conservation officials and volunteers say the restored wetlands can also open future educational opportunities at the farm. The particulars of what forms those might take have yet to be worked out, Francolini said.

“Figuring out what the infrastructure looks like for education, that’s a little bit more of a challenge,” he said. “The town is not equipped to do that. We have to look into partnerships with [Mass] Audubon or the [Orleans] Conservation Trust or whatever and figure it out.”

Interest in Putnam has grown in recent years, especially as the farm has opened itself up to use by community growers. There are now 20 plots on the farm, eight of which have just been assigned and will start being farmed this spring, Francolini said.

“It’s nice to see,” said John Jannell, the town’s conservation agent. “It’s always nice to see when the community gets excited about this parcel.”

Bruce said in visiting Putnam, she often hears the sound of peepers from another nearby wetland. She’s hopeful that over time, evidence of different species will similarly be heard at Putnam.

“To improve and expand a wetlands system is fabulous,” she said. “It just never happens.”

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com