Butterfly garden takes flight at Cranberry preschool

| Wednesday, July 2, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

The young students of HeartPrints Center for Early Education in Cranberry are learning that they can make a difference in their environment just one milkweed plant at a time.

The preschool's staff and parent volunteers planted a wildlife-friendly garden aimed at conserving native populations of monarch butterflies and nourishing other area wildlife. It features native plants, including several species of milkweed, the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae.

Populations of monarch butterflies and other pollinators, like honey bees and bats, are dwindling across the country, so much so that the White House recently addressed the loss by creating a Pollinator Health Task Force to help restore populations.

Spearheaded by HeartPrints mother Michele Rice, the garden also serves to educate the children early on about the importance of conservation.

“The more you know, the more you care,” said Rice, whose has two children enrolled at HeartPrints. “The kids are going to grow up appreciating the wonders of nature.”

The garden has been certified as a Schoolyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation and a Monarch Waystation through Monarch Watch, an organization dedicated to the study and conservation of the monarch butterfly.

While the garden started with parents and staff, it is maintained by the students at HeartPrints.

“It's the kid's project,” said HeartPrints assistant director Grace Byrnes. “They're watering, they're weeding, they're doing daily bird watching.”

Byrnes said to have their garden be recognized by the National Wildlife Federation and Monarch Watch, it had to have a certain number of native plant species and milkweed plants. There are more than 3,000 certified Schoolyard Wildlife Habitats nationwide, according to the National Wildlife Federation website.

Rice, of Franklin Park, grew a keen interest in monarch butterflies five years ago when she started a butterfly garden with her oldest child, then 3-years-old. They planted three milkweed plants in their garden and raised 41 monarchs.

After the first year's success, Rice's garden and interest in monarch conservation grew by leaps and bounds each year. She began passing out milkweed seeds to friends and started a garden at her son's elementary school.

The staff at HeartPrints had been looking to spruce up their outdoor play area in the spring, so after Rice approached them, a collaboration was natural.

They began putting in the garden at HeartPrints in mid-May, Byrnes said. Students helped create and paint colorful bird houses, feeders and baths, and they painted two toad houses that sit nestled in the flowers.

HeartPrints received a $1,000 grant from PPG to fund their efforts, which covered the costs of supplies and labor, Byrnes said.

While the garden is not huge, it can have a big impact for the creatures that inhabit it. Every plant was picked with a purpose, Rice said.

“Ornamental plants are great, but not necessarily the best for wildlife,” she said. “You need good nectar sources.”

Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-779-6902 or rfarkas@tribweb.com.

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