Lemon Avenue Elementary School
Monarch butterflies are amazing creatures. These orange, white and black insects not only delight us with their beauty and help pollinate flowers in the garden and in the wild; they also migrate long distances – sometimes thousands of miles – every year to spend the winter in a milder climate.
Unfortunately, these beautiful butterflies are in trouble. Monarch populations have declined by over 90% in the past twenty years, mainly because of habitat loss. In the U.S. modern agricultural practices and urban and suburban development have led to loss of important grasslands habitat and a sharp decline in the number of milkweed plants that are vital for monarch reproduction. Milkweed is crucial because the monarch’s larval or caterpillar stage feeds exclusively on milkweed plants before changing into a chrysalis and emerging 10-14 days later as an adult butterfly. No milkweed means no caterpillars, and no caterpillars means no adult butterflies.
Concern for the welfare of monarchs was the inspiration behind the Saving the Monarchs garden project devised by the students and staff at the Lemon Avenue Elementary School in La Mesa, California, the Grand Prize winner of our 2017 Carton 2 Garden contest, sponsored by Evergreen Packaging. The idea for the project grew out of admiration for the beautiful “monarch waystation” garden planted by a neighbor to the school campus in her front yard. Learning of the school’s interest, this neighbor was eager to share her knowledge. She visited the school garden and talked to the students about the importance of monarchs and growing milkweed. She also offered to help students build a cage for rearing butterflies. From this shared passion, the idea of creating a Carton 2 Garden contest entry dedicated to helping monarchs was born.
Says Lemon Avenue School’s Garden Program Chair Aimee Benson, “Our goals were to provide students with a greater understanding about monarchs, their important role as a pollinators, and how they contribute to the health of our planet. Secondly, we wanted to educate students, their families and our community what they can do to help encourage the monarch population. We created a program that would include recycling, composting, harvesting and planting milkweed seed, and community outreach activities where Lemon Avenue students could promote a better understanding about the monarch life cycle and how people can encourage this process by planting milkweed in their home landscape and gardens.”
Students started by recycling 500 milk cartons from the school cafeteria and using them as pots for growing milkweed plants. “Because milkweed is has become so scare in our landscapes, a primary goal of our Carton 2 Garden project was to encourage students, families and members of our neighboring community to plant milkweed to encourage the monarch butterfly population. This was achieved by creating milkweed seed packets and planting 500 milkweed starters and giving these out in the community,” says Ms. Benson. This was a school-wide project, she notes. “Students across grades and classrooms worked in concert with their fellow students in gathering, cleaning and decorating the milk cartons, in addition with cultivating a waystation at the school garden. Students worked collaboratively at virtually every phase of this program, and reached out to the community to share what they have learned about the importance of monarchs and how the simple act of planting milkweed can help nurture the population.”
In addition to creating a registered monarch waystation on the school campus, students created “free milkweed” signage and gave away seed packets and starter plants in a basket displayed outside the school garden to encourage parents and neighbors to plant milkweed at home. Students also attended the Cuyamaca Water Conservation Garden one Saturday and gave away 150 free milkweed plants; then returned to give away milkweed plants during the Garden’s Butterfly Festival. Students also gave away hundreds of milkweed plants to families at garden events, including the Open House Dinner and after school lemonade sales.
Educators at Lemon Avenue Elementary consider their school garden a laboratory for students to discover, observe and experience the science of nature directly, and the school’s monarch waystation allows the students to do just that. “Students learned first-hand about the monarch life cycle by experiencing its beauty from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Students have witnessed the entire life cycle tens of times within their student-built monarch habitat,” says Ms. Benson. “The release of a monarch in the Lemon Avenue garden is met with much fanfare and anticipation. Selecting a child to oversee the release of each new monarch back into the general population is a big deal!”