Bringing Nature Home

It was a warm August day when I pulled up at the Rambosek home in Woodbury. Tucked behind a dense patch of woods at the end of a dirt strip driveway, I found a rustic farmhouse, a corn crib, a picturesque red barn, and an old, yellow dog – not the typical Woodbury scene. I had met owners Cheryl and Tom earlier that month at the Washington County fair, and promptly invited myself over when I heard about their prairie. It’s not often you find a nearly 20-year old prairie in the middle of suburbia.

The Rambosek’s bought their home in 1980 when most of Woodbury was still corn fields and open space. The house sat on eight acres of land, and the previous owners had been renting out the front and back fields to local farmers. A handful of trees and scrubby brush around the house were the only natural vegetation in sight. Tom immediately set to work planting the field between the house and the road with trees from the Minnesota State Forest Nursery, sold in bundles of 500. “That was when I was young. I can’t do that anymore!” he laughed, saying he soon switched over to buying trees from the Washington Conservation District in smaller bundles of 25.

Tom Rambosek leads the way through his prairie in Woodbury, MN with his dog following close behind.

For a few years, the Ramboseks continued renting out their back acre until they eventually decided to convert the land to prairie. “We were only making about $25 an acre for rental, so it wasn’t really worth it to us financially,” Tom explained. In 1999, they attended a presentation at Century College, given by local restoration ecologist Steve Thomforde, and were inspired to create a prairie of their own. With Thomforde’s help, they came up with a planting plan and went to work.

Because the land had been farmed intensively for several years and was essentially weed-free, it was actually pretty easy to convert to prairie. Tom disc plowed the field to loosen up the soil and then they sprinkled it with seed. Over the years since then, they’ve burned the prairie a few times, most recently with help from Prairie Restorations Inc., but have never had many problems with invading weeds due to the buffer of corn fields still surrounding their property.

Today, Cheryl and Tom Rambosek’s prairie is an oasis of color and life. During my visit last August, I counted dozens of different flowers in bloom – cup plant, compass plant, rattlesnake master, bee balm, purple coneflower, yellow coneflower, false indigo, blazing star, and asters, in addition to stately grasses like big and little bluestem. Monarch butterflies, black swallowtails and yellow swallowtails danced in the breeze as they flitted from flower to flower. Bird song filled the air. Cheryl showed me her many different paths through the prairie, and I marveled at how different the landscape looked from every angle.

During a visit in August, the Rambosek prairie was in full bloom.
Rattlesnake master is one of the many unique flowers that grows in prairies.

Though the Rambosek’s began their landscape restoration efforts more than thirty years ago, many Minnesotans are just beginning to develop an interest in gardening with native plants. To help people get started, the Washington Conservation District offers free site visits (April – October) to identify best locations for plantings, connect landowners with available grants, and suggest flowers, shrubs and trees to plant. They also sell low-cost trees for larger habitat projects, $35 for 25 trees. Request a spring site visit or order trees on-line at www.mnwcd.org.

Local nonprofit Wild Ones also provides information and inspiration to help people create natural landscapes. The annual Wild Ones Design with Nature Conference will be held on Saturday, Feb. 17, 9am-4:30pm at University of St. Thomas. This year’s conference theme is “Natural landscape as the new norm,” and guest speakers will include Jared Rosenbuam and Rachel Mackow, sharing ideas for nourishing wildlife and incorporating edible and medicinal plants into landscaping; and Catherine Zimmerman, producer of Hometown Habitat, who will share stories from people around the country who’ve exchanged conventional yards for natural landscapes. Learn more and register at www.designwithnatureconference.org. Early bird discount ends on Jan. 27.