Third-grade teacher Mrs. Bonnie Johnson gathers her students in the shade and answers a few of their final questions after their work is done. (Photo credits: Wendy Klesch)

By Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

It’s been said that the flutter of one butterfly’s wings has the power to cause great change; if that’s so, students at Christ the King School in Norfolk have been doing their part to make it a change for the better.

The third-grade class expanded the butterfly garden on the school playground this spring as part of a greater Norfolk wetlands preservation program.

The children began preparing for the garden in February, growing milkweed plants in small pots in their classroom. The milkweed was donated by the Elizabeth River Project, a non-profit organization devoted to protecting the health of the Elizabeth River.

Third-grader Caity Williams-Greer explained, “Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed, so it’s a good plant to choose for the garden.”

As backyard gardeners have grown to understand the importance of pollinators, butterfly gardens have become a growing trend. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that 75 percent of food produced —everything from apples to chocolate—is here thanks to the work of bees, moths and butterflies.

But as fields of wildflowers are lost to development, a pollinator’s life has become a challenging one. Butterfly gardens can provide them with urban and suburban oases in which to lay their eggs and thrive.

Christ the King third-graders celebrate the last days of the school year with a STEM project that will provide a habitat for butterflies all summer long.

The butterfly garden at Christ the King was originally planted last year by the third-grade class. Third-grade teacher Mrs. Bonnie Johnson explained that this year’s class remembered watching the fun and was eager to take its turn.

“They were very excited about the garden,” Mrs. Johnson said. “So we decided to expand it.”

On a warm spring day when all danger of frost was past, the children lined up, milkweed plants, flowers, and spades in hand, ready to begin. Once out onto the playground, they began searching for the best places for their plants and soon found teamwork was the order of the day.

Third-graders made the rounds with large green watering cans, ready to come to the aid of friends whose plants were safely tucked into the ground. At the other end of the garden, two girls worked together on digging a hole for a pot of yellow daisies, while a boy chivalrously offered to help them with what they called “the scary part” of gardening— flipping the pot upside down, and, in one deft movement, freeing the plant with the roots intact.

Third-grader Kensi Sylvia explained that planting a butterfly garden requires consideration of each phase of a butterfly’s life. Butterflies need plants on which to lay their eggs, plants that serve as food for their larvae, and plants that provide nectar to adult butterflies.

The children said that in planning the garden, the class divided into several teams; each team did research using websites provided by Mrs. Johnson on different aspects of the garden, including birds, plants, weather, butterflies and amphibians. Afterward, they made slideshows to present their findings.

“Technology is not going anywhere,” said Mrs. Johnson. “It’s important that the children be comfortable with it and that they know how to do research with the Internet, how to tell what sites are reliable and which ones are not.”

The group in charge of studying the weather spent several weeks recording the temperature and amount of precipitation. With charts reflecting a more erratic than usual spring, Donnie Woodruff showed that his group can confirm with empirical proof what many of us may have been suspecting. “The temperature has been going up and down this year,” he said. “The weather really just can’t make up its mind.”

A team of plant researchers researched what plants would be best for the garden.

“There are plants like vetches and fennel, that people may not have heard of,” explained Justine Campbell. “But then there are plants like day lilies—people have heard about them quite a bit, and they are good for the garden as well.”

Another group researched what types of butterflies might visit the garden. Monarchs, were likely, they said, due to the milkweed. The girls were also excited at the prospect of visits from Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, though they said that in their research they found that, sadly, there is no such thing as a rainbow butterfly.

A few of the students said they were inspired to plant their own butterfly gardens at home. Just a few flowerpots filled with parsley, milkweed and flowering plants are enough to attract butterflies to any backyard, they explained.

“This was a fun project,” said Caity, once the garden was done, “because first we got to read about it, and then we got to experience it.”