Del Webb community of Lakewood Ranch comes together to build a butterfly garden.
Shellie Robin let out a laugh as a monarch butterfly wasn't ready to enjoy its freedom quite yet at the Del Webb Lakewood Ranch Community Butterfly Garden.
Once released from a butterfly net, the monarch started to fly away, then made a big, circular turn and landed on Robin's face.
The monarch didn't appear to be in a hurry, staying with the host mom for about 30 seconds before taking flight again and investigating some of the garden's offerings.
Shellie Robin and her sister, Joette Robin, are Del Webb residents who have joined a handful of others who are raising Monarchs at their homes and then releasing them into the small garden along Roxbury Loop that circles the big lake behind the clubhouse.
Although the garden is approximately 250-square-feet, it has plenty of space to host the more than 1,000 monarchs that Del Webb residents have raised since Carrie Mueller and Joy Sabol presented the idea to Del Webb's builder, Pulte, after Earth Day (April 22) in 2021. The old plants at the site were removed and the new garden was planted last June.
Both Mueller and Sabol shared an interest in raising monarchs and they also realize monarchs are in decline. The Center for Biological Diversity reported in 2021 that eastern monarchs have decreased by 80% in the past two decades. The CBD says the eastern monarch population is made up the butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains and accounts for roughly 99% of all North American monarchs.
Much of the monarchs decline can be attributed to loss of habitat, so the five Del Webb residents (Shellie Robin, Joette Robin, Carrie Mueller, and Gary and Anne Clark) who gathered at the butterfly garden Feb. 25 are hopeful other communities can make a small commitment of land to build gardens and encourage preservation of the monarch.
Milkweed is a must for monarchs and Gary Clark was examining the milkweed he just planted at one end of the garden. Anne Clark laughed when she talked of how her husband has embraced the effort.
"People call him Mr. Milkweed," she said of her husband. "We have a small lanai, but we have seedlings for milkweed and layers of caterpillars. We have been releasing 5-6 monarchs every day (into the garden). We have 25 waiting to hatch."
Anne Clark estimated that she and her husband have released 400 monarchs in the last year and she hopes many more are on the way.
"We enjoy raising them," she said. "We watch them spin themselves and see the chrysalis go through its changes."
The butterfly garden was made possible through a joint effort by Pulte, the residents, and the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Manatee County extension, which had its Master Gardeners Program design the garden. Pulte hired Juniper Landscaping to do the actual clearing and the planting.
The garden consists of mostly native plants, which include the essential milkweed, along with bee balm, tropical sage, porterweed and firebush. All are known to attract butterflies.
“We were happy to be able to help the residents of Del Webb Lakewood Ranch with this project that adds so much to their community,” said Richard McCormick, the area president of PulteGroup’s Florida Divisions, in a release.
While Mueller and Sabol started the project, Mueller credits the Clarks with being the driving forced behind it.
"Gary and Anne have been very instrumental in keeping the garden going,” Mueller said in the release. "Initially we had some plant and irrigation problems, and Gary has been monitoring what is going on now. Anne is a wizard with the plants and knows what is needed to attract the various butterflies.”
The project has produced interest in other gardening projects as the community held its first Resident Garden Tour last October. Twelve residents showed off their garden. Mueller has led an effort to bring Master Gardeners to the community for guest speaking on a variety of topics.
As residents of the community drove past the butterfly garden in their golf carts, or slowed their cars to get a longer look, it is apparent the garden is generating interest. Clark said she often fields questions from members of the 55-and-over community who want to become involved.
"It's so peaceful," Anne Clark said of the garden. "And we like to let the grandchildren release the butterflies."
Although monarchs are more scarce in February, three or four were flitting around the garden before three more were released by the Robins.
"We don't know where they go (when they leave Del Webb)," Mueller said. "The Master Gardeners don't know where they go, either."
Although it involves work to raise monarchs, Mueller calls it "therapeutic."
She hopes the butterfly garden expands and evolves. She could see orchids and succulents as being part of the garden.
She said the community has several Master Gardeners who are residents and more people who have shown interest in the project.
"Our residents feel great about this," Mueller said. "I hear, 'Hey, we saw one of your butterflies."
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