The Prince of Peace Church property, off of Mill Creek Parkway, includes two drainage channels, a small marsh, and a retaining pond that all drain into the Mill Creek watershed.
The waterways have become invaded by Phragmites, a European reed that out competes native plants and does not feed local wildlife. If you go to the marsh, you will see that the cattail fuzzy seed heads are all broken up because birds and deer have been eating them. The flag-like Phragmites seed heads are untouched, and are not good to eat.
The problem with Phragmites is that they are pushing out the good cattails. Phragmites are real “professional grade” invaders: they form underground rhizome networks, above-ground runners, and prolific seed-heads that look like flags. They can really spread.
Last summer, Prince of Peace Catholic School science teacher Katharine Atkinson learned about habitat restoration from the local Department Of Natural Resources, through a Governor’s STEM Externship. DNR Wildlife Biologist Curt Kemmerer consulted on the church waterways project and at first said, “I hope the big, plume-topped plant is not phragmites. That would be bad!”
He advised Dr. Atkinson and the A.P. Environment class on restoring the marsh and preventing Phragmites seeds from getting spread into Mill Creek. The class has already begun the labor-intensive work of clearing Phragmites seed heads by hand, breaking off and bagging the seed heads. Then the church will help with mowing off the dead stems. As new plants sprout, they will be killed off with careful hand-sprayed herbicide, leaving the good cattails to grow, and replanting cleared areas with native plants that sustain wildlife and pollinators.
The class has collected cattail seed, to replant areas that become bare, and to plant a future retaining pond area next to a church construction site. Students have collected milkweed seed from one of the drainage channels, to plant marsh-adapted milkweed for Monarch butterflies.
The class will also plant flowering plants adapted to wetlends: Northern Blue Flag Iris, Great Blue Lobelia, Fringed Gentian, Marsh Marigold, Smooth Blue Aster, and Cardinal Flower. These plants flower over a range of times, and will provide for pollinators. Cattails provide both food and shelter for local birds and deer. Over the next decade, the A.P. Environment classes will continue monitoring, removing Phragmites, and replanting milkweed and flowers for pollinators, as needed.
This project will be conducted by the 11th Grade A.P. Environment class over several years, involving students from all over Clinton and nearby communities, even towns across the river. Dr. Atkinson says, “Students and parish members will see the landscaping change at the church, and are likely to help spread the word that this difficult invasive plant can be replaced by beautiful marsh plants that help wildlife.”
Dr. Atkinson and the A.P. Environment class are involved in planning, planting, and monitoring three pollinator sites: a dry-soil acre at the Syracuse DNR Wildlife Area in Calamus, the church waterways, and a small pollinator garden at the school property. This variety of planning and providing good environments for wildlife will help students go on to become good stewards of the Earth.
Margo Hansen is the director of programs at Bickehaupt Arboretum.