One of the goals of Native Plant Society of Texas is to reach a younger generation and educate about the importance of native nectar plants for Monarch butterflies.
Texas serves as an important wildlife corridor for the migrating Monarchs. It is so important to remember that native plants benefit our native pollinators and wildlife. With this in mind, I began a journey exploring the creation of schoolyard gardens with native plants and teaching about Monarch butterflies. I have been encouraged to share my experience with others.
Who? Having the vision and going the distance
The power of one begins the project, and as more become involved the fun factor increases and the workload decreases. The most important thing to remember is that the goal is sustainability of the garden experience for the children. Plan on a garden project that can surpass the 3-year mark and beyond. Future grant applications may require 3-5 years of sustainability to receive the funds.
It takes dedicated team members willing to act as consultant, representative, advocate, maintenance and educator. Having a designated and diversified team is so beneficial. Encourage citizens, children groups, master naturalists, garden clubs and master gardeners to become members of the team. It is easy to want to take over the garden, but remember this should be a kid driven project along with their teacher. We are needed to prevent failure and promote sustainability.
The mobility of supporting teachers and principals can disrupt the project, so it is very important to have an ongoing relationship with the school and community support.
Our goal must be sustainability or else we teach school children about failure.
What is available to accomplish the goal?
Cathy Downs, chair for the Bring Back the Monarchs to Texas committee, introduced me to the grant criteria and application process. The application process becomes available in early January. The deadline for this year’s application is February 15. A committee reviews each application and if granted the funds become available by the first of March. The funds can vary from $50-$400 depending on if the garden is being created or is in need of more plants to supplement. The grant is available only for the purchase of native plants and milkweed. A report is due on the garden project by June 30 to show how the garden benefits the students and community. We are also interested in the struggles of goal accomplishments of the project. The funds are available only in the spring at this time.
It is important to remember that our Society chapters cannot apply for the grant. Society members should be willing to act as a consultant to the application process, including design, purchasing native plants and the plant installation phase. Also note the US Fish & Wildlife Service contract for three years is now attached with the application link.
Links for application and criteria
When do we start?
It is never too late to begin planning the garden project. Consider all the elements that will be needed in the late fall so that the project begins in earnest with the spring grant application and criteria. The grant process is earlier this year to ensure that the funds for the native plant purchase are available to get the plants in the ground before the end of the school year.
Where to Begin: School superintendent, school principal, teacher, student
Of all these levels, it would be best to consider starting at the top with the school superintendent. With their support, the principals are contacted, the teachers are recruited and the students reap the benefits of the program through participation. To begin at a lower staff level could cause delays. Knowing a support base has been established through the highest level inspires principals and teachers.
Have a written understanding with the school on supplies needed for the project. Water hoses, sprayers, tools for the children, mulch, top soil, materials for creating hardscape, granite for pathways and organic fertilizers are generally not covered with grants. Will there be supplies for the children propagating native plants for their gardens for spring or fall? Will there be time allotted for the education of native plants and Monarch programs in a formal or informal setting?
Consider schools that are close to you. This comes in very helpful when energy is running low and there are several schools that are joining the effort. Anticipate the need for planning meetings, consulting on the garden, and the chance to teach the students about the importance of their gardens to Monarchs in an after school program.
Gardens should be located close to the school and have a water source nearby. Tools should be available for children to work in the garden. Other considerations are sun vs. shade, drainage, soil type and weed control, garden soil if needed and mulch. Materials to build raised beds or line flowerbeds are also a consideration. Herbicides, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers should not be used around children. These chemicals are toxic to children and wildlife. Go organic and be safe! Check for poisonous plants and label them. Also check with the school to see if they have guidelines.
I have one school that has two large locked inner courtyards, and the rest of the schools allow access at anytime. Schools usually have summer office staff available so developing a relationship with them is key.
It is important that someone be present that has a strong basic knowledge of native plants when the planting begins. Consideration needs to be given for plant spacing, light conditions, water requirements and grouping considerations. The rule of thumb for a Monarch Waystation certification through Monarch Watch is one milkweed to three native nectar plants.
I do not recommend tilling a garden site in hopes of eradicating weeds. A rich seed bank of weed seeds will be disturbed and the endless battle continues. One should disturb the soil as little as possible due to the dynamics of the soil structure, permeability and microbes.
I used the herbicide Round-up very sparingly on hard to control weeds and only during the summer break. Cardboard secured with landscape pins and covered with mulch is very beneficial. I cut a hole in the cardboard when planting to put in the new starts. I am not a fan of spreading plastic over an area as it destroys the beneficial bacteria, fungus and worms. The soil bakes, leaving it without life and makes recovery a very slow process. Amendments are definitely required to recreate the life cycle of soil when this technique is used. Using cardboard also complimented the school’s recycling program goals.
Where are those milkweeds?
Excellent question! Available native milkweed is proving to be a challenge. The Bring the Monarchs to Texas committee is always searching for local growers to propagate milkweed and to increase their availability. If you have a favorite nursery, please let us know. Many members are learning techniques to propagate milkweed in different eco-regions of Texas. We are learning that native milkweed has a long maturing time of 18-24 months. The roots must be mature to have transplant and establishment success, withstand the caterpillars eating the plant, and surviving the seasons in their desired climate and soil type; establishment also depends on the variety of plant. Below are links to excellent resources regarding Monarch butterfly conservation programs:
In conclusion, this is a very worthwhile project and creates a legacy with a younger generation about the importance of endangered species and the important role of native plants in their environment. Be willing to show success. Failure is not an option because it will have a longer lasting impact on their lives.
The article is written in memory of Faye Tessnow for her work in creating Texas Native Plant Week. Her desire was to educate school children about the importance of native plants.