Grassroots group of volunteers create sanctuary for native pollinators in the heart of Eatonton
Virginia Linch moves through the ranks of freshly-planted walkways like a gentle general, issuing tasks to the troops to help meet the day’s gardening goals. She’s got much to do, but doesn’t want to miss the chance to educate this writer on what the group is doing.
Every Tuesday they come together, sometimes more often, to work in the dirt, installing native plants, checking on the pollinators living among them, and staking educational markers along the walking trail. Linch’s husband, Ronald, is already on the tractor, tilling up new areas to be planted. The other volunteers move out with their shovels and spades to attack the fresh dirt.
In 2013, Linch was asked by the City of Eatonton to help develop an abandoned former housing site into a community garden project. Many there knew the retired magistrate judge had a deep interest in gardening and loved to capture their beauty through photography. And so, Butterflies & Blooms in the Briar Patch came to life. Volunteers worked together to create a lush habitat that became much more than a garden project.
But two years ago, the project would find itself moving to a different home at the newly-created Briar Patch Walking Trail, a tranquil public space located just outside of downtown Eatonton.
This is where I meet the group. They’re working trying to reestablish a vibrant habitat for native butterflies, skippers, and other pollinators. Linch takes me around the property to explain how it works.
Turns out, it’s pretty simple: Like bees, butterflies are important pollinators. And, like bees, native butterflies are getting scarcer and scarcer. This is mainly because many of their favorite plants are considered weeds, and weeds aren’t welcome in pretty landscapes.
Butterflies need two types of plants to survive and reproduce: A “larval host plant” and a “nectar plant.” One provides a place to lay their eggs, the other provides the nourishment they need to live. If both plants are available in one habitat, the butterflies never have to leave an area.
As Linch explains the stages of growth, she’s continually peeking underneath leaves and pointing out freshly-hatched caterpillars. Then she flits to the next plant. With each caterpillar discovery, I’m surprised.
“I’m not a wizard,” Linch makes sure to tell me, “I just know what the larval host plant is, so I know to go check it out. Another clue is the chewed up leaves. See?”
Sure enough, more caterpillars. By the end of the day, I can find them myself.
She points out Mountain mint, native black-eyed Susans, milkweed, even the clover on the ground. “There’s a reason for everything in here,” she explains. Most of the plants aren’t flashy, but they’re not supposed to be. It’s a habitat, not a garden.
She takes me up a flight of stairs on the observation tower, built by volunteers from the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds, Lake Oconee and workers with the City of Eatonton, to point out her future plans for the space.
“At the other habitat, I had Mexican sunflowers planted all the way around this thing,” she says. “They were about 10 feet tall and you were in the middle of it. You weren’t looking up at the them, you were right there.”
It’s what she wants for visitors to the habitat, to be absorbed.
“Our whole vision is about education,” she says. “We want people to be able to come here and learn about what they’re seeing and understand that they don’t have to get rid of those native plants and there’s a reason for them.”
Volunteer Sylbie Yon says that anyone can bring native pollinators to their own environments just by planting the right plants. Linch and group provides “pocket habitat” information to those interested in attracting pollinators which explains the different plants to put in to draw particular species of butterflies.
“If everyone thought to plant a habitat for pollinators at their home or even around the whole town, what could Eatonton become?” she says.
On my way out, Susan Larson points out a “Peace Pole” along the entrance path. It’s a handcrafted monument, etched with “May Peace Prevail on Earth,” that she explains is part of a world-wide initiative to encourage world peace. It’s one of tens of thousands all over the world. Larson says there are people who try to visit as many Peace Pole sites as possible, another way their habitat is a draw for visitors to Eatonton. “We have so many attractions in this one spot,” she says, “and there is so much more potential in this location. We can grow here.”
Before I leave, Linch imparts an old saying about gardens: “You know, they say, ‘The first year it sleeps. The second year it creeps. The third year it leaps.’ We’re in year two, so we’re creeping. I just can’t wait to see this place next year.”
Photography by Virginia C. Linch