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Student perspective: protecting pollinators and making partnerships

September 20, 2016
Nathaniel Baeumler and Kristen Anderson crouched behind a patch of growing black eyed Susan flowers
UMN students Kristen Anderson and Nathaniel Baeumler at the West Bank Community Garden.

Visitors to the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities are able to see the magnificent glass Carlson School of Management building, the lovely Ted Mann Concert Hall and plenty of neatly trimmed turf grass. They would, however, find it hard to spot many vegetables, prairie plants and butterflies – at least, in the past.

That changed in the summer of 2015. A team of University students led by Louis Mielke, through the club Students for Sustainability, created the West Bank Community Garden right in the heart of the urban West Bank campus. In addition to local, healthy food, the garden provides educational opportunities, pollinator habitat and connections to a broader partnership throughout the area.

Educational opportunities

The garden would not be possible without the University's support. During and after the application process, students worked closely with the University's Institute on the Environment, Office of Sustainability, Horticulture Department and the student organic farm Cornercopia, as well as Augsburg Community Garden and many more groups to ensure a successful design.

group of students planting tomato plants in garden
Planting tomatoes at the West Bank Community Garden.

Club leaders obtained the space by successfully applying to the Living Lab Program, which allows students or staff to apply to take charge of a public University of Minnesota space.

The final result was beneficial not just for the end products (vegetables), but also for the educational opportunities. As Stacey White, Sustainability Coordinator at the Office of Sustainability, explained, "Our first and foremost goal is for education and research, and that is exactly what the [West Bank Community Garden] Living Lab is about."

Both students and local neighbors can visit and learn about gardening, pollinator-friendly plants and leadership skills. "[It's] an excellent opportunity to teach students skills that will serve them in the future," White said.

Nathaniel Baeumler, Students for Sustainability West Bank Community Garden officer, agreed. "Of course we are very grateful that the [University of Minnesota] has given us the opportunity to put in this living learning lab. They have really allowed us to learn a lot about soil, pollinators, the environment and how much time it takes to create something [like this]. [They are providing] a very valuable experience [to] their students, and we are very grateful for that."

newly planted garden being watered
Students for Sustainability water the pollinator garden.

Water quality

The pollinator garden wouldn't be possible without a generous grant from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO). The MWMO awarded the West Bank Community Garden a grant that funded the garden's over 700 pollinator-friendly plant plugs, including more than 60 milkweed plants, a plant that the monarch butterfly is dependent upon.

The MWMO is a nonprofit devoted to protecting and improving water quality, habitat and natural resources in an urban watershed. The native plants in the pollinator garden have extremely long roots, which are perfect for retaining stormwater, filtering polluted runoff and protecting water quality. As MWMO representative and grant administrator Tamara (Tammy) Schmitz summarized, "We are so excited to be seeing how this small project is engaging so many partners so that we can engage people in the long-term, taking action to create habitat and protect the river."

Pollinator pledge

students standing in group with instructor in front teaching about the garden in the background
Students for Sustainability learn about the West Bank Community Garden.

Last, but certainly not least, the West Bank Community Garden pollinator garden is a crucial part of the area's charm. Borage, prairie smoke, butterfly milkweed and more fill the 3,000-square-foot area with a splash of color. Gardeners appreciate the free pollination of their plants, while visitors, staff and students can enjoy watching butterflies flit around the gardens. In the words of Baeumler, the Students for Sustainability officer who helped design the pollinator garden, "[The pollinator garden] brings so much color and positive vibe to an area that's usually full of bushes and grass."

Pollinators such as monarch butterflies and native bees are in trouble. More than 80 percent of monarch butterfly populations have disappeared over the past few decades (Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation). Protecting pollinators needs to be a group effort, which is why Students for Sustainability signed on to the St. Croix Valley Pollinator Pledge in 2015 and re-signed as West Bank Community Garden in 2016.

Bumblebee on borage
Bumblebee on borage at pollinator garden.

The St. Croix Valley Pollinator Pledge is an agreement between organizations to work together to do something to help pollinators throughout the area. It was started when the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (U.S. Forest Service), the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway (National Park Service) and the St. Croix Wetland Management District (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) reached out to organizations near the St. Croix Valley to garner support for pollinators. Many groups have since signed.

When organizations sign, they pledge to do specific activities for pollinators so that partners can track how much has been done. Partners who have signed the pollinator pledge hope to learn from each other and work together to help pollinators throughout the area.

As Caitlin Smith, Fish and Wildlife Service biologist at the St. Croix Wetland Management District said, "We can't do this alone. The push for pollinator habitat has brought together partners on the landscape that may not typically partner on projects, and all these smaller projects are adding up to a much larger conservation effort on the landscape. We are thrilled to be working with all these new partners, and we look forward to seeing more projects like this."

Elizabeth Braatz, September 2016

Elizabeth Braatz graduated in spring 2017 from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) with a degree in Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management. She worked with RSDP as a Student Writer/Communications Assistant during her junior and senior years.

This article was inspired by Elizabeth's summer 2016 Student Conservation Association internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the St. Croix Wetland Management District. RSDP engages University of Minnesota students through project- and campus-based work across regions. Elizabeth's student perspective article illustrates the deep commitment and engagement of our students in sustainability issues.

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