Neglected courtyard turns into garden lesson at Flint Springs

Flint Springs Elementary School fifth-graders Kayla Ables (left) and Ashlynn Snyder water newly planted vegetable seeds in the school’s courtyard garden on Tuesday, Aug. 25.
Flint Springs Elementary School fifth-graders Kayla Ables (left) and Ashlynn Snyder water newly planted vegetable seeds in the school’s courtyard garden on Tuesday, Aug. 25. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Aug. 31, 2015.

The garden at Flint Springs Elementary School started out as an alternative to a neglected courtyard.

It’s become a mechanism for kids to get their hands into the soil and learn how to grow the food they eat.

It’s also become a way for a couple of dozen fifth-graders to help save the monarch butterflies and, by extension, the human species.

The vegetable garden came first.

“There was a garden, but no one took care of it,” says Master Gardener Sharon Bowman. “The pond and waterfall hadn’t worked in years.”

Maintaining the water feature was expensive and inconvenient, says fifth grade teacher John Stoffel, who is spearheading the project.

“Another teacher suggested that we start a garden,” Stoffel says. “I said, ‘Yes! And I will be the muscle behind it.’ I went out and found Sharon, and she is the brains behind it.”

It was Bowman who suggested adding native plants, especially milkweed, the only plant a monarch butterfly will eat.

Milkweed flourishes in cornfields, but it’s being eradicated for the benefit of the corn, she says.

“We’ve lost so much of their habitat,” she says.

The Flint Springs gardeners are replacing a tiny bit of that habitat, joining gardeners across the country who are doing the same thing. If enough people provide food for the monarch, the orange and black butterflies will be able to flourish and continue their annual migration to points south.

“It’s a piece of a corridor,” Bowman says of the Flint Springs milkweed patch.

The other native flowers in the garden form a habitat beneficial for other pollinators, she adds.

“If we lose all those native pollinators, people will cease to exist,” she says.

That’s why, after Stoffel had cleared the area, Bowman suggested expanding the varieties to include native plants that would attract pollinators.

“It was his vision to create an edible garden in here,” Bowman says.

Adding the native plants, and especially milkweed, adds the school to a small army of gardeners working to stave off the disappearance of the monarch butterfly.

Although garden cleanup and preparation took most of 2014, some plants were added that fall. Lettuce and onions were ready to harvest in the spring of 2015. This fall, Stoffel’s fifth-graders are planting again, with about 25 fifth-graders working in the garden after school.

“I joined last week because I love nature and I love plants and I love animals,” fifth-grader Ainsley Kiefer says. “I’ve learned so many different types of flowers that are native.”

The vegetables skirt the edges of the garden, and a group of fifth grade girls was enthusiastically planting seeds for green beans, radishes, lettuce and borage during a recent after-school session. The seeds may have gone in a bit deep and the water a bit heavy, and it might have been a bit late in the season, but it really didn’t matter.

The seeds need about 60 days of good weather to produce, Bowman says, and planting in late August will probably give them almost that many days before the first frost.

“It will be close,” Stoffel adds. “If we don’t (get a harvest), it’s not like we’re pioneers and our lives depend on it.”

An early cold may even be good for some of the vegetables.

“There isn’t anything sweeter than a carrot harvested in January,” Bowman says.

The scent of garlic permeated the garden as parent Anthony Johnson worked with his daughter and her friends putting bulbs into the ground.

Planting garlic was a new experience for Johnson, who says he’s previously only worked with the more common garden vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and strawberries.
“It was my first time for garlic,” he says.

Fifth-grader Alyssa Uhrick is also expanding her horizons.

“I have a garden at home,” she says.

Uhrick grows tomatoes at home, but does she eat them?

“Kind of,” she says.

While they plant, they keep an eye out for the eggs or caterpillars of monarch butterflies, snatching them up to save them from predators.

Their work is part of a larger effort to mitigate the 90 percent drop in the population of monarch butterflies, Stoffel says.

Last year, Stoffel received a grant through the University of Kansas Monarch Watch program for milkweed, enabling the Flint Springs gardeners to bring back some of the monarchs’ habitat.

They’ve planted milkweed in addition to the wildflowers in the courtyard garden and in a patch outside next to a playground.

When the gardeners find a monarch egg on one of the milkweed leaves, they bring the branch inside to protect it from the predators.

“My wife and I put in a monarch garden,” Stoffel says. “In the wild, only one out of 10 make it. The rest of them get eaten. When we bring them inside, maybe eight out of 10 make it.”

Thousands of people across the country are bringing monarch eggs and caterpillars into predator-free environments, Stoffel says.

Inside the safety of the school library, monarch butterflies can be seen in every stage of development — the eggs, tiny cream-colored specks attached to milkweed leaves; caterpillars clinging to the twigs and leaves; and chrysalides hanging from the screen of the aquarium’s screen.

“It’s neat to watch the kids watch the life cycle,” Stoffel says.

“They’re in the chrysalis about 10 days,” Bowman says. “When they hatch, we’ll take them outside and set them free.”

Until now, the newly-hatched monarchs returned to the outdoors have lived out their two to six-week life spans without straying too far afield. The chrysalides now hanging from the top of the aquarium are different.

“This is the fourth generation,” Bowman explains. “This is the generation that will make the migration down to Mexico.”

These monarchs will live for six to eight months.

This year, Stoffel is hoping for a grant to buy proper butterfly cages to replace the aquarium. The makeshift setup is difficult to keep clean during specific stages of the butterflies’ development.