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Restored Prairie in Stearns County

This article was written about the native landscape that PRI installed at the West Side Service Center
in Waite Park, MN.

Publications: St. Cloud Times - St. Cloud, Minn.
Author: Kirsti Marohn

It's designed to serve busy drivers who need new license tabs and patients visiting public health nurses. But Stearns County's new westside service center will feature something else planners hope will make a lasting impression: roughly 9 acres of restored native prairie grasses, shrubs and wildflowers.

It's part of an effort to make the county's newest building in Waite Park environmentally friendly as well as a demonstration site intended to educate and inspire. "There's going to be a lot of people coming in and out of here," said Greg Berg, shore land specialist with the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District, which provided almost $50,000 in grant money for the project.

The 45,000-square-foot building off Stearns County Road 138 near Mills Fleet Farm is still under construction and won't open until October. But work already has begun on shaping the surrounding terrain to help catch and hold stormwater that runs off the roof and parking lot. Rain gardens and infiltration swales will allow pollutants to filter out and the water to seep into the ground rather than running into the nearby Sauk River, Berg said. The plant-lined basins will store and absorb a considerable amount of water, helping to keep the level of the flood-prone Sauk more consistent, he said.

Some of the most noticeable features are the parking lot medians. The depressions lined with native shrubs, plants and flowers will be a marked contrast to the typical strips of mowed grass or raised asphalt lined with curbs and gutters. Parking lot medians usually are difficult to mow and maintain anyway, Berg said. "Why not use it as a water quality and landscaping feature?" he asked.

Princeton-based Prairie Restorations is handling the project. Company President Ron Bowen said it's a challenge to find the right mix of trees, plants, shrubs and wildflowers that will thrive in each location. "This soil can be dry as a bone or flooded, and everything in between," Bowen said.

Under the grant program, the seeds and plants must be historically native to the area. All come from Minnesota and most are from Stearns or neighboring counties, Bowen said. "We want to restore pieces of the native landscape to this site," he said. Interest in native plants is growing, Bowen said.

Prairie Restorations completed a similar project recently at CentraCare Health Plaza on St. Cloud's north side. The company has done projects throughout the state for public buildings, corporations and residential homes.

The westside center will have about 1 acre of turf grass compared with 9 acres of restored prairie. Native plants aren't maintenance-free, but generally require less watering, mowing and fertilizing than turf grass, Bowen said. Attitudes have been evolving since people used to complain that native prairie plants looked like weeds, Bowen said.

"More and more people understand that we don't have to have turf on everything," he said. "We don't have to have everything 2 inches high and mowed ... Perceptions are changing."

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