Weed whackers: Prince of Peace attacks watershed enemy


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

CLINTON — Prince of Peace Parish and school are working together to fight off invaders on parish property: an aggressive army of Phragmites.

These invasive weeds are establishing a presence in the parish’s watershed area. Phragmites are crowding out cattails and causing an ecological problem, said Katherine Atkinson, a high school science teacher at Prince of Peace. “The cattail seed heads are good food for wildlife, but Phragmites are not.”

Prince of Peace Catholic School second-grader Mallory Schnier helps her family clear Pharagmite seedheads in Prince of Peace-Clinton’s watershed area earlier this year.

In February, the parish asked for Atkinson’s assistance in identifying “the large grass that was growing in our water ways, towering over cattails and whether those plants were good or not,” said parish business administrator Dave Schnier. “She did some quick research with her associates and found out that it was an invasive plant.”


Around that time, Iowa American Water Company publicized a grant opportunity for projects that improve, restore or protect watersheds. “The timing was perfect,” Schnier said, and Atkinson applied for and received a grant of $850 for purchasing herbicide.

“The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) advised me on what herbicides to try, that would be safe for the environment,” Atkinson said. She does the spraying to avoid exposing youths to the chemicals.

But the herbicide alone can’t tackle the Phragmites because they’ve been somewhat resistant to the weed-destroying agent at full-size. It has taken an army of students and members of the parish’s Landscape Committee to further reduce the weed’s impact.

This past spring Aktinson’s students removed seed heads from the weeds, with help from some of their parents and the Schnier family. This slowed the spread of the weeds, but the seed heads grew back, Atkinson lamented.

Parishioner Jerome Burken mowed over one long waterway, cutting both species. As the sprouts have come up, Atkinson applies herbicide to the Phragmite sprouts only. So far, this method is working well. “The cattails are growing back nicely — they have benefited from thinning out a bit, and should be providing seed heads for winter wildlife food,” Atkinson said, adding that birds are especially fond of cattails.

Schnier and his sons, Kevin and Payton, have been working another strategy on a small patch of Phragmites in the other ditch on church property. “They tried a weed-whacker and a machete, but stems are just too tough. Dave cut down the weed with a chainsaw – exhausting work, in Atkinson’s opinion. The sons have dragged the cut stems to a burn pile.

Atkinson said the DNR has an interest in seeing what works and what doesn’t at Prince of Peace. “Phragmites, rampant in Michigan and marshy areas to the east of Iowa, are showing up in our waterways, next to cattails in river backwaters and roadside ditches,” Atkinson said. “The Phragmites are pretty tough … This is likely to be a 10-year project, with continuous seed head removal, mowing, spraying and monitoring.”


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