Willmar going native with new wildflower plantings in city parks
As concern for the wellbeing of pollinators such as bumblebees and butterflies continues to rise, the city of Willmar and the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District are creating eight new pollinator habitats. Seven city parks will now include native wildflower and grass plantings, which will provide food and habitat for birds and pollinators along with a beautiful place for humans to enjoy.
WILLMAR — For hundreds, if not thousands of years before European settlers arrived in Minnesota, the landscape of southwest Minnesota was one of prairies and wetlands, an environment filled with various grasses and wildflowers and habitat to birds, bees, butterflies and other animals. Today, less than 1% of that native prairie still survives.
Starting this summer, the city of Willmar, with help from the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District, is hoping to recreate a bit of that lost prairie wilderness within several of its own parks.
"Pollinator habitat just seemed like the natural fit," said Ryan Peterson, RIM coordinator at SWCD.
Grow instead of mow
Willmar has 37 different city parks, and many of them have large open green spaces. While some of those areas are used for things such as pick-up soccer matches or just areas for kids to run around in, there is also plenty of empty lawn that is underutilized.
"We noticed we were mowing a lot of acreage," which costs the city in time and money, said Paul Tinklenberg, Willmar Public Works foreman.
Instead of continuing just to mow and maintain areas that aren't being used, Tinklenberg began to look for another option. A nature lover himself, who is concerned about the plight of pollinators, he thought it would be a grand idea to plant native wildflowers and grasses in areas across the city parks.
"I love to set aside acreage," for these kinds of conservation projects, Tinklenberg said.
Working with the SWCD, the two parties began investigating where the best spots would be for these prairie restoration plots. At first, there were about 20 potential sites, but that was reduced to seven sites with eight plantings. Parks with these plantings are 2.1 acres in Valleybrook, 2 acres in Swansson, 1 acre in Ramblewood, 1 acre in Southview, 1.8 acres in Pleasantview, 1.9 acres in Sunrise and 1 total acre in two spots on either side of Robbins Island along the lakes' shores.
To fund the project, the SWCD applied for and was awarded a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Partners Legacy Grant. The project was given around $22,000 to purchase seed and pay for other work needed on the sites.
"Converting the prairie was not cheap, and the cost of putting it back is not cheap either," Peterson said.
Tinklenberg and Peterson had hoped to get a start on the project last year, but with the drought, planting was pushed back to late June 2022. The seed being planted is a high-quality mix of native wildflowers and grasses, with about 75% being flowers.
"We are trying to do a premium job out here. We set our bar pretty high for the seed mix we use here," Peterson said. "All of our seed are real, locally-sourced native seed. We know where the original plant (is) the seed came from."
Since the plants being sowed into the soil are in a sense coming home, Peterson doesn't believe they'll have any problem growing and thriving in these new plantings. Even if the weather isn't conducive to growth this year, the seed will just lay dormant until the next growing season.
"It is well adapted to this area. These plants are remarkably hardy," Peterson said. "If you plant them, they are going to grow."
The hope is, weather permitting, that by spring 2023, people will start seeing blooming wildflowers in the plots. The seed mix includes a variety of different flowers with different blooming seasons.
"In May we hope to have a few things blooming, going all the way through October," Peterson said.
Partnership between prairies, pollinators and people
Not only will those flowers provide beautiful scenery for people, but they will be a much-needed food source for birds and pollinators, especially in the early part of spring, when few things are growing.
"They are the ones that are the hungriest and they are looking for food," Peterson said.
Those birds and pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are also instrumental in the food chain. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, nearly three-fourths of the world's flowering plants and 35% of food crops require animal pollination, such as bees flying flower to flower. This is another reason why restoring native prairies, or planting pollinator-friendly gardens are so important.
Today's farmers can also thank the native prairies for the high-quality soil they plant in. Those native grasses helped form the deep, dark and soft soil this area relies on. Soil erosion is one of the main reasons the county SWCDs from across the state have become a big player in restoring native plantings.
Over the years, staff at SWCD has assisted farmers and property owners establish native plantings in their conservation acres, along buffer strips and in other areas it would be beneficial.
"The native grasses are what made that black dirt," Tinklenberg said. "We are allowing some of it to go downstream, which is a shame."
Peterson said SWCD is also on hand to help homeowners who are interested in doing pollinator-friendly plantings in their yards and gardens. Other organizations such as the Environmental Quality Board and Board of Soil and Water Resources also have information available.
Kandiyohi County has also gotten involved in the quest to protect pollinators. In 2021 the county became the first in the nation to join the Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterfly on Energy and Transportation Land conservation program.
The county has set aside around 200 acres of its roadside right of ways as protected monarch habitat. In those adopted acres, the county has to protect the monarch's habitat, specifically milkweed, by reducing mowing and weed spraying and perhaps planting additional plants if needed. In 2022, the county hopes to continue discussions to develop public/private partnerships to create and enhance pollinator habitat.
Tinklenberg admits the city of Willmar is taking a bit of risk in the Parks to Prairie program, as it is a fundamental shift to how the city used to operate.
"It has always been mow, mow, mow," Tinklenberg said.
However, he and Peterson are hopeful the program will be a success and provide not only pollinators a safe haven but a place for people to enjoy as well.
"We want them to use these areas. I think there is going to be a huge draw for photography," Peterson said. "It is really going to be an asset to the park system."
And, perhaps, push others to do similar projects on their lands. There has already been good comments from community members who have spoken to Tinklenberg.
"If it is successful here, it could have a domino effect," Tinklenberg said. "The feedback we have been getting is 'Oh, my gosh what a great idea.'"