As the sun rose over the valley one morning in October, Camilla Correll, Kristin Hall and a small cadre of volunteers were doggedly raking the earth at St. Croix Prep, completing the final preparations needed to plant ten acres of prairie later that morning. Two hours later, the school grounds were transformed into a giant dance party as 1100 children spread out and did the “Buffalo Stomp” while music blared from outdoor speakers and one of the teachers played deejay and emcee.
Correll and Hall, whose daughters attend St. Croix Prep, got the idea to transform the school grounds from a barren landscape into a bird and pollinator-friendly oasis early last year. As a water resources engineer for Emmons & Olivier Resources, Inc., Correll has designed dozens of projects locally that help to protect Brown’s Creek, the St. Croix River and other area waterways. Hall works for Audubon Minnesota, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect birds and their habitats.
Several years ago, St. Croix Prep had worked with the Middle St. Croix Watershed Management Organization (MSCWMO) to install a set of raingardens within a native planting, designed to capture runoff from one of the parking lots before it ran downhill to Stagecoach Trail, Perro Pond, and eventually the St. Croix River. The two moms saw an opportunity to expand the existing native planting and use it as a teaching tool for students at the school. To complete a project of this scale, however, they knew that they would need help, so they reached out to Tara Kelly, a landscape restoration specialist at the Washington Conservation District (WCD).
The first challenge was to find grants and donations to make the prairie planting affordable. Hall had already secured a $6000 grant from the Audubon Society (some of which came from McKnight Foundation climate funding), and Kelly found additional financial assistance through the Washington County Chapter of Pheasants Forever, which contributed $2500. In addition, MSCWMO provided a $1000 cost-share grant. Some of the seed came from Minnesota Native Landscapes, while some was donated by Pure Prairie Seed, a company in River Falls. In addition, Correll and Kelly harvested prairie seed for free from the existing planting at St. Croix Prep, as well as a prairie across the street in the Inspiration neighborhood. Even the local Bayport Fire Department chipping in, with a promise to take responsibility for burning the prairie every few years to ensure that it remains healthy and vibrant.
The second challenge came when rainy weather made it impossible to plant the prairie last spring, as originally planned. Though Pheasants Forever had worked to prepare the site for seeding, a burn failed to kill all of the weeds, which was a critical step to ensure that the future prairie would flourish. The school ended up hiring Minnesota Native Landscapes to eradicate the weeds and prepare the site during the summer, with a new goal of planting in the fall.
Meanwhile, Correll and Hall worked with teachers and staff at St. Croix Prep to develop a plan for planting with 1100 tiny volunteers that would ensure a meaningful and educational experience for all. For the big day, they recruited parent volunteers, as well staff from the MSCWMO and WCD to help. Being the engineer that she is, Correll decided to divide the grounds into a grid and assign each child a 10ft by 12ft square to plant with seed. Volunteers painted the grid onto the ground, using color-coding to designate sections for the lower grades. Each class received a bucket of seeds, instruction on how to plant the seeds so that they wouldn’t blow away, and an assigned area to plant. High school students helped the elementary kids to spread the seed, and when they were done, everyone danced and did the buffalo stomp to work the seeds into the soil. On the other side of the building, middle school students lined up and walked in two intersecting lines, sprinkling seeds as they went. Because it was gym class, the teacher had them run wind sprints afterwards to work in their seeds.
From idea to installation, Correll says that parents, staff and leaders at St. Croix Prep have been enthusiastic and supportive. The school had already created a Forest Management Plan, with help from parent Kirstin Yokum, and saw the prairie as another opportunity to manage the school grounds wisely and create new learning experiences. Already, the teachers are coming up with creating ways to teach about biology, ecology, math, technology and art in the prairie. With help from Jyneen Thatcher, who recently retired from the WCD, Sandy Schreyer’s high school class inventoried the current plants on site at the school and will keep records on the location and abundance of new plants as they appear each year. Meanwhile, Yokum worked with a group of students to create woodcuts of the plants and animals they expect to see in the prairie, which will be displayed as an art installation in the building’s entryway.
Even the youngest kids at the school have been learning about plants and animals as they watch their school yard transform. When asked if she was excited about the new prairie, one third grade girl summed it up perfectly saying, “Yes! I am so excited for the prairie to grow and get tall because you can play ‘hide and seek’ in it. And, I know that the butterflies and birds like prairie and I want to see the butterflies.”