By Karen Zautyk
How do you create a butterfly garden? You plant the seeds and when the little caterpillar heads start sprouting above ground, you feed them and . . . .
Yes, that’s an attempt to make you smile. But every time we think of the new Kearny Butterfly Garden, we’re smiling. It’s a little bit of heavenly nature – flowers and flutterbys – in the Riverbank Park along Passaic Avenue.
Just south of South Midland Avenue, and just north of the bocce courts, you might have noticed a small, new fenced-in area full of blooms. If you venture closer, you’ll see it’s also full of butterflies – Monarchs and Skippers and Swallowtails and such.
For this little wonderland, you can thank a Kearny couple, Jenny and David Mach, whose idea it was and who brought it to fruition. Along with some help from the town.
The Machs are grateful to Kearny Department of Public Works director Gerry Kerr, who approved the project, and to Donald Gavin, superintendent of Parks & Recreation, and his crews, who built the fence and keep the garden supplied with woodchips to cover the soil.
“Gavin,” said David, “now knows more about butterflies than we do.”
Jenny, who is a sixth-grade science teacher in Tenafly, and David, who used to teach grades 6-8 in East Newark and is now studying physical therapy at UMDNJ, began their own butterfly education by attending a teaching workshop on Monarchs, held at William Paterson University in Wayne.
Among other things, they learned that the Monarch population in the U.S. had been decimated by the increased use of herbicides to kill the milkweed plant. Monarchs cannot live without milkweed; it is their sole source of food.
The butterflies lay their eggs on the weed and when the caterpillars hatch, the critters gorge themselves on the plant – the only flora they can eat.
“We found that there was little milkweed in Kearny,” said David.
Hence, there were no Monarchs – and few butterflies of other ilk.
“We wanted a safe place for them to breed – and not be weed-whacked,” he said.
At the new garden, the Machs planted lots of milkweed, along with zinnias, black-eyed susans and other colorful blooms.
“We were told, ‘If you build it, they will come’.”Said Jenny. And (the Monarchs) have. When we visited the other afternoon, the black-and-yellow beauties were fluttering all over the place. Along with lots of smaller butterflies.
If you’d like to start your own butterfly habitat, you can find milkweed (also known as the “butterfly bush”) at many nurseries. But remember, it is a WEED, so it needs to be controlled (but not by herbicides). Cut it back so it doesn’t take over your property. Or buy the plant in pots.
The Machs have received lots of help in their project from local nature-lovers, including residents nearby who leave much-needed jugs of water at the site.
“Everything has been donated,” said David, citing the community’s help. And, lest we forget, the help of his 92-year-old grandfather, James Rovi of Lyndhurst, who visits the garden daily.
“He used to be a landscaper,” said David. “We couldn’t have done this without him and his expertise on plants.”
The Machs hope the Kearny Butterfly Garden will become both an aesthetic and educational experience, with schools taking students there on field trips. But not, of course, when the weather grows cold. The Monarchs winter in Mexico. Energetic little beings, aren’t they?
And, along with maintaining the butterfly garden, what else is on the couple’s agenda? A community garden, which the Machs hope to establish along the same stretch of parkland.
“We’d like to get 15 or so people gardening on the same plot,” Jenny said. However, she emphasized, the project is in only the “idea” stage at this point. And in any case, township approval will be needed.
If you would like to learn more, or contribute your own thoughts, the Kearny Community Garden folks will be meeting at the Kearny Public Library this Thursday, Aug. 23, at 5 p.m. “just to kick around ideas.”