Super Gardens

By Aimee Junget

Picture a large city parking lot paved in asphalt—perhaps in front of a school or a large government building. Now imagine a bunch of cars sitting in the lot all day with oil, gas, and probably some fertilizers hanging out on the pavement. Later in the day, a huge storm arrives, as they often do on humid days in Minnesota, and washes all of the substances the rain has collected both from the air and the pavement into stormwater drains and, eventually, into lakes and rivers. Kind of gross if you think about it, huh-- especially when you live in the “Land of 10,000 lakes”, home to the headwaters of the second largest river system in the United States. When I found out that the solution to this problem could be a garden I was a bit skeptical. Now, as our crew has worked on rain gardens for a couple different organizations—Metro Blooms and Chisago Soil and Water Conservation District—I am beginning to see the magic. Our crews are involved in many parts of the process: installation, maintenance, and other steps in between. A garden, both beautiful and cost-efficient, contributes to local communities in more ways than one.

Installing and performing maintenance on rain gardens is not always as glamorous as it may sound. Our crews spend hours a day pulling out anything from empty Cheetos bags to thistles as tall as a human from the garden. Nevertheless, the fun part comes when you get to put new plants in the ground and help establish new layouts and designs in the garden. Pictured below, you can see our crew planting Prairie Smoke, a personal favorite, into a garden in Taylors Falls. The idea is to plant native wildflowers that add color throughout the year as different forbs bloom at different times. Planting grasses helps to establish deep roots that are experts at absorbing and treating water. These super gardens contain inlets typically on slopes or at a low point among impermeable surfaces and take in any drainage. During the 24-48 hours following a big storm, the plants in the garden filter out toxins and slowly absorb the stormwater, reducing the amount that ends up in bodies of water.

Working with rain gardens has opened my eyes to some natural solutions to problems and makes me wonder what other ways we can use a combination of innovation and nature’s super powers to solve issues in our local communities.

Making conservation an adventure

By: Alyson Eversman

A heat index of over a hundred, mosquitoes biting at my skin, flies buzzing inside my ears, and the search for those invisible ticks is just an average day while working at Martin Soil and Water. Now, this isn’t the most ideal weather that people would like to work in, but as a summer intern, this is the majority of the weather conditions that I will be working in while serving my term. In this first month, most of my priorities include manual labor that involves nursery activities with different native seeds of Martin County and physically digging out those pesky invasive plants myself - an adventure.

How is that an adventure?

It’s definitely exhausting activities to do while the sun is bearing down, draining me of any energy or motivation. I’ll be honest and say that sometimes I think “What’s the point? Let’s just get back to the air conditioning” during those moments - even if I’m well hydrated. But when I know my thoughts are going this way, I try to gain a new perspective on my laborious conservation work – as if it’s just one big adventure. (Which it is.)

Is that even possible? 

Well yes, especially with a “bigger picture” mentality as well as working with awesome people. Having others experience the same weather and activities as me helps in the long run. But, I’ve also been blessed to have co-workers who make the manual labor fun by contributing positive attitudes and cracking jokes to keep us working. They are also great teachers so I learn a lot while tagging along with each co-worker’s day-to-day activities.

The conservation practices we do are sometimes like watching paint dry, but knowing the greater impact these practices will have in the future makes the tough job of painting more adventurous. The acres are like the bases of a canvas - just containing browns and greens (that should or shouldn’t be there). Later, seeds are added, another layer that just needs to dry. Then, in a few years, the color starts to show up. Bright orange from butterfly weed, light blue-purples from blue-flag irises, the various yellows of cup plant, ox-eye, and black-eyed Susans, and the pinks or purples from prairie phlox or clovers, along with multiple other colors filling up the canvas into a work of art.

For me, it’ll be easier to see this bigger picture of conservation practices in progress because I was honored to work as an intern in this same Soil and Water District last summer, so I am seeing and dealing a lot with the projects that I did last year. For example, I recently have been spreading seeds onto sites that I picked last summer, as well as maintaining the same sites from last year. By doing so, I have been able to see a lot of the sites develop more in this process and seen the beauty behind all of the long, hard hours I have been putting in. Knowing that what I am doing this summer will benefit the county, wildlife, and environment in the long run is how I picture all the sites of Martin Soil and Water - just masterpieces accomplished or waiting to happen.

I may get sun burnt, have multiple round mosquito bites on my skin, and be constantly on the look-out for ticks, but it’s all for the goodness of the conservation being put down within the county lines - a true summer long adventure.

Bucket full of thistles hand-pulled from a rain garden!

Bucket full of thistles hand-pulled from a rain garden!

The Spring in photos

By: Kristina Luotto

The summer solstice is upon us and the first full season of the Conservation Corps term is in the books. Throughout the spring season, I have traveled all over central and southern Minnesota (and even spent one day in Wisconsin!). I have seen the landscape transition from winter to summer, met many new people, and put in a lot of hard work. Here are some photos of the places the Conservation Corps has taken me.

Late March: The wind chill had everyone bundled up for this project. We were working on a calcareous fen, a unique wetland area with lots of rare plant species. The fen had become overgrown with buckthorn, choking out all of the cool, rare plants. We spent the day cutting down large buckthorn and dragging them out of the fen to a wood chipper. The hard work helped to keep us warm!

Early April: Burn season was upon us! The snow had melted, leaving dry prairie grass ready for restorative burns. A crew from the Northwest district joined our Rochester crew and we traveled to Wisconsin for this burn. The fire was hot and spirits were high.

Mid April: Temperatures were moving above freezing, allowing the ground to thaw for some spring tree planting. Our work planting these little seedlings helped set up a University of Minnesota research study that will evaluate control methods for reestablishing flood plain forests. We ended the day covered in mud, but also feeling accomplished with the thousands of young trees, like this oak, that we had planted.



Late April: April turned into a wet month with a lot of rainfall. This day near Marshall, MN was supposed to be a burn day, but the wet weather set back our plans. Pictured is the crew with a Minnesota Department of Agriculture employee checking the sites where the invasive Palmer amaranth plant was reported last fall.

Early May: Burn season resumed with a week spiking in Paynesville, Minnesota. Our crew worked with a crew from The Nature Conservancy to do prescribed burns on lands they manage. Since there are so many lakes in central Minnesota, there was always a water source near the burn unit we could draft water from. Here, a crew member is filling up our type-7 engine with water from a nearby lake.

Mid May: The world came into bloom! After a long winter with bare tree branches, we were graced with green leaves and fragrant blooms. One of my favorite parts of the Conservation Corps is walking through the woods and admiring all the flowers. May was full of fresh blooms like this cherry tree.

Late May: Garlic mustard season was in full swing! Garlic mustard is a super invasive plant that can carpet entire woodlands. In the spring, we spent time pulling the plant out by the roots and hauling them out in garbage bags. One upside of this work is hiking through beautiful wooded areas. With the weather warming up in late May, we stopped to dip our feet in this natural pool while out in the woods pulling garlic mustard one day.

Early June: At the beginning of June, I was able to attend the Minnesota Fire Academy and take the Firefighter Type I class with other Conservation Corps members. On the way back to Rochester, we stopped at the Hinckley Fire Museum, an important site in the history of fire in Minnesota.

Mid June: The days are long and warm. My crew has been spike camping at Sibley State Park, where the sunsets over the lake are beautiful. The work day consists of work on an esker, an ridge created by glacial flow, to preserve the prairie. Sumac (pictured), a short shrub, creates shade all summer long, shading out the native prairie plants. Our crew used brush saws to set back the sumac in order to allow the native prairie plants to grow.

Bridges and bugs

By: Erika Birnbaum

Stretching over 300 miles, the Superior Hiking Trail starts south of Duluth at the Minnesota/Wisconsin border and winds up the North Shore to just south of the Canadian border. It is a part of the Arrowhead spur of the North Country Trail that starts in New York and follows the Great Lakes ending in North Dakota. While the maintenance of these trails is managed by local volunteer groups, the National Park Service is the head overseer of the North Country Trail. 

The Duluth crew was part of this cooperation of volunteers and NPS to start work on new bridges just north of Grand Marais. While final construction won't happen until materials can be brought in by snowmobiles, Duluth completed the footings and cribbing for the new bridges. One bridge was prepped over a deep ravine next to the existing bridge. The other bridge had been washed out underneath at its current location so a new site/short reroute of the trail was in order.

Duluth cleared trees on both sides then created a temporary bridge of rocks over the stream. The longest task was finding the best spot for the footing and getting both sides square to each other. Ready mix concrete was used to fill the frames. With the help of a retired skyscraper construction superintendent the crew members of Duluth all got the opportunity to learn mixing, pouring and folding the concrete to get strong footings. The one footing that needed a crib to get up to height had a template over it and rebar was set in while the concrete was still wet. After the concrete had set, the crib of 6x6 lumber was slid onto the rebar. Extra concrete and rock filled the crib to finish out Duluth's contribution to the bridges.

After finishing up the footings Duluth spent the afternoon making a short floating boardwalk in a low area. Since it had a tendency to be muddy instead of a running stream, a simple structure was done. Four by fours were cut and laid out on the muddy trail while planks were placed in pairs. The final result was a simple boardwalk that will move up and down with the changes in the trail.

During all of the work and at the crew's campsite at Devil's Track the bugs were out in full force. Long sleeves and big nets were the only successful way of keeping them from biting. As enjoyable as building the bridges was, Duluth spent the week scratching and swatting.