Green Thumbs for Blue Lakes

Lake pollution often is measured in levels of phosphorous, long used to fertilize lawns. Although ban on the chemical for lawns went into effect in 2004, it is still a legal fertilizer for other types of gardens.

When excess nutrients build up in Minnesota lakes, it leads to a harmful domino effect on aquatic ecology.  Phosphorous leads to algae blooms. Algae blooms can block sunlight to native aquatic plants and lead to temperature changes in the water. When the algae blooms die, the resulting bacteria causes a depletion of oxygen, which in turn kills fish and insects.

Being the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” you can understand why this topic would be important.  As Minnesotans, we are awful fond of all forms of water recreation.  No one wants to swim, boat, or fish in a green, stinky lake.  All the more reason why this blog entry and Star Tribune article could pertain and appeal to you!  Even if you don’t think you live close enough to a lake or stream to make a difference, you can make a contribution towards cleaner waters in Minnesota by starting in your backyard.

Take the Rice Creek Watershed, for example.  Rice Creek cuts a 28-mile path through the northern Twin Cities metro area, from Columbus to New Brighton, before emptying into the Mississippi River in Fridley. But the area that feeds into the creek extends across 200 square miles of shoreline, tributaries and runoff sewers in 28 cities and four counties. That’s a lot of water and unfortunately, a lot of potential for pollution. 

As Dawn Pape, environmental education coordinator for the Rice Creek Watershed District, puts it, "Everybody has lakeshore property now, because your street is connected to the nearest lake, river and stream somewhere. The whole metro area is connected to the Mississippi."

But there is hope!  Rice Creek Watershed District's outreach program, Blue Thumb Planting for Clean Water, helps homeowners and gardeners to choose and place native plants to filter rainwater and prevent erosion through its website and live workshops.

Here is how it works:  Native grasses and plants are used, like golden Alexander, blue flag iris, woodland phlox, prairie smoke, black-eyed susan, and native grasses.  They’re planted in swaths along shorelines and downgrades, and span sometimes 20 feet across.  The plants help to filter out the potentially harmful runoff of grass clippings, sediment, fertilizer and other substances that are polluting metro-area lakes. 

The greenery is very beautiful, as wildflowers and tall grasses offer a colorful alternative to shorter grasses.  When the summer is dry and hot, and your lawn reflects it, the native grasses and plants will still be green and blooming.  The foliage will attract butterflies and song birds, and in some cases will prevent geese from setting up shop.  And, unlike traditional gardens, there is little to no upkeep once the garden is planted.

Blue Thumb is offering grants to partially fund some projects. This year, the district had $22,500 each for projects in Anoka, Ramsey and Washington counties. Future funding will depend on residents' demand.

Since its inception four years ago, Blue Thumb has garnered 46 public, private and nonprofit partners. Since February, it has sponsored at least 45 workshops, educating thousands of people about preserving clean water through mindful gardening. Visits to the website,, have doubled since this time last year.

For more information, go to Grants are administered by county conservation districts.

Don’t live in the Rice Creek Watershed District? Other watershed districts may offer clean-water gardening grants. For help finding a district, go to or

If you want to start your own rain or native garden, check out this link from the DNR which offers tips and information about planting native gardens in Minnesota. This link, also from the DNR, has information regarding rain or storm water gardens.

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