Update on the New Ulm School Prairies

This article was a collaboration with Grace Vosen and is an update to an article in our August 2019 newsletter.  Read the original piece here (navigate to page 5).

The New Ulm (Minnesota) area is seeing a renewed interest in prairie.  Residents, and especially educators, are working to understand the history of prairies and to restore them on the landscape.  Since 2017, TPE’s Many Rivers Chapter has been partnering with two local schools to create outdoor classrooms.

Our chapter has been tending to a 3/4-acre prairie planting at New Ulm’s middle school.  After three growing seasons, we seem to have gained the upper hand on undesirable species left in the seed bank.  This spring, Steven Gahm and I grew some seedlings and planted them in a corner of the plot that is easy to weed.  We hope that these prairie plants will show passersby that the site is being tended.  We also plan to re-seed the entire lot this fall.

Plant identification plot at New Ulm High School. Photo by Jim Vonderharr

Amber Gremmels, the middle school science teacher who initiated the project, has since become a member of TPE.  She says that while it took hard work, the planting has played an important role in familiarizing her students with nature.  “Many middle school students have the misconception that anything other than a lawn, purposefully planted garden, or landscape space is weeds,” says Amber.  “My hope is that I scratch the surface as far as helping our youth understand ecosystem dynamics, and how decisions within a community impact those dynamics.”  To date, Amber has used the planting for lessons in phenology, qualitative and quantitative nature observation, and edible plants.

Meanwhile, the high school prairie project looks very promising.  In 2019, we worked with science teacher Matt Nelson to create plant identification plots in the learning space outside of his classroom.  We planted 48 single-species plots of two feet by four feet.  Because we used seedlings, this site is a ready-made display of prairie diversity.  We also planted a variety of native shrubs and trees.  A few were lost over the winter, but most still stand.

Both projects are off to a great start but have been slowed by CoViD-19.  Students haven’t been at the schools since March, and student “sweat equity” was a big part of our plan to keep the plantings in working order.  We will need to come up with a creative solution that considers the health of the students as well as the prairie.

We want to thank the New Ulm Chapter of the Izaak Walton League for helping us solve the problem of cost.  Brad Gaard (also a TPE member) is our contact there who provided the funding.  It should be noted that this group is in the process of developing a piece of prairie on their own property just outside of New Ulm.  Thanks also to the TPE team working on these projects: Henry Panowitsch, Gary Rathman, Jim Lynch, and Jim Vonderharr.  We hope to continue partnering with local institutions to make education a major goal of our operations.

New Ulm High School's outdoor classroom. Photo by Jim Vonderharr


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  • Susan Lordi Marker
    commented 2020-09-06 06:54:41 -0500
    Suggestion: with a small prairie planting you may want to eliminate any Indian grass. In several years it will take over the entire plot. Stay with the shorter grasses like drop seed , side oats and little blue. I’ve been through this- the Indian grass took over in about 10 years.it was a monoculture. I had to start all over! Now it is very diverse with forbs and shorter grasses that share the space. Learn from my mistake. But what a great project for the students you started!