There’s a steady series of thumps and scrapes as the students work their way down the hillside on the east side of Nixon Hall.

It’s a cold, blustery Sunday afternoon. Armed with hoes, pitchforks and other implements, they work to rough up the ground in front of them to expose the soil.

While it may not seem like the most ideal time to think about planting, the weather is actually perfect to begin transforming the area into a colorful home to a variety of wildflowers, says Dr. Katie Kilmer, assistant professor of biology and environmental health at Missouri Southern.

While the region is still firmly in the grasp of winter, the process of cold stratification will help prepare the seeds to germinate.

“Our longterm goal is that this entire steep hillside that’s just grass and kind of stressful for our landscaping crew to have to mow … to convert all of this over to a wildflower habitat,” she says. “It could be a community resource, a campus resource that could be used as an outdoor classroom, and from an ecological context to attract more pollinators.”

Nearly 20 students have gathered on this afternoon to begin planting, though the work to prepare the area for this day began back in the Fall 2020 semester.

Bobbi Monroe, a senior biology major, began the prep work last year as part of a service-learning project.

“It was actually a slow process,” she says, taking a moment to pause from her work scraping up the ground along the hillside. “We had to clear off the grass and spray herbicide on both sides of the hill. It took the whole course of last semester because everything didn’t die right away.”

Dr. Jason Willand, chair of the biology and environmental health department, worked with a group of students in late January to do a controlled burn on both sides of the building to help prepare the ground.

“It was fairly windy that day,” says Gabe McClain, a sophomore biology major who assisted with the burn and came back to help with the planting. “We started at one end and worked toward the building because that would be a good fire stop.”

While he’s earning extra credit for his work on this afternoon, he says he would be here without it.

“I want to get into wildlife biology, so I wanted to be here to help with the whole process. I’m excited to see what it turns into.”

The mixture of sand and wildflower seeds don’t seem to want to work with the hand-cranked seed dispensers, so students are soon spreading the seed mixture by hand along the hillside. Once finished, they roll biodegradable burlap blankets over the hill to protect the seeds.

“We’re using all native wildflowers – a mix of about 30 to 40 different species that are appropriate for this kind of soil,” says Kilmer. “They’re all native Missouri plants, and all pollinator specific plants. The goal is to have things blooming over the entire course of the year.”

While some of the wildflowers will begin blooming this year, it will be next summer before the full results of their work will be on display. Black-eyed Susan, prairie blazing star, coneflowers, goldenrod, sunflowers, milkweed, ironweed and asters are among the variety of wildflowers being planted.

At the top of the hill, there are plans for a living fence, she says. Posts with steel cables running between will line the area, with native vining plants eventually covering them.

The project is a pilot run, with hopes to eventually expand the wildflower planting to more areas.

It was a long road to get to this day, says Monroe.

“But once the seed is down and we build the fence, we get to wait for the pretty stuff to happen,” she says.