Biology project to start blooming next year

Chatfield independent study students work in the field with their instructor prior to the winter weather. From left are Ann Warren, Nora Gathje, Katie Ihrke, Sabina Boettcher and Sloan Clemens.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Independent study students of Chatfield High School (CHS) biology instructor Nora Gathje have planted the seeds of a project that should bloom in the coming years.

“I had noticed the steep slope between Jaycee Park and Union Street near the pool and how it was too steep to mow and had grown up to weeds,” stated Chatfield area nature enthusiast Tim Gossman, telling about the recent prairie seeding project he had suggested to Gathje. “I called Nora Gathje, who has actively used the Savanna Spring Nature Area (SSNA) with her students, to discuss improving this slope by planting wildflowers and native grasses to make it look better and provide erosion control and pollinator habitat.”

That’s where Gathje’s independent study students, Katie Ihrke, Sloan Clemens, Sabina Boettcher and Ann Warren, came in. The group of four students took on the project, prepared a plan to obtain permission from the school and then worked on gathering and planting the seeds and ordering and installing signs to inform the public of the project. 

“I helped the students learn to identify prairie plants at SSNA and collect and prepare the seed,” Gossman said. “The planting was done just before we received several inches of snow.” 

Putting down prairie plant seeds on Tuesday, Nov. 5, just before the Wednesday, Nov. 6, snowfall that lasted for nearly a full two weeks before it melted away was a strategic decision. 

“We did it on purpose,” Gathje said. “We didn’t want to put the seed out too early or the birds would eat it. It really was Tim’s idea, and we went out to his prairie at his house a couple of times to collect seeds.”

Prior to venturing outside the school building, the students had business to conduct. They had to write a project proposal for the school and call Gopher One, which sent a worker to find any buried power lines, clearing the way for the quartet to transform a gnarly, neglected plot into a wildflower haven.  They did encounter difficulty in picking days that were dry enough to go to Gossman’s home to get seeds from his prairie because it was a rather rainy fall. 

“It rained before we went out, so the plants had to dry out before we could go out to collect seeds,” Warren said. “It was a pretty rainy fall.” 

Boettcher outlined that the trips to Gossman’s field were many for another reason: not all the seeds were ready at the same time. 

And Ihrke elaborated on why, even though a plant may have a full head of seeds, it’s better to leave some there. “Some of them, you only take a half to a third of the seeds from the plants because they need the seeds to grow back there next year,” she said.   

The students have to complete several projects throughout the course of their independent study with Gathje, and with most of them having taken her environmental science class, they were somewhat familiar with the seed-gathering process and why it was vital to cover the newly-spread hillside prairie seeds under snow as soon as they were sown in an orderly fashion – with the taller plants being sown at the top of the hillside and the shorter ones at the bottom so as not to impede the view from the roadway.  Gossman mixed the seeds so that they would be distributed evenly, and then the work belonged to the students.

“We’d also collected seeds for environmental science, so basically, we got to do the same thing, but on a larger scale, using native plants like black-eyed Susans, bergamot, wild rye, side oats, frost aster, sage and purple coneflowers,” Boettcher commented. “We just spread the seeds by throwing them out.” 

Warren noted that they all started in a different place while Ihrke added that they put the shorter plants on the street side by the sidewalk and the taller ones up higher.

The raw Election Day wind promised a thick cover of snow to hold the seeds down, and by the time the young ladies had finished working, they had given themselves hope of seeing a blooming field – someday.

“The plants should flower next summer, and the seeded flowers should begin to blossom over the next two years,” Gossman cited. “The planting includes 25 species of wildflowers and five grasses native to this area that will blossom from late spring through the fall.” 

However, it will require a measure of patience on the students’ behalf.

“Some of them won’t come up until like two winters have gone,” Boettcher said. “It could take up to five years for the hill to be covered.  It will give us something to look forward to when we come home from college.  And if all of the plants grow, there should be biodiversity and it will control erosion.” 

Ihrke and Warren issued a request for their classmates and Chatfield neighbors, asking for respect so that the hillside prairie will be there for everyone to enjoy.

“As pretty as the flowers are, please don’t pick them, walk around in them or trample them,” Warren said.