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Bemidji State University: Campus turning to perennials

Bemidji State University sustainability coordinator Erika Bailey-Johnson and her 2-year-old son, Reed, look over the new planting of native perennials near the A.C. Clark Library at BSU. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Bemidji State University is getting a little closer to nature.

A group of volunteers led by BSU sustainability coordinator Erika Bailey-Johnson recently planted native perennials in the raised beds in the area amidst the A.C. Clark Library, the Upper Hobson Memorial Union and Sanford Hall.

Annual flowers present a vibrant and impressive array of colors, but their beauty is transient. The plants must be purchased and planted each year, which requires money and labor.

"There are a host of benefits," Bailey-Johnson said of native perennials. "They're accustomed to our climate."

Once they're established, the perennials will not need watering, fertilizers or chemicals, cutting down on cost and labor as well as protecting the environment, she said, adding that the native perennials also provide habitat for native wildlife.

"We get a lot of birds and butterflies and caterpillars that like to hang out in there," she said.

Bailey-Johnson thought it would be a larger initial investment to buy perennials, but with volunteer labor, the cost was about the same as buying annuals. And savings will come next year when there is no need to repeat the purchasing and planting.

"The big barrier for a lot of people is the aesthetics," she said. "The annuals typically are a lot prettier as far as more color. You can get a wide variety of color.

"But when I researched the difference environmentally, there's no justification in my eyes to plant annuals. I now see perennials as more beautiful because of that. ... It made a lot of sense to convert annual to perennials."

Bailey-Johnson used to see petunias and think they were beautiful. She now thinks of the labor involved and how they will just have to be planted again the following year.

"I think a lot of people on campus felt the same way," she said. "When we did the butterfly garden, we got a call from the library. They were looking for a similar planting."

Bailey-Johnson turned to local master gardeners for a plan for the new bed.

"They came up with a beautiful plan," she said, adding that she bought most of the plants at Morning Sky Greenery in Morris, Minn.

The installation was done by BSU's summer student grounds crew, with assistance by a group of volunteers coordinated by Bailey-Johnson. The volunteers included Bailey-Johnson's father-in-law, Bruce Johnson, members of the BSU Environmental Advisory Committee, library staff members, and students participating in a summer People and the Environment course.

"We had a variety of people helping us plant," she said, noting that while she was prepared to plant all day, it took only an hour and a half for the volunteers to plant 400 plants.

"That was cool," she said. "People were excited."

The four separate beds, which total 800-900 square feet, feature about 50 different species, with flowers such as purple coneflower and prairie rose nestled among grasses like little bluestem and big bluestem.

This is not the first time the university has turned to native perennials. Before Bailey-Johnson arrived on campus, a shoreline buffer strip was planted along the lake from just south of Diamond Point Park to where BSU's H.T. Peters Aquatics Laboratory stood until it was demolished recently. The benefits of the tract of native perennials include reducing runoff entering the lake, reducing erosion and providing food and habitat for native species.

When she was working on her graduate degree in environmental studies at BSU, Bailey-Johnson was part of a small group of students who chose a focus on landscaping in an environmental sociology course.

"We chose a couple locations on campus that we thought could be converted from annuals to native perennials," she said.

The result was the planting of a 100-square-foot rain garden in 2006 and a larger butterfly garden in 2007.

While the new bed of perennials is rather sparse, the butterfly garden is lush with grasses, plants and flowers after two years.

"We learned from the butterfly garden that we had to mulch right away to prohibit weeds from coming up in the dirt," she said, noting that "weeds were crazy" at first in the 600-square-foot butterfly garden. "Eventually (perennials) become so established that you don't have to worry about the weeds anymore."

Bailey-Johnson said a small recent project was adding buffalo grass beneath the buffalo statue at the American Indian Resource Center, a suggestion from America in Bloom judges last year.

"They loved the native perennials," she said. "It's the thing of the future - conserving resources, making smarter decisions. They recommended planting a native grass underneath the buffalo. I thought that would be a really great idea."

Bailey-Johnson sees more perennials in BSU's future.

"We'll definitely continue to pursue different spaces," she said. "One of the things we're looking at are lawn areas that are difficult to mow - odd-shaped, low-traveled areas."

The cover story in the July-August issue of "Minnesota Conservation Monthly" is about native pollinators such as bees and butterflies in danger of losing their habitats.

"This is our little piece of trying to reduce that trend," Bailey-Johnson said.

On the Net:

"Minnesota Conservation Monthly" article:

Photos of volunteer planting: