Newsroom Midwest Region

Filling the city with butterflies

May 16, 2017

Greenhouse at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.
Greenhouse at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.

We love monarch butterflies and so does Des Moines, Iowa! Since 2015, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge has been working for more than two years to get more monarchs in and around this city of 209,000 people through an innovative collaboration called People for Pollinators.

On May 11, Perkins Elementary School, and the wider school community, became the proud owners of a new 10,000 square-foot native butterfly garden in the heart of the city. Perkins students, second to fifth grade, dug in and helped plant more than a dozen kinds of native flowers, grasses and milkweed.

“Our Perkins garden defines the tranquility and community we share each and every day of our lives,” said Perkins Elementary Principal Dan Koss.

School gardens are a natural fit for classroom teaching at all grade levels. They make people smile and add to our quality of life in so many ways. After the day-long planting, Perkins staff and students welcomed the neighborhood for an open house to learn more about how they can make a home for monarchs in neighboring gardens.

“Being outside is so important for our kids. Our hope is that the teachers can utilize these gardens in different areas of their studies,” said Jen Chedester with the Perkins Elementary Parent Teacher Association.

“We also hope that the kids will bring their family and friends back to explore and really develop an appreciation for nature,” continued Chedester.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Des Moines is an anchor point for monarchs and other pollinators. Not only is the refuge a hub of education for local schools, it is also a huge propagation center for this project. Thanks to local volunteers and better utilization of greenhouses, refuge biologists grow more than 30,000 native plants for Des Moines and other parts of the monarch flyway.

“This garden encapsulates everything we’re trying to achieve through the People for Pollinators movement. We’re creating habitat, we’re raising pollinator awareness, and we’re engaging the community in creating a shared resource,” said People For Pollinators Coordinator Patrick Bryant.

The new garden features a variety of essential monarch food sources like common, swamp, and whorled milkweed. While it’s key to have milkweed in any monarch garden, it’s also essential to plant pollinator-friendly nectar flowers like black-eyed Susan, mountain mint, and hoary vervain to provide adult butterflies food and places to rest. Various grasses were also interspersed to provide wildlife cover and pollinator hibernation sites over the fall and winter months.

“We chose these plant species for several reasons. They are pollinator-friendly, native species that are adapted for Iowa’s climate and growing conditions. They also provide nectar throughout the growing season, making this an attractive schoolyard garden, since people may not be around to see summer blooms,” continued Bryant.

When creating your butterfly garden, make sure to think across the timeline of the whole growing season, from early spring to late fall. Selecting native species also make for a low maintenance garden.

From prairie to school - growing for education

Refuge staff harvested and grew most of the plants at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, with some seed collection going back multiple seasons. While they are able to harvest several thousand pounds of seed from the prairie through bulk combine, volunteers also harvest some of the species by hand, only a few ounces at a time.

A large part of the People For Pollinators program is empowering communities to connect with pollinators and Iowa’s native prairie. Inviting people to the refuge to experience it firsthand is great, but not always practical, so school gardens are a great way to make that first invitation.

“If we bring the prairie to people’s backyards, it creates a powerful connection and personal sense of ownership,” said Bryant.  

The next step is to tie school gardens into the school’s environmental education curriculum. A great example of this is the refuge greenhouse program. This past year, they hosted greenhouse programs with five area schools and engaged students and teachers in the growing process. Starting in winter, staff lead a series of three plant-focused lessons. This includes visiting the schools and helping students plant and grow their own seeds. Once mature, those plants are incorporated into a pollinator garden at the school the following spring.

Want to start your own monarch butterfly garden, but don’t know where to start? Find out what milkweed and native nectar flowers do best in your part of the country and get growing!

This program is funded by a two-year National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant through the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

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