Student uses grant to restore 200 square feet of native tallgrass prairie biome

Augustana Sustainability students are creating new projects — including a native prairie garden — to spend its $375,000 grant and make campus more sustainable.

David O’Hara, director of sustainability and professor, said that with the grant, Augustana Sustainability has to meet certain goals required by the grantmaker. The outdoor classroom constructed in the summer was one of those goals.

In early October, a group of volunteers also put together a labyrinth to encourage students to take a break from stress and contemplate their thoughts.

In the last week of October, sophomore Mia Werger and a few others began landscaping in a 200-square-foot native prairie garden near the archaeology building, according to the Augustana Sustainability Facebook page.

A native prairie garden is a collection of flowers, grasses and other plants from the original tallgrass prairie of the Midwest. The on-campus garden will contain about 50 different species of such native plants including Big Bluestem, Prairie Blazing Star and Pasque Flower, Werger said.

O’Hara wants to use the prairie garden as a learning opportunity for students.

“The garden is about education,” O’Hara said. “It’s a place where Mia and her classmates get to experiment. It might wind up being a colossal failure. [We’ll] learn from those things, and then we’ll try again.”

Using reclaimed cinder block and quartzite slabs, they created a walkway and seating in the garden. Werger said she scattered seeds last week.

According to Werger, the native prairie seeds need to freeze over the winter before they can flourish in the spring.

Though she was not the first to come up with the idea at Augustana, Werger has enough experience with such gardens to initiate the project on campus. She planted a small-scale native prairie garden in her own backyard during her childhood.

“Tallgrass prairie is the native biome of South Dakota,” Werger said. “So if you plant seeds from native prairie plants, it is one step toward creating the natural landscape that was once here that has now been pretty much bulldozed and made into corn fields.”

There are three main benefits of the native prairie garden, according to Werger.

The garden will recreate a habitat for small animals and insects, specifically bees and other pollinators.

The long roots of the prairie grasses will restore nutrients to the soil.

The garden will essentially sustain itself because it is native to the environment. It will work to restore the original tallgrass prairie, which has less than one percent remaining, according to the National Park Service. That makes it more endangered than the Great Barrier Reef.

O’Hara said bees also contribute to one sustainability development goal: zero hunger.

“A third of our food depends upon bees. We want to provide a sanctuary for bees and other pollinators,” O’Hara said.

Projects in the works

While the outdoor classroom, labryinth and native prairie garden have been approved, there are other projects that students are proposing.

Senior Kirtana Krishna Kumar is working to bring an anaerobic digester to campus for sustainable energy and waste disposal.

An anaerobic digester breaks down organic materials into sludge and biogas, according to Krishna Kumar.

“It’s a really good way to convert all the organic waste around campus into something useful,” Krishna Kumar said.

The biogas created by the digester can be used for electricity, while the sludge is good for fertilizer and other agricultural uses, she said.

Before Krishna Kumar graduates, she wants to have the logistics of the digester figured out and the project initiated. This week, she, a few other students and O’Hara will meet to discuss the aspects of the project.

As she works toward her goal, Krishna Kumar also wants people to be ready and willing to be less wasteful.

Environmental activism

On Nov. 20 to 21, 24 Hours of Reality will be directing a worldwide climate conversation, and Augustana has invited Jeffrey Smith to talk about the climate crisis, according to Werger.

Werger also said that Augustana Sustainability is working to bring its climate strike petition to fruition. The petition consists of four demands for the Augustana administration – eliminating the styrofoam products on campus, making sustainable changes to the Ordal Dining Hall, replacing shower heads in dorms with water-conserving models and adding more recycling bins to campus.

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