Announcing the arrival of twins – Woodbury rain gardens

by Sage Passi

Rain Gardens, like births, are harbors for crests and hurdles, heroines and heroes. This birth analogy surfaced in an article I wrote to describe Woodbury’s first school rain garden created at Crosswinds Arts and Sciences ten years ago. Woodbury Elementary School’s latest project is the “sixth child” in our most recent series of school rain gardens.

These two rain gardens emerged last month as the final demonstration sites in Clean Water Legacy and District cost share funded school projects, which were initiated in 2014 to treat runoff from large impervious expanses of parking lots, driveways and roads adjacent to schools in our district.
Fourth graders “rock it” by planting prairie dropseed on the rain garden
berm on School Drive. Across the street is the second rain garden.
Preceding Woodbury Elementary in this installation process were Maplewood Middle School, Weaver Elementary and Harmony Learning Center rain gardens planted in the fall of 2016. The next projects at Roseville Area Middle School and Central Park Elementary were completed only a week or two before Woodbury in early October 2017.
The rain gardens in Woodbury are HUGE. They needed to be built to a scale that would allow them to capture runoff from such a large drainage area.
The Woodbury Elementary and Middle School campus areas that produce runoff to Battle Creek Lake
include the blue areas (2.5 acres of impervious surfaces) and the green areas (5.5 acres) that
are considered semi-impervious since much of the turf is compacted and contributes runoff.

Strong school advocates

Woodbury Elementary was granted a letter grade of “A” in a watershed district-wide public school assessment process and ranked as a top priority because it had high ratings for potential stormwater benefits, constructability and educational value. The people involved in this project are equally deserving of high marks.

The first hero to emerge was Mike Vogel. For the first two years after our assessment, this potential project seemed to be stalled, despite our initial efforts to pitch the idea to the school district. We just didn’t seem to be getting a green light until Mike was hired as director of facilities and construction management in School District 837. Then everything changed.
When we met at the school in mid-November of 2016 with Mike and Connha Classon, the school’s principal, they were both receptive to the idea of a project on their site. Unlike our other five school projects, this one required presentations at several school board meetings. But with Mike at the helm, it went like clockwork, even when we had to go through two votes to get approval.
Connha became a strong advocate for the rain gardens. She believed in the viability of this project, helped us coordinate our efforts with the teachers, gave a positive pitch at the school board meeting and arranged for press coverage during the planting. Her affirmation made a big difference!
Fourth graders contemplate the amount of impervious parking lot
and roadway surfaces that will drain to their new rain gardens.

All hands on deck

With Woodbury we started by engaging fourth grade classes in the fall of 2016 to the spring 2017 with a variety of educational activities with help from Master Water Stewards, Master Gardeners and Washington Conservation District staff. Fourth graders from this school had been attending the Metro Children’s Water Festival for the past three or more years, so we knew there was some interest in water issues. But this event had been our only previous contact with students from this school.

The fourth grade teachers rose to the occasion and jumped into the lessons and activities we had in store for them! See the March issue of the Ripple Effect for a description of the previous school year’s lessons.
In the spring and fall of 2017, we added lessons for the Woodbury Middle School sixth and seventh graders since this school is located next to the elementary school, and we needed all hands on deck for planting. They expressed a strong desire to help with the project, too. Kudos to their science team for stepping up to the plate and getting their students involved in the project!
Melissa Habeck’s seventh grade science students kick off the planting marathon by planting native shrubs on the hillside.
Months of preparation came together when we teamed up those 17 classrooms (564 students) and their 10 teachers, teaching assistants and parents with Washington Conservation District staff, Washington and Ramsey County Master Gardeners, Master Water Stewards, Maplewood Nature Center naturalists, Watershed District staff and interns. The true community value of projects like these culminates in that realm of team-building, relationship bonding and joint experiential learning.
Wrestling with a rootbound pot is sometimes the only way to free a plant.
This student knew exactly how to loosen this plant from its pot.
He admitted he had a lot of experience planting prior to the project.

I believe it was well worth the long wait to position this Woodbury project at the end of the series. As a watershed district, we needed to be ready to take on a project of this magnitude, and we had certainly learned a lot during previous projects that we could apply here.

As someone who started out designing and building “baby size” home rain gardens alongside Ramsey County and Washington County Master Gardeners, I have come to the conclusion that no matter what the size and the complexity of a project, there are always surprises, challenges and amazing high points. Of course, it’s all good and part of the birthing process!

Meet our team!

The people are what make these projects come alive. Engaging students and partners in the planting, for me, is always the frosting on the cake. But the planting process is also the measure of our true grit! Here are some of the people who helped by hauling equipment, working with students and performing countless other tasks needed to get 1,433 native plants in the ground.

Back (L-R): Sage Passi, Scott Hanson, Stephanie Wang, Carmen Johnson, Anna Barker, Angie Hong and Judy Koster.
Front (L-R): Konnie Her and Lauren Haydon.
Angie Hong, Washington Conservation District, takes a moment to pause for the camera. 
Lauren Haydon (center), Washington Conservation District, helps break through
compacted berm so that students can plant their gallon pots of prairie dropseed.
Judy Koster, Washington County Master Gardener, helped with the planting all three days.
When I thanked her afterwards by email she responded by saying, “It was fun working with you
and your team. You can call on me as a volunteer for other local projects.”

Anna Barker, Washington County Master Gardener and Master Water Steward, recruited her
fellow Master Gardeners for the project and was a great support person who worked with the classes. 

Five Washington County Master Gardeners (Anna Barker, Jody Koster, Carmen Johnson, Lisa Moran and Laura Opsahl) stepped up to the plate to help on the project. I was thrilled to have their involvement on multiple days because there had been a long hiatus in their involvement with the District over the past ten years (except for Anna B) as their organization experienced a lot of transitions.

L-R: Lisa Moran and Carmen Johnson, Washington County Master Gardeners, and Angie Hong.

Many years ago teams of Washington Master Gardeners worked with us on several demonstration home rain gardens as we were learning the process of design and installation. They also helped us at Crosswinds School. So getting them involved again was a giant leap forward. We also had the great assistance of a Ramsey County Master Gardener, Don Vegoe.

One of our Master Water Stewards, Stephanie Wang, provided a high level of support in both the set-up and the installation. She transported equipment, assisted volunteers with planting, providing three days of labor and lots of morale building! Another great duo of support were Maplewood seasonal staff Konnie Her and Kayla Wolfe. Thank you to Dana Boyle for meeting me out at the site the night before (in the dark) to install the signs for our planting areas.
Stephanie Wang, Woodbury Master Water Steward, teases the roots of a plant the students will put in the ground.
Scott Hanson, a parent volunteer, would prove to be a champion during the three-day planting. We couldn’t have done the project without his dedication. He showed up early each day for set-up,  hauled the shovels home every night so we didn’t have to leave them onsite, helped students with planting, assisted with clean-up and watering of the trees each day, hauled water buckets so the kids could water their plants and recruited his wife for the project. His fourth-grade daughter was one of the students who helped in the garden. 
Scott Hanson, Woodbury parent and volunteer extraordinaire,
protects newly planted Joe Pye weed with several stakes.

Tracy Leavenworth kept up the pace of providing orientation demonstrations for each of the 17 classes and assisted us with layout and coordination each day. 

Tracy Leavenworth demonstrates how to plant.

Chris O’Brien, our communications coordinator, assisted with planting and captured this time-lapse video.

We appreciated Chad Snuggerud, school district grounds foreman, who appeared each morning with a 250-gallon container of water we used for watering the plants and trees and picked it up at night. He even showed up for our Smart Salting workshop in late November. Chad rocks!
Thanks also to Barr Engineering staff, especially Matt Kumka, for design and project management, Watershed Project Manager Paige Alhborg for her oversight,  the contractor SunRam and the behind-the-scenes planting and maintenance contractors, Wetland Habitats and Minnesota Natives.
Paige Ahlborg, watershed project manager, assists students with planting.

Working with the students and their teachers is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, and the purpose of this project rings loud and strong. The true affirmation of our work comes when you open up the possibilities for students to become empowered and they get to express the joy of digging in the dirt, handling the plants and working together to solve community issues.

Thanks to Wetland Habitats for installing interpretive signs at each of our six rain garden projects.

Our many thanks to the teachers and their students who participated in these projects. Fourth grade: Nicky Thompson, Melissa Craig, Alana Hansen and Zach Hendrickson. Fifth grade teachers: Ali Flaata, Burt Roberts and Patti Diamond. At the Middle School level, science teachers: Ashley Schultz, David Rafferty and Melissa Habeck. We couldn’t have done it without you.

We’d like to acknowledge and thank the schools we have worked with on these projects for being models to the community and providing us with places to foster unique educational and watershed stewardship opportunities.
Although these first large-scale projects are now complete, we will continue to identify locations to install best management practices on school grounds in the coming years. Stay tuned!

Questions or comments? Join the conversation on our Facebook page, or drop us an email.