Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Stratifying Seeds - A "Strategy" for Shaking off the Winter Blues

By Sage Passi

French Immersion students separate seeds from hulls in preparation for seed stratifying.

When days seem so dark, don’t despair. The hope for the future rests in the säd. No, don’t give in to the gloom of winter in Minnesota. Säd is just Swedish for “seed.” For a few days in mid December and early January, when the days start slowly growing longer, I like to heed the call of the wild seed and head to schools to conjure spring. After all, in the nature business there is no idleness. Believe it or not, in the midst of icy January, the work at hand is encouraging seeds to sprout. Not right away of course, but in due time. In the horticulture or greenhouse business this is called seed stratification.

I tell kids that to “stratify” means to layer. According to Wikipedia, this word can be traced back to at least 1664 when in sylvan culture (forestry) seeds from trees were artificially exposed to cold-moist conditions between layers of soil or peat to encourage future germination in spring.

Sean Uslabar from Ramsey County Corrections first introduced me to seed stratifying at the Ramsey County Nursery back in 2001. Each year Sean and his crew in South Maplewood start seeds in winter and grow thousands of native plants for our District restoration projects and others around the county. Since then I have shared the skills and taught hundreds of kids how to pre-treat seeds to simulate natural winter conditions to have plants mature enough to plant outside in the spring for our rain gardens, restoration sites and native gardens. Master Gardeners who help us in the classroom tell me this is their favorite activity of the year. I think perhaps this is because it helps us face the long, cold dark winter with more than a bit of hope lurking in our midst. And maybe even a little humor!

Andy Holewa, and many other Ramsey County Master Gardeners, assist classes with stratifying seeds
in the District.  "Now that I have your attention, let's get down to business."

For schoolroom classes around the District, this seed preparation process actually begins in the late fall when seeds are collected at demonstration garden sites in school yards or other locations. Students research information about the plants the seeds come from, study the seeds under magnification, draw pictures of them and then clean and separate the seeds from stems, pods and leaves.

Left: Sherry Brooks science classes at Farnsworth K-4 gather seed every year at their demonstration garden. 
Right: St. Peters School prairie garden, started by 4th graders in Michele Anderson's class six years ago, is a valuable seed collecting site.  In the left foreground is Virginian mountain mint.  The tall fluffy spikes in the foreground are prairie blazing star.  In the rear is a spiky stand of purple coneflower.

How do you stratify seeds?

In the cold-moist stratification process, the seeds are mixed with a small amount of vermiculite and moistened in a ratio roughly of 3 times the amount of vermiculite to volume of seeds, then refrigerated in a plastic bag for about two months. Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that is mined and processed into a puffy, lightweight granule and mixed with soil to improve aeration and drainage. It helps keep the seeds moist while in the fridge. During this cold exposure (between 1 and 3 degrees C, not freezing) many seed species undergo an embryonic dormancy phase, and generally will not sprout until this rest period is broken by exposing them to heat and light.

Kris Baird, a Ramsey County Master Gardener helps students
add moisture to the mixture of vermiculite and seeds.

To fine-tune the details and lengths for this stratification process for plants native to this area, Prairie Moon’s website is a good source of information. www.prairiemoon.com Just click on the plant you want to know about and you’ll see a germination code that indicates the type of treatment needed and the recommended length of stratification for each species. 

Abscisic Acid – Protection from the cold, drought and other scary things

So what’s going on inside the seed to prepare for germination? The secret lies in a plant hormone called abscisic acid (ABA). When most schools in the state were closed in early January, I had a group of 17 kindergarteners and their siblings at Children’s Discovery Academy in Little Canada sitting in rapt attention while I drew a diagram explaining the role of abscisic acid in seed germination. It’s a fascinating story. Unlike animals, plants cannot flee from potentially harmful conditions like 

Abscisic acid helps a seed determine
when to germinate.

  • drought
  • freezing
  • exposure to salt water or salinated soil
They must adapt, or die.
The plant hormone abscisic acid (ABA) is a major player in helping a plant adapt to stress. When water in soil diminishes, ABA is produced in a plant’s roots, triggering it to grow further into the ground to seek more water. Then ABA moves to the plant’s leaves where it causes guard cells and stomata to shrink to keep the plant from drying up. Abscisic acid also keeps buds from sprouting prematurely during warm spells in winter. If a plant sprouted early then it would face its demise when the temperatures drop back down to below freezing. Present in the embryo of a seed, abscisic acid enforces dormancy. It gradually breaks down over winter and when it has become depleted, this is a signal that germination can proceed. There’s still a lot that scientists don’t understand about ABA, but research indicates that the ratio of ABA to gibberellins (plant growth hormones that stimulate shoot elongation, seed germination, and fruit and flower maturation) may determine germination. There’s a lot of intensive research going on these days about ABA.

Scarification – a method for getting legume seeds to germinate

There is another approach we use to prepare some seeds for germination. It’s called scarification which means “scoring” or “nicking” to treat your seeds. We do this method with native legume seeds that we want to germinate such as leadplant, blue indigo or purple or white prairie clover. In that approach we use a little light weight sand paper and rub the seed gently to loosen the seed coat. This simulates what might happen when an animal or bird eats a seed and the seed coat is broken down in their digestive tract by acids.

Shake off the winter blues!
So if the winter blues have already set in for you, there’s still time to order some seeds or venture out to your garden, snatch a few from the top of your plants, bring them inside, mix them with a little vermiculite and a little water in a bag, throw them in the fridge and get that ABA to break down. By early March you should have some seeds ready to pop within a few days or weeks (depending on the plant). Plant them shallowly in soil especially designed for germination and place your trays in a warm sunny window or under lights. Be sure to keep them moist. Transplant your seedlings in the spring by transferring them into individual plug pots using a potting soil so they will grow solid roots balls to be ready to brave the Minnesota late spring!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Mystery of the Month - January

If you had to tell a story or explain your job in only six words, what might those words be? 
I put this task out to the District staff and got some fun responses. 

For this month's mystery of the month, we start with just one.
See if you can guess what this person does, or even who this person is:

"Plants, mud, big boots, power tools."
Think you know?  Want to see how the rest of the staff explained their day to day? 


The answer to this month's Mystery of the Month is from our staff member who contributes most often to our past Mystery of the Month articles. Thumbs up if you guessed Simba Blood, Natural Resources Technician.

As for the rest of the staff, here are their six-word stories.
Cliff with Maplewood Mall

collaborating partners.

"Staff, budget, Board, collaboration, committees, meetings"
-Cliff, Administrator

"Payroll. Accounts-payable. Spreadsheets. 10-key. Numbers.     Gray-hair."
-Sue, Accounting Assistant

Sage Passi, touring the green 

roof at the Target Center.

"Communications, creativity, teamwork, resources, teaching, connections"
-Sage,  Watershed Education Specialist

"Rules and regulations. Compliance and enforcement."
and  "BMPs approved. Free money to improve."
-Paige, Watershed Project Manager, describing both of the (hard)hats she wears as Coordinator of the Permit and Best Management Practice Incentive (Cost Share) Program

Nicole ensures erosion control
fabric is properly installed.

"Prevent Erosion, Control Sediment, Protect Waters."
-Nicole, District Inspector

"Fun, Interesting, Different, People, Helping, Challenging."
-Dave, Water Quality Technician

"Connecting the dots. Planning for future."
 -Tina, Assistant Administrator

Eric demonstrating (in a t-shirt) 
how boiling water vaporizes

in -20 degree Fahrenheit air.
"Rain. Water Level Up. Samples. Repeat."

- Eric, Water Quality Monitoring


"Water, Ecology, Restoration, Enjoyment, Life, People"

- Bill, Natural Resources Specialist

"Invasives, partner, educate, volunteers, communications, eradication!"
Paige pointing out something good, 
I would imagine.
-Carole G., Ramsey County Cooperative Weed Management   Area Coordinator (Notice: her title is longer than six words!)

"Points, polygons, pictures, rowing, collecting data"
-Carrie, GIS Technician

Carrie and Bill collect ice and water
measurements on Markham Pond.
"INFORMATION: anticipate, gather, scatter, storage, repeat"
-Carole P., Administrative Secretary

"Citizens, conversations, phones, maintenance, clerical, help"
- Shelly, Secretary/Receptionist

Dave doing volunteer research of aquatic 
species in other Minnesota lakes.
Carole Gernes fishing in the 
Gervais Mill Ponds.

Thanks, gang, for playing along.

Gather at the Community Confluence: Where Conversations Meet

We invite you to a public event, Community Confluence: Where Conversations Meet to be held on Thursday, January 30 from 6:30 PM to 8:00 at Maplewood Community Center (Room C and D) at 2100 White Bear Avenue in Maplewood. This gathering is being planned by Ramsey Washington Metro Watershed District for citizens, organizations and city and agency representatives.

A word cloud illustrating what community members said they value most.

We’ve collected your concerns and solutions related to lakes, rivers and wetlands in Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District at our Community Conversations meetings held this fall in Maplewood, Shoreview and Woodbury and through e-mails, letters, phone calls and social media. Staff and our consultants spent many hours compiling your comments and input. Now it’s time to prioritize those issues and suggested actions to guide us in preparing our ten year watershed district management plan. The input you provide will be presented to the Board of Managers and Watershed Staff to help them develop the plan over the next year and a half. The following issues/actions represent what we heard from you. They fall into eight main categories. These include:

  • Educate and Involve Citizens
  • Manage the Organization Effectively
  • Promote Quality Surface Water
  • Achieve Healthy Ecosystems
  • Provide for Flood Control
  • Sustain Quality Groundwater
  • Promote Innovative Development and Redevelopment
  • Support Recreational Access to Water Resources

Come and listen to a summary of the input we’ve received and join in the prioritizing process using an activity called DotMocracy. We welcome and value your input and encourage you to attend. Please invite anyone else you think would be interested in participating. Refreshments will be served.

Please RSVP at http://tinyurl.com/community-confluence or just come!

Here is a link to a summary of the input we've collected to date:  

We hope you can make it on January 30th!  We look forward to seeing you.
For more information please contact Sage Passi, Watershed Education Specialist
at sage.passi@rwmwd.org or 651-792-7958

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Slippery Slope of Salt

Snow and ice removal can seem like a big job!

I have a confession to make. I don’t salt my sidewalks in the winter. We live on a corner lot with a well-used sidewalk and an elementary school nearby, yet I never grab the salt bag when the ice gets really bad…I let my husband do it.

I am a hearty and committed shoveler and will do so several times in a snowfall if I can, but in the rare instances when we need it, I don’t touch the salt bag. Perhaps it’s because that frees up my conscience because I know that just a teaspoon of salt can permanently pollute five gallons of water.  I also know that when the snow and ice on my sidewalks melt (which it will someday), the salty water runoff will enter the storm drain on my block and head right to the Mississippi River untreated. If I’m not holding the bag, I’m not contributing to the problem right? 
Clearly, and humbly, I know my logic is flawed. 

In both the watershed in which I live and in the watershed in which I work, there are multiple water bodies impaired for chlorides. Perhaps you’ve heard this in the paper, on the radio, or the evening news. What does this mean and whose problem is it? Because there is currently no good way to remove the chloride, what can we do? There are some answers to these questions, and still more to learn.

What does it mean?

Salt or chloride impairment means that a water body (lake or creek) has received too much salt from untreated rain water or snow melt running off of salty surfaces. This usually includes roads and sidewalks treated with sodium chloride, calcium chloride, magnesium chloride or another melting agent to remove ice. Water and snow melt that enters a stormdrain is not filtered before emptying into our lakes.

In these ‘impaired waters,’ the salt levels are high enough to negatively affect fish, aquatic plant life, and other wildlife that depends on a healthy lake system. Just as we can’t put a sunfish in a saltwater aquarium and expect it to survive, we can’t let our lakes become saltwater systems and expect our freshwater wildlife to survive.  
Chloride pollution is a big and preventable problem.

Whose problem is it?
In short, it is my problem. Now read that last sentence out loud.
Everyone, regardless of the size of your house, the proximity to a visible water body, and even regardless of your salt use (or lack thereof) can play a role. Every last bit adds up quickly and the more you and your neighbor know, the better.

While it may be easy to point fingers at retailers and city road crews, know that many of them are already working to reduce their salt use. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has helped bring this issue to the forefront and cities and retailers are starting to step up. The MPCA even offers a certification for snow and ice removal contractors who have had formal training on how and when to use chloride products effectively while reducing their impact on the water (and saving tons of money at the same time).
What can we do?

If this is the first time you’re reading about this issue, thank you for getting this far. You’re now in the running towards becoming the next top model (citizen). Here are a few easy things you can do with the most recent snowfall:
  1. Shovel often, shovel early. Removing the snow from walking surfaces before the snow gets compacted means you may not even need to add deicers.
  2. Know your salt. If the air temperature drops below 15 degrees, most deicers don’t work. Read the label; know what’s in the bag and when you’re wasting your time and (natural) resources.
  3. As an alternative to salt or if it’s too cold for typical deicers to work, consider traction grit.
  4. Do not give your sidewalks high blood pressure by over salting their diet. More salt does not mean more melting. The MPCA recommends using less than 4 pounds of salt per 1,000 square feet. Think of it this way: one heaping 12-ounce coffee mug is about one pound. That should be enough for 1.5 to 2 parking spaces. Salt crystals should be separate from each other and not be piled up. Use a hand-held spreader in wide areas for consistency.
  5. If the temps are right and an ice or sleet storm is imminent in the forecast, put a little salt down first. This will help break up the ice from the bottom up which is far more effective.
  6. Sweep it up. Whether you used sand or salt to get through the most recent storm, when the pavement is dry, get a broom and dustpan out. You can either reuse the salt in an icy area or save it in a 5-gallon bucket for the next storm.
  7. If you hire a contractor for your home or office snow and ice removal, consider looking at the MPCA’s certified contractors list or ask your current contractor to get certified. Not only will this help your own site minimize its impact, it will send the message to contractors that this is an important issue to their customers.

These easy actions are just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to know more about chloride pollution, which lakes are impaired, how to get certified, or what more you can do, visit the
MPCA’s webpage about road salt and water quality. It is a very user-friendly resource for details on all of these things and much more. Use their interactive map of impaired waters in the ‘TCMA Chloride Project’ tab halfway down the page to see what the waters look like in your city.  Another great source for more information is this Youtube video: Improved Winter Maintenance: Good Choices for Clean Water 

Little H. says "Use a broom for light dustings of
snow, or to sweep up unused salt and sand." 

Clearly knowing the problem of salt pollution isn’t enough. Action is needed. Knowledge is power (according to GI Joe) and with power comes increased responsibility (according to Spider Man). Using the advice of these animated heroes, I’m ready to take over the reins….or the salt bag, as it were, and be a better Minnesotan who can balance being a clean water hero and courteous neighbor to the best of my ability.

Incentive and Inspiration to Help You Improve Water Quality

Wells Fargo in Maplewood used cost share money for their parking lot reconstruction where
they installed two infiltration basins and eight parking lot island rain gardens.

RWMWD is now accepting applications for the 2014 cost share program! 

The program offers technical assistance and cost share funds to support projects that improve water quality. Funds are available to residential homeowners and large property owners including schools, churches, townhome associations, commercial businesses, and government entities. Below are the coverage allowances and criteria for the cost share program. Additional information, including a map of priority areas and application materials, can be found on our Best Management Practices (BMPs) Incentive Program webpage.

2014 Coverage Criteria

Type of Property Type of Projects Cost Share % Maximum $ Approval by Application Deadline
Residential Homeowner designed rain gardens 100% $500 Staff Rolling Year Round
 Residential Habitat restoration, rain gardens without roof or street drainage* 50% $2,500 Staff Rolling Year Round
Residential Rain gardens with street or roof drainage, pervious pavement, shoreline restoration, green roof* 75% $2,500 Staff Rolling Year Round
Habitat Restoration 50% $7,500 Board if over $5,000, otherwise staff Rolling Year Round
Commercial Church     School        Government Shoreland Restoration 100% below 100 yr flood elev. with actively eroding banks $100,000 Board Board Meeting Deadlines
Water Quality BMPs $50,000 Board if over $5,000, otherwise staff Board Meeting Deadlines
75% in non-priority drainage areas
100% in priority drainage areas $100,000

Here are a few other examples of recent projects that used District cost share funding. We can't wait to see what these look like when the plants mature!

Round Lake Townhome Shoreline Restoration
Residential rain garden in St. Paul

Residential rain garden in Shoreview.
Residential rain garden in North St. Paul

What will your project look like?

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Raingarden – Poetic Justice for Our Waters

By Sage Passi
Farnsworth students get their hands dirty.

“Last night the rain spoke to me slowly, saying, what joy to come falling out of the brisk cloud, to be happy again in a new way on the earth!”
   -Mary Oliver

There’s a change that comes over you when you put a raingarden in your yard. People who build a raingarden develop a special appreciation for the rain. I’ve heard many testimonies about that. Stories like people going outside in their pajamas to watch the water flowing through their dry creek beds into their raingarden or watching for hours as the water flows down their rain chain into the soil and flowers below. Maybe it has something to do with the opportunity it opens up to closely observe that primordial interrelationship between earth and water. Go ahead. Absorb yourself in this rewarding pastime. When you immerse yourself in the joys of being a water watcher, you will also be assisting the rain in finding its way naturally back through the groundwater, returning it clean to rivers and lakes that lie beyond.

Cultivars and native plants in Trinity Presbyterian Church's raingarden 
bloom (left) and get a soaking (right) in Woodbury.
When you build a raingarden, you prevent rain from traveling down the treacherous paths of driveways, sidewalks, parking lots and streets where it can pick up trouble along the way. Keep those hitch hikers - leaves, grass clippings, phosphorous, sand, salt and automobile accoutrements (oil, gasoline, windshield washer fluid and anti-freeze) from tormenting your local lakes, wetlands and streams downstream. Let the run-off and its riders from those impervious surfaces get channeled into the nearby soil instead. Prevent flooding and reduce the volume of run-off that has to be treated in stormwater ponds or our local wetlands. Then stand back and watch, guilt free! And if you can’t build a raingarden for whatever reason, try planting trees and native gardens in your yard to capture and soak in the rain!

Gene Whipple, a Battle Creek resident got his inspiration for doing a raingarden in his own yard from a raingarden planted at his school -Crosswinds Arts and Sciences. In the second year he added more plants to his raingarden to keep pollutants from running off his and his neighbor’s adjoining driveway into the nearby creek.

“That’s what it said, as it dropped, smelling of iron, and vanished like a dream of the ocean into the branches and the grass below.”  

-Mary Oliver

Gene Whiple's raingarden - summer2013.

So how can you learn about and practice the art of building raingardens? Each year the Watershed District teams up with our faithful partners to offer a series of classes and hand-on experiences to help walk you through the process of designing and installing raingardens. Hear from experts and get assistance in assessing your yard and planning your project.

Stopping Water Where it Drops participants watch as a pit is
dug to measure the soil's infiltration rate where a rain garden
will be constructed.

This year we’ve extended our classes to encompass the communities of Maplewood, Roseville, Shoreview, Woodbury and Oakdale. Classes start in March. See the schedule below.
We offer cost share programs to help you design your project and cover your expenses including hiring someone else to help you build your raingarden if that seems easier. In 2014 we’ve added something new to our BMP Cost Share program. We will now be covering the cost of curb cuts if you would like to capture and infiltrate street run-off into your raingarden. Click here to link to more details about our cost share program.

So sign up and tell your friends about our Stopping Water Where It Drops series or the Blue Thumb all in one rain garden classes. If you have already taken any of these classes and want to spruce up or amend some problems in your raingarden, sign up for the Raingarden Rescue or Divide and Conquer classes being offered by Maplewood in May. A special thank you goes to our co-sponsors, Ramsey Conservation District, the Cities of Maplewood and Shoreview, Maplewood Nature Center, Blue Thumb and Washington Conservation District for assisting us with this educational array of workshops. Enjoy!


Bill Cranford and Rachel Hanks applied
for a cost share through RWMWD
to build their lovely East St. Paul
rain gardens several years ago.

Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree.
The tree was a tree
with happy leaves,
and I was myself,
and there were stars in the sky
that were also themselves
at the moment
at which moment
my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars
and the soft rain –
imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.

-Mary Oliver


2014 Raingarden Workshop Schedule


Sponsored by Cities of Maplewood, Shoreview and Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District. For more information about the series, please call Sage RWMWD at 651-792-7958.

1.    A RAINGARDEN FOR YOUR YARD: Classroom Session                             
Wednesday, March 5th, 7-9 pm - preregister by February 28.
Location: Shoreview Community Center, 4580 Victoria St. North, in the Shoreview Room  
This class provides an introduction to raingardens and their purpose in improving water quality. Get inspired by the many design options in your community and then take it to the next level by participating in the site assessment and design workshops in May. Presented by Landscape Designer Joe Lochner, Ramsey Conservation District.

Thursday, May 8, 6:00 -8:00 pm. - preregister by May 5
Location: 947 Transit Ave in Roseville (a private residence) 
Learn how to analyze your site, test for soil infiltration & determine your drainage area.  Follow up this class by doing this assessment in your own yard and bring results to the next class to help in the design of your own raingarden. Taught by a landscape designer from Ramsey County.

3.    RAINGARDEN DESIGN WORKSHOP: Garden Layout & Plant Design
Tuesday, May 20th, 6:30 -8:30 pm. - preregister by May 16   
Pre-requisite: Site Assessment Session
Location: Maplewood Nature Center, 2659 7th ST. E., Maplewood, MN 55119

Use information gathered in your site assessment to design your own raingarden. Figure out how to resolve drainage issues! Get assistance on your design plan from instructors, & Master Gardeners. Bring a map of your site and the results of your infiltration test. Taught by landscape designer Joe Lochner, Ramsey Conservation District. 

Fees for any of these classes: FREE!

To register call Shelly @ 651-792-7965 at Ramsey Washington Watershed District (RWMWD) or send an e-mail to shelly.melser@rwmwd.org.


Sponsored by: Blue Thumb, East Metro Resource Education Program, RWMWD & Washington Conservation District. For more information about these classes contact Angie Hong at 651- 275-1136 x.35.

Choose one of the following dates & locations:

Tuesday, March 4th, 6-7:30pm - preregister by Feb. 28
Location: Washington Conservation District Office, 455 Hayward, Ave. N, Oakdale
Tuesday, March 11, 6-7:30 pm - preregister by March 7.
Location: Woodbury City Hall, 8301 Valley Creek Rd, Council Chambers.

Already have a raingarden but need a few tips on keeping it in tip top shape?  These are for you.

Tuesday, April 8, 6:30 – 8:00 pm,

Location: Maplewood Nature Center, 2659 E. 7th St., Maplewood, MN 55119.
Has your rain garden been overrun by weeds? Does it need a few new plants or a complete overhaul? Come get tips on how to rescue your raingarden and make it the garden of your dreams. See slides of the new plants and designs. We’ll answer questions and help you figure out where to start. Fee: FREE, but space is limited. Call (651) 249-2170 or email info[at]maplewoodnaturecenter.com to register by April 3rd.

Tuesday, May 13, 6:30-7:30 pm

Location: TBD
It’s spring clean-up time for raingardens. Come learn how to cut back old vegetation, divide and transplant perennials, and prevent erosion at the inlet. We’ll also cover strategies for dealing with overly aggressive plants. Meet us in the neighborhood for this outdoor demonstration. Dress for the weather. Fee: Free, but space is limited. Call (651) 249-2170 or email info[at]maplewoodnaturecenter.com to register by May 11th.