Students help to seed an outdoor laboratory at Crestview Elementary

On a snowy Tuesday in March, dozens of giggling children assembled outside of Crestview Elementary in Cottage Grove for a very important job. Guided by volunteer bag fillers, wranglers, and mayhem avoidance coordinators, the students filled their hands with tiny prairie seeds and set to work creating an outdoor learning lab for their school.   

The project is one of seven campus greening projects underway at South Washington County Schools. At Crestview, the school is converting 2.5 acres of turf to prairie and rehabbing 7.5 acres of low-quality woodlands. The project also includes an outdoor laboratory for the students, as well as environmental education programming through Carpenter Nature Center.  

The diagram above shows the locations of habitat restoration efforts on the Crestview Elementary campus.

“Our hope is that future generations of Crestview students and staff will use these restored areas to learn about the science and beauty of Minnesota’s native plant and animal communities and be inspired to support a greener, healthier planet for us all,” said Tony Randazzo of the South Washington Watershed District, lead coordinator for the campus greening program. In addition to Crestview, the watershed district is also working with Lake, Middleton, Valley Crossing, Nuevas Fronteras, Grey Cloud, and Cottage Grove Middle schools on similar projects.

The South Washington Watershed District created its Campus Greening program to provide schools with an alternative way to meet their stormwater management rules during construction and redevelopment. Typically, when schools and businesses expand their parking lots and buildings, they build stormwater retention ponds to manage the extra runoff pollution that is generated. Instead, this program takes a more holistic approach that provides unique learning opportunities for the children. The campus greening project at Crestview will use less groundwater for irrigation, capture more rainwater on-site, and create habitat for wildlife.

Boy Scouts help to maintain native plantings installed at Lake and Middleton campuses three years ago.

Initially, the watershed district had planned to begin educational programming for the students at Crestview last spring. Due to complications with COVID, however, that programming has been postponed until the coming fall. Staff from Carpenter Nature Center will lead hands-on lessons for the students and coordinate a field trip to the nature center as well. Happily, the planting event this spring gave the kids an opportunity to get outdoors while some of the early habitat restoration work is underway and begin learning about prairies and native plants.

“Yesterday was fabulous,” said Cole Williams, a volunteer Minnesota Water Steward who helped out at the planting event. “The classrooms were engaged and asked great questions. They did a very good job helping spread seed; and I see so much potential for future work and teaching/interaction possibilities for the children attending Crestview.”

Purple prairie clover is one of the species seeded at Crestview Elementary last month.

In the open areas, students seeded a mix of native grasses, sedges and flowers that like sun and dry soils. Some of the species included: Side-Oats Grama, Little Bluestem, Prairie Dropseed, Plains Oval Sedge, Purple Prairie Clover, Black-eyed Susan, Anise Hyssop, Wild Bergamot, Blue Vervain, Common Ox-Eye, and Stiff Goldenrod.

In the shadier areas, the students seeded a very simple grass seed mix, comprised mostly of cool season grasses. The goal is to provide quick ground cover in areas where buckthorn was recently removed. Then, goats will be brought to the school in May to clear out new buckthorn when it pops up.  

South Washington Watershed District has worked with Washington County Parks to bring in goats for invasive species management. This spring, goats will be used at Crestview school as well.

Crestview serves 390 students, more than half of which are students of color. There are also a large number of low-income students at the school. In addition to funding provided by the South Washington Watershed District and South Washington County Schools, Crestview was also received a $49,920 Conservation Partners Legacy Grant from the Minnesota DNR to support habitat restoration and the creation of an outdoor learning laboratory.  

“It is through direct stewardship that a true relationship grows with an individual and the environment,” says Williams, “I’m excited to watch this site change and flourish.”