The seed bombing of Water Street… Who’s in?

Since we last spoke about the idea of seed bombing Water Street, quite a bit has happened. Most notably, I’ve been in discussions with representatives of the City, as well as various people in the community who profess to know a thing or two about native plant species, bio-remediation, landscaping, and the like. What follow are my rough notes. Please let me know if you have any questions, or, better yet, suggestions as to how we might better move this project forward. And, as always, I’d love to know if you’d be available to help out. If so, please leave a comment… or join the Seed Bomb Water Street group that I just set up on Facebook.

The above map (a larger version of the which can be found here) shows the remaining areas of contamination on the site, as well as the area that City Planner Teresa Gillotti and I have reached agreement on concerning seed bombing. The size of the parcel is, by my rough calculation, a little under 1.5 acres, and sits just west of River Street, right alongside Michigan Avenue. As you’ll notice, it’s a considerable distance from three three remaining areas of contamination (marked by green, red and blue on the map), so there shouldn’t be any risk, as some have warned, of the plants pulling toxins up to the surface. (It’s doubtful that it would have been an issue anyway, as the remaining contaminants, from what I’m told, are some 20-feet below the surface in the areas indicated, but we still thought that we’d play it safe and limit our activities to the dark green area shown above.) Another benefit of this site, in addition to being highly visible from the road, is that the soil here will likely be more conducive to plant growth than the property closer to Park Street, which is largely covered in crushed concrete. The City’s remediation consultant, as I understand it, still needs to sign off on the seed bombing, but no one that I’ve spoken with thus far seems to think there will be an issue.

The City currently maintains the first 100 feet or so back from Michigan Avenue… which essentially means that they mow it about once a month. In exchange for their not mowing the plot in question, and killing the flowers and plants that spring forth as a result of our proposed activities, they have requested that we – the seed bombers – sign up to take care of this section of the Water Street parcel for one year. As it doesn’t sound terribly onerous, I don’t imagine it will be a problem to find volunteers to join me, but, unless I can field a team over the weekend, this initiative likely won’t move forward. As for what it entails, as I understand it, we’d have to pick up trash once a month or so, and make sure that the piece of land in question doesn’t become overrun by weeds, etc. Our application, according to City Planner Teresa Gillotti, would have to be signed-off on by the Recreation Commission prior to the seed bombing of the property, but, as luck would have it, it looks as though they’re meeting on April 11, and I’m told that, if we get the paperwork in on Monday, they’d be able to give us a decision at that meeting. So, if we can line up some volunteers in the next few days, this all might work out. (A copy of the City’s “Adopt-A-Park” form can be found here.)

Given the fact that we need to get these seed bombs deployed before our spring rain showers start in earnest, I think that we need to do this in the next three weeks or so. And, having now spoken with quite a few folks, there are two specific dates which seem as though they could make sense. The first is Saturday, April 20 – the day on which volunteers will already be gathering on Water Street to plant several hundred trees. And, the second is the evening of Wednesday, May 1 – when several folks are planning to be on Water Street, celebrating May Day. In either case, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to procure materials, and make seed bombs… So we need to get started ASAP, if we’re going to do this.

A number of people have shared thoughts on the kinds of seeds that we should include in the seed bomb mix. Following are some of the points which have been brought up thus far.

1. I think everyone agrees that we want to use native species. Not only is it the right thing to do, in terms of environmental stewardship, but it’s also practical, in that native plants require less human intervention.

2. Following along the same line of reasoning, it’s also been suggested that we stay away from the likes of the shasta daisy, queen anne’s lace, chickory, and daylillies, even though they do quite well here, and have important uses (contraceptive, food, drink, medicinal). True native plants, as Lisa Bashert reminds us, “provide an environment for communities of wildlife, and restore a natural balance in our local environment. They also make our PLACE here in SE Michigan uniquely beautiful and different from other locales.”

3. Lisa also suggests that we consider bees when choosing our plants, making sure that we include good nectar plants, which will help to sustain our local population of pollinators.

4. The folks in City government have asked that we not plant a field of sunflowers, as, when full-grown, they would obstruct the view of law enforcement officers patrolling near the site. It’s something that hadn’t occurred to me when I set out to do this, but I suppose that it makes sense that police officers would prefer to be able to see further into the site from Michigan Avenue, as people have been known to dump garbage, and worse, on the property. I don’t imagine that a random sunflower or two would be too bad, but, as they’ve made the request, I think we should steer clear of sunflower seeds.

5. It’s been suggested that, before deploying our seed bombs, that we should first remove the invasive species from the site, like buckthorn and garlic mustard.

6. Jesse Tack, of Whole Culture Repair suggests that we consider adding diakon radishes, parsnips, squash, and chard to the wildflower mix, saying that we should strive for a “polyculture of plants.”

7. Tack also suggests that add a myco inoculant (a root biostimulant to the seed ball mix.

8. Ben Connor Barrie, a graduate student in Natural Resources at U-M, suggests that we include butterfly milkweed in the mix, as it’s a small clonal perennial that does well in poor sandy soils. (Bees and other pollinators also love it, he says.) Lisa Bashert agrees, saying that they provide excellent bee forage. She suggests that we include swamp milkweed (hot pink) and the butterfly weed (bright orange), saying that they’re “a little more ornamental, and shorter than the regular light mauve, common milkweed.” Jeff Clark also suggests butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). And, EMU professor Jim Egge adds that “Eradication of milkweed is thought to be a major cause of the precipitous decline in monarch butterfly populations in recent years.” So, I’d say that milkweed will likely make the cut.

9. Ben Connor Barrie also suggested Jerusalem artichoke, which is a perennial relative of the sunflower. Lisa Bashert seconds his suggestion, saying that Jerusalem artichoke, while tall, are are “more delicate and slender than cultivated sunflowers, and, as part of a mix, should not obstruct views.”

In addition to Jesse Tack, Lisa Bashert, Stefanie Stauffer and Bonnie Wessler, I have intentions to contact the folks at Ann Arbor’s Native Plant Nursery, Mason’s Wildtype, Ann Arbor’s Wild Ones chapter, the Michigan Botanical Club, the Michigan Native Plant Producers Association and the MSU Extension Service… and all of my friends who are certified Master Gardeners. My hope is, by next week at this time we can all come to some agreement as to the best mix possible for the site.

[There were other notes, on everything from the temperatures at which seeds germinate to the attraction of rodents, and I’d encourage those of you who are interested to follow the links above, and read through them as well.]

Until we know exactly which seeds we’ll be using, it’s hard to say. Joseph Yaroch, however, did some quick searching and found “wildflower seed mixes for Michigan” selling about $75 per pound, with a recommendation that one use about 10 pounds per acre. That, however, as Yaroch points out, is what one would need if one wanted a fully-seeded meadow in one year’s time, whereas we’d likely be happy to start teraforming with less, and see what happens over time, as these perennials spread. And, for all we know, the kinds of seeds that we decide to choose could be more costly. So, unless someone comes through with an offer to underwrite the whole thing, I think that we need to assume that this will cost us at least $500… which means that we need to start thinking of ways to raise some money.

And, here, in case you’re new to the concept of seed bombs, is a little tutorial.

And remember to join the Seed Bomb Water Street Facebook group, OK? …And invite your friends.

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  1. Malissa
    Posted April 6, 2013 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a fantastic idea. I’m in.

  2. Posted April 7, 2013 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    Glad to have you onboard, Malissa.

  3. John Galt
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    When making the balls, you could also include rat poison and insecticide.

  4. Lisa Dengiz
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    A perfect grant for the Awesome Foundation?:)

  5. Posted April 7, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Mark, here are some other ideas for plants for Water Street:

    Butterfly milkweed is a small clonal perennial that does quite well in poor sandy soils. Bees and other pollinators love it.

    Jerusalem artichoke is a perennial relative of the sunflower. It could invoke the image of sunflowers while not obstructing the view quite as much.

  6. Jim
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I like this idea.

    Please plant some milkweed. Eradication of milkweed is thought to be a major cause of the precipitous decline in monarch butterfly populations in recent years.

    Be careful when purchasing seeds. “Wildflower” mixes can include invasive non-native species. Getting advice from Native Plant Nursery, Wildtype, and others is a good idea. You could also reach out to the local Wild Ones chapter for help.

  7. Emma
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I have some milkweed seed from Ypsilanti Milkweed plants (not sure of the variety but they grew themselves here) in my yard. They can be delivered by me, to someone, in Ypsilanti for free. Haven’t looked at them lately to see how many have blown away to “infest” my neighbor’s lawns but all that remain can be yours.

  8. Oliva
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    We’re in–and so happy that you are such a immediate and reliable force for good, Mark.
    I’m working on a project about Lincoln, saw this fitting bit:

    “an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence . . .”
    –Abraham Lincoln, thanking Ohio troops, August 22, 1864

    (Actual context, for your interest:
    “I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each one of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence . . .”)

  9. JC
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) would be excellent. We’ve got a lot of it saved as seed; it won’t bloom til the following year, but I’m happy to contribute it.

  10. Patrick McLean
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    The city of Columbus 3 yrs ago found itself in a similar situation. In the center of its downtown, where an indoor mall had once stood, there was suddenly a vacant field. The city decided to use it as an urban park on a temporary basis until a more permanent use could be found. Grass was planted, a few paved pathways were established. Three years later, it has become a much used park where outdoor movies are shown in the summer, bands play, food carts have set up shop, a kids ride area has been established, and people playing frisbee, walking or just taking their lunch or dinner hour are common. Thus was born Columbus Commons. There is now some rethinking about whether it makes sense to push the development. AND the business area contiguous to the park has suddenly taken off, turning the most neglected area of downtown into one of the most vibrant.

  11. Posted April 7, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    All great suggestions above — I love both Wildtype & NPP and completely trust Wild Ones as sources for advice. I agree that milkweeds provide excellent bee forage. Including the swamp milkweed (hot pink) and the butterfly weed (bright orange) will be excellent — and a little more ornamental, plus they are shorter than the “regular” light mauve common milkweed. The native sunflower varieties, including Jerusalem Artichoke, are all tall but more delicate and slender than cultivated sunflowers and as part of a mix should not obstruct views.

  12. Posted April 7, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all for the kind words, offers of help, and ideas regarding the kinds of seeds that we include. The last time I checked, we had well over 100 “likes” on Facebook, so I’m fairly optimistic that we will be able to pull it off. I did want to apologize, however, to one person that was offended by my assessment of Water Steet. She didn’t like my use of the term “barren”, and rightfully so. There’s a great deal of beauty on the 38 acres…. especially along the river. I was just referring to the Michigan Avenue frontage, which looks like hell. Fortunately, though, it looks like that might be terperary.

  13. Dav Chap
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m so there, it’s these small eco gestures that define the collective sense in grass roots action. Looking forward!

  14. anonymous
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Is there a place that we could begin collecting donations of clay and compost?

  15. double anonymous
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I don’t know how real a threat it is, but might this plot be torn up if the rec center project moves forward?

  16. JC
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    who cares? the point is to be enlivening it now.

  17. JC
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    And maybe, as Patrick states above, people will grow to love it.

  18. Posted April 8, 2013 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Awesome! Also remembering that there already are quite a good amount of wild edible/medicinals that have grown up on their own since demolition of the buildings. Last summer harvested lots of yarrow, st. john’s wort, goldenrod, mugwort, and mullein further into the plot. So planting along MI Ave frontage, I’m in full support. May be able to donate some seed ball clay/materials we have left over from Giving Garden/EcoJustice events – echoing question of where to gather these materials until I’m guessing May Day festivities?
    Also – re: will this be ripped up when rec center building starts (not until 2014 if recalling correctly?), that plot is hugging the B2B trail/existing driveway/parking lot and not where Mark’s map shows us best to target – thanks to much conversation and consideration with amiable city folks.

  19. Ypsi fan
    Posted April 8, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m down with the whole idea! I’d love to volunteer for maintenance, trash pick-up, weeding, seed planting, donations, anything to see this project really happen. I also know 2-3 others who would be interested in helping out.

    Please keep posting more information about this, like how to officially sign up for volunteering, where to donate, etc. when things get more organized.

  20. Posted April 9, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I saw your email come across the Ann Arbor Wild Ones email list. What a wonderful project! I wanted to provide my two cents too, as follows!

    1. I am concerned about the long term outcomes of the project. If this land is to be developed, all this thought process and work and money might be better spent elsewhere, where more long term benefits could be effected. It sounds like the City owns the land, what are their plans for it? Is there a portion of the land which is less likely to be developed? Also, will people view this has a lot full of weeds even if it is full of native plants?

    2. Seed dispersal ala nature is actually not very effective as germination rates in nature are relatively low, usually. And even if a seed lands on soil, there is usually existing vegetation already close by that will easily out compete the seedling for the nutrients and moisture in the soil. As seeds are expensive, obtaining a higher germination rate when sowing seeds is desirable. Doing something to improve seed soil contact, such as disking the top 1 or 2 inches of the soil before sowing, can help improve germination rates and also temporary set back the existing vegetation.

    3. You may possibly receive advice that the entire area needs to be treated with a broad leaf herbicide, such as Roundup (glyphosphate) before sowing. However, spreading a poisonous pesticide around in the environment at the start of a ecologically purposeful project makes about as much sense as….well, it does not make sense at all to me. Getting immediate results of ridding the landscape of noxious weeds might be easier with pesticides, but the short term results will eventually be outweighed by the long term consequences. Plus, it is quite possible to transform the landscape without pesticides. There are a number of ways to successfully transform this area into a prairie, that do not involve use of pesticides.

    4. Missing on your list of possible native seed sources is the Michigan Wildflower Farm, Esther Durnwald, one of the owners, is quite knowledgeable.

    5. Without prairie maintenance, the landscape will go through forest succession, meaning it will slowly turn into a forest! Historically much of the landscape in southeast Michigan was a oak savannah ecosystem. Natural wildfires started by Native Americans and lightning swept through the area with regularity. Many plants native to this area are adapted to fire. Many of the non native plants that moved into the area after fire suppression started with the arrival of European settlers are not adapted to fire. Thus, prescribed fire burning is possibly the most effective method that landscape managers have in this area for ecological restoration. Dave Borneman, of Restoring Nature with Fire, can probably share his expertise.

    6. Annual mowing the plot is an alternative to fire. Mowing somewhat similates burning the prairie, and some of the same benefits, especially in regards to preventing forest succession.

    7. Interpretation Signage is super important (in my opinion) to inform the public about the project.

    Maybe that was my three cents.

  21. Posted April 10, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Got this in my email from the “Good” emails I get from this do-goody type organization:

  22. Posted April 10, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Patti. I’ll check it out.

  23. Posted April 12, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I love the idea of a controlled burn. Happen to have a neighbor on Grant Street who is employed by Natural Area Preservation (NAP) in Ann Arbor to do just that! I will talk to her.

  24. Jonson
    Posted September 22, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    It drove by today and saw the tiny sprout of a dollar store making its way up through the soil. Nature is so beautiful.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Read Mark’s post on Seed Bombing Water Street Like this:Like Loading… […]

  2. […] The initial idea People coming together to make it happen Making seed bombs with local kids Making seed bombs with local adults The successful seed bombing Finding historical precedent for a commons on Water Street The day the official sign went up The sprouts started coming up The prairie first came to life […]

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