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Moorhead plants urban prairie to bring back pollinators

The plants will also help with water filtration and deter erosion into a nearby stormwater pond.

A man on his knees digs a hole to plant a flower.
Andrew Brownlow, of Fargo, volunteers his time to plant prairie flowers and grasses at Southside Regional Park on Thursday, July 21, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — Andrew Brownlow knelt on mowed grass beside a semicircle designed to bring back the prairie to urban areas. Gingerly, he slipped a swamp milkweed plug into a hole and packed the earth around it.

Three years ago, his wife sparked his interest in prairie grasses and indigenous flowers. Seeds are harvested from the Red River Valley, and the plant life that grows from them creates homes and food for pollinators. Their roots grow deep, preventing erosion, said John DeVries of United Prairie Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for prairie life.

Public interest has increased since the 2020 aerial spraying that led to a monarch butterfly massacre, said Sydney Stock, a volunteer with a flower-planting program organized by the city of Moorhead and Resilient Moorhead on five acres of land at Southside Regional Park.

A close-up of hands planting green plants in yellowed grass.
Swamp milkweed, hoary vervain, spiderwort, hyssop and many other flowers help build prairie areas, which are disappearing.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

A total of 2,500 small plants will be planted during the first phase of the project, said Moorhead Sustainability Coordinator Crystal Rayamajhi. The project at Southside Regional Park began after the city received a grant of about $50,000.

Stock, Brownlow, DeVries and others labored near a stormwater lake under the warm sun on Thursday, July 21. One person dug holes, another dropped the plugs — including hoary vervain, spiderwort, hyssop, ironweed, sunflowers, culver's root and other varieties — into the holes, while the rest packed the earth around each plant.

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By the end of the summer, the flowers might reach two feet tall if the rabbits don’t get them first, DeVries said. In a few years, the area that now grows turf grass should be a natural prairie habitat filled with pollinators and vibrant colors.

“Next year, when we come back here, there will be monarch butterflies, tons of them,” DeVries said, pointing out the plant that the butterflies like to mate on and another that they like to eat.

Two women plant greenery in a patch of dead grass.
Crystal Rayamajhi and Sydney Stock plant prairie grasses and flowers at Southside Regional Park in Moorhead on Thursday, July 21, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

“Prairie creatures are specialists, and if you lose one type of plant, you could lose five types of insects,” DeVries said.

“We’re trying to get the public to understand and accept prairie growth because it does so much good for the soil if you do it right. All these areas are just mowing, mowing, mowing. The prairie has been so far removed,” he said.

“Prairie is the most decimated type of ecosystem in North America,” Rayamajhi said.

The city of Moorhead signed the monarch pledge last year, Rayamajhi said, and since then the city has also been trying to promote prairie growth in backyards and parks.

“One plant can make a difference if you got some creature looking for something to eat. Garden as if your life depended on it, and that’s essentially what we’re doing,” she said.

Other agencies involved in the Southside Regional Park prairie planting include United Prairie Foundation, Wildlife Forever and the Minnesota DNR Conservation Partners Legacy Grant.

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Five people plant greenery in a strip of dead grass.
Volunteers plant plugs, and later seed will go down over a five-acre area at Southside Regional Park in Moorhead.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Not only will the prairie life return, adding color to long stretches of turf grass meant for summertime soccer, baseball and other outdoor activities, but the plants will also help with water filtration and deter erosion into a nearby stormwater pond.

In addition to the grants and support for larger acreage, Minnesota has mini grants from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. The payments are designed to allow residential homeowners the chance to turn their lawns into pollinator habitats under a program called Lawns to Legumes, which reimburses up to $350.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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