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Constructing the Garden: Step by Step

by Glinda Crawford, Ph.D. (2002)

This is the story of the construction of the garden that first growing season (2001), step by step. See "Background Story of the Garden" to learn why we did what we did.

Gift of Volunteers

Soaring Eagle Prairie at the University of North Dakota was initiated, designed, and maintained by volunteers with significant behind the scenes support from UND Finance & Operations, and Facilities. Within that first year (2001-02), over 400 volunteers have participated in this effort: students, staff, faculty, administrators, community members. People asked how they could help, rolled up their sleeves, put shovels into the ground, and shared stories of the land along the way.

Off to the Brick Pile!

The edge of the bed was lined with bricks from "Old Science Hall." This building was one of the original buildings on campus and would have been a long shadow's length west of the garden. Kristy Berger and fellow students headed to the brick pile to carefully sort just the right bricks for the garden's edge. The bricks needed to be straight and flat on edges so that they could be carefully aligned. The bricks were intended to provide an aesthetic, functional and historic edge. Their purpose was to keep quack grass and other undesirables from growing into the prairie bed.

"Opening of the Soil"

On April 16, 2001, 45 people gathered at the site of the bed to officially open the soil. Kathleen Brokke had marked the edge of the bed. All the plans and dreams were becoming reality.

We did not call the event "ground breaking." Too much ground had already been broken. No photos were taken; we were too heavily involved in its orchestration. Various people spoke talking about the intention of the garden: Kristy Berger, Kathleen Brokke, Glinda Crawford, Richard Crawford. The people who gathered seemed to clearly recognize and celebrate the historic nature of this event. We were bringing prairie back in our own small way! Kristy put the first spade into the ground. The event was followed by a traditional meal of buffalo roast with vegetables and meat loaf prepared by Richard Crawford. Location was the Women's Center.

Removing Sod

Crews from facilities quickly cut, peeled back, and removed sod. Landscaping staff dropped off bricks, sand and tools: shovels, hand-towels, hoes. The garden was ready to begin.

Edging Garden

Volunteers arrived. The edge of the bed was carefully cut under the watchful eye of Kathleen Brokke, ensuring the artistic and visual quality of the garden. The edge need a deep, smooth cut between surrounding lawn and garden, according to the marked contour of the garden. Then sand was placed in the cut and bricks were lined tightly end-to-end around the bed.

Removing Quackgrass

After the sod was removed, the soil was pretty compact and needed "fluffing" to accommodate plants. While some folks might head for the roto-tiller, we were definitely not going in that direction. Because: hidden under the soil were the long tenacious roots of quack grass. To roto-till would cut the roots and stimulate their growth. We needed to remove the roots. That meant we would turn the soil by hand with shovels.

Quackgrass (Agropyron repens) is well known and not loved in gardening circles or among prairie gardeners. Not native to North America, quackgrass is a perennial grass introduced from Europe as a contaminant in grass or straw and was first reported on this continent in 1672 (Royer and Dickinson, 1999,Weeds of the Northern U.S. and Canada, Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press. Pages 170-1). A cool season grass, it starts growing early summer and fall when warm season prairie grasses are still slumbering. The tenacious stuff is well established in urban lawns, with long, vigorous roots extending out of sight beneath soil. Quackgrass unattended can easily destroy a prairie garden and the dreams of its initiators. We needed to be very serious about its removal, initially and long term.

Some passersby suggested their favorite chemicals. We declined. Native plants typically do not like chemicals which kill or stunt their growth. With rising numbers of folks who are chemically sensitive, the need for reducing toxins in our world was clearly expressed by Soaring Eagle Prairie Planners. Further, the opportunity to work in soil by hand was important. We carefully went over the garden one spadeful at a time, three times, pulling out the quack grass tops and roots. This was no easy undertaking as the garden is triangular and approximately 60 feet on a side.

May and June were cool, wet months. Since quack grass is “cool season”, the roots that remained continued to grow and poke their heads above the soil. We kept attending to any such tops and roots below.

Always Opportunities for Education

Each time we went to the prairie garden with crews, shovels, and elbow grease, people would often stop to talk. These interactions became significant. People had questions about what we were doing. Often they would share their support for the return of prairie onto central campus. Sometimes we had questions about prairie gardens. Often, people would share prairie stories. You could see a magical quality to their voices as they shared a part of themselves that was important. We need to provide space for these very important parts of who we are.

Soil Amendments

Kathleen Brokke directed our process toward adding “soil amendments”. We headed to the Grand Forks city compost pile which had been reduced to rich black soil. The heat from the fermentation of organic matter in the compost pile was amazing. We stuffed any big container we could find with compost, loaded our pickups, and then placed compost on the garden.

Gathering Plants

We had been considering sources of plants. When “restoring”, original sources for plants should be from a relatively close radius to the planting. Fifty miles is recommended. It makes no sense to bring in plants from Nebraska or Wisconsin, where soils, climates, growing signatures of plants differ. We decided to expand this a bit and include the Red River Valley watershed.

The major sources of plants were the gardens and seed collections of Kathleen Brokke, Richard and Glinda Crawford, and the late Marcia Melberg. We were also given access to plants that had been saved by Steve Schadler and the Grand Forks Park District crews from the native planting at Columbia and Demers overpass. These plants were provided to significant projects in the Greater Grand Forks area as a means of saving the plants and extending the energy of earlier restoration throughout the communities. Original sources of these plants were specific to the “Red River Watershed”.

Sometimes when you chat with someone about sources of plants, they get this magical gleam in their eyes and begin to talk about plants growing in the pasture or along the roadside that they could easily acquire. This is a tough call. First, as someone who wants to encourage prairie gardening, I do not want to dampen another’s enthusiasm. However, considering the fact that .1% is all that remains in our area, we must not go out and ravage the fragments that remain. Those precious few plants are all we have. When they are gone, our seed base is gone as well. The process of collecting plants needs to be done by those who know what they are doing and who will not damage fragmented communities.

Gardening as Exercise in Patience

Spring and early summer (along with fall) are best times to plant prairie plants. The coolness of these seasons decreases the shock to plants and allows them to settle in. Spring and early summer 2001, however, were wet, which delayed planting. Waiting out the wet season was significant as our heavy clay soils are quite a mess to work when wet; further, when trod upon, the soil (when dried) becomes compact like bricks. The season was growing later and we were eager to get the plants into the ground. Establishing a garden in midsummer could result in foolishness, but schedules and a cool, rainy early summer did not permit. We have come to know that everything has its season. Gardening is an exercise in patience.

At Last: Planting

On July 3, 2001, the day arrived to plant. We quickly gathered plants from our yards and gardens, as well as the collection from the Grand Forks Park District storage site. Our three red pickups were well loaded with happy plants on their way to a new home. Planters were Kathleen Brokke, Richard and Glinda Crawford, and Fred Schneider. Kathleen would place the plants according to her design and we would dig them in. A journalist and a photographer from the Grand Forks Herald captured the story. We planted July 4 and completed the planting on July 5. We immediately moved into the watering stage. Leaning on shovels and a little tired and sore, we were jubilant. Some commented in the early stages that plants looked few and far between and they were a little wilted. We couldn’t see it. The dream was coming true.

Rain and Watering

Almost immediately after the plants were in place, we had a good rain. It seemed like nature’s blessing of the prairie garden. And the plants were happy! For the remainder of the summer, we continued to add plants. We now had a clearer idea of what we had and what we needed. Watering was also important. We watered either early in the day (prior to 10 am) or late in the afternoon/evening (5-9 pm). Watering in the heat of the day means little water actually gets to plants. Watering late in the evening can contribute to mold. Watering was fairly routine throughout the remainder of the summer, we celebrated the rain and watered when we needed to. This was a critical support for the plants as they settled into their new home.

Garden Flourishes

By mid August, the plants had settled in and the garden flourished. Sure, some bare spots were apparent. But for the most part, close to 30 varieties of plants had been planted; almost all were mature plants and had quickly settled in. We completed a checklist and targeted 40 more for including in the garden, which meant we expected 70 varieties for the garden. We were already looking to the future. But for the time being, late that first summer of its first season in the ground, Soaring Eagle Prairie was putting on a pretty spectacular show.

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Glinda Crawford, Professor, Environmental Studies, Dept. of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Box 7136, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND 58202. glinda_crawford@und.nodak.edu