The Green Beat

By Anna Waugh

Spring has finally arrived, and that means that the big patch of weeds behind Olin Rice is about to blossom into a prairie with over 70 different species of native plants, including compass plant, big bluestem and various wildflowers. In past years, the prairie has not been much to look at – prairie plants take a few years to establish themselves – but the wait is over, and this year that little pit is ready to put on a show.The “guiding force” behind the project is Macalester alum Tom Ibsen ’93, who became interested in prairies after environmental science professor Mark Davis’ 2004 senior seminar came up with the idea of planting an example of St. Paul’s natural history on campus to help reduce pollution and bring biodiversity and beauty to campus.

After meeting with the class, and deciding on the location, Ibsen, a national park ranger, sowed the prairie seeds by hand in November 2004 in what had been an underused sand volleyball court.

“[The space was] always full of water runoff from the parking lot [next to the Athletic Center], Ibsen said. He also noted that the space was not a good location for volleyball, but a perfect environment for a wet mix prairie with Black-Eyed Susans and goldenrod.

“One thing that’s been challenging is it’s a long process,” Ibsen said. “There are plants that still have only two leaves on them, but their roots are probably 12-feet deep. It takes a while to get established.” In the first few years, it takes a lot of weeding.

“While prairie will eventually outcompete ‘weeds,’ it is important to remove exotic invasives before they can set seed,” Ibsen said. Two interns have helped him with maintenance each season, including Nancy Li ’08 this spring.

“Many people pass by [the prairie] but may pay no attention because until recently it was buried under snow and water. At the moment, it’s still a little early and plants are just starting to pop out of the ground so it looks like a large hole. I want people to know that this space exists for a reason, and to look forward to what will grow there as the days pass,” Li said.

Another part of prairie maintenance is performing a yearly burn.

“Last spring, we conducted a series of small controlled burns of selected portions of the prairie and hope to follow this up with burns this spring,” Ibsen said. “Burning stimulates the growth of plants and damages weeds which tend to sprout earlier in the spring.” It also helps to make the soil darker so that it can absorb more heat, he added.

Beyond its aesthetics, the prairie serves as a stop for bioremediation, breaking down petroleum distillates from gasoline and oil runoff from the parking lot. This is especially important because of a drainage pipe that runs directly from the culvert to the Mississippi River.

“The prairie is now ready to be unveiled to campus and I would like to introduce students to the prairie and all of its wonders,” Ibsen said. He will be hosting a tour of the prairie Sunday at two o’clock.

Are you addicted to Green Beat? Do you love to write? Our Green Beat correspondent, Anna Waugh, is graduating and we are looking for an eagle-eyed environmental reporter to take over Green Beat next year. If you are interested, please e-mail Anna Waugh at [email protected]