Curb Appeal and Milkweed for Monarchs in the Fox Park Neighborhood, St. Louis, Missouri

I was lucky to be part of two recent beautification and sustainability projects in the Fox Park Neighborhood and I wanted to share them here for your consideration.

While the aim of both projects was to improve the curb appeal of one of the interior neighborhood's most traveled east-west streets, Russell Boulevard, there is also the bonus of promoting environmental biodiversity and sustainability in an urban setting.

One project was the return of street trees to the 2700 and 2800 blocks of Russell Boulevard and the ~2100 block of Ohio Avenue (just south of Russell) which have become alarmingly de-forested over the years.  I will describe this project in full when the tree plantings are completed.  Stay tuned.

The second project, which was completed on October 25th, 2015, is a series of Milkweed for Monarchs gardens that will grace the end caps of the medians along Russell Boulevard between Ohio and Oregon Avenues.

Per my sources (a longtime Fox Park resident and a former police officer in this district), the medians were part of an effort to calm traffic and put an end to drag racing during the Schoemehl administration. It worked for the most part, but the medians were installed in a haphazard manner.  They were built right on top of the street without breaking up the asphalt beneath, providing only ~8 inches of soil for anything to grow.  They were filled with Missouri clay which is literally hard as a rock and not amenable to water absorption nor proper drainage without amendments of organic materials (compost) to enrich the soil.

Over the years, neighbors have attempted plantings in the medians with mixed results.  The 2600 and 2900 blocks are fully planted and well cared for.  Yet, the 2700 and 2800 blocks remained rather barren with several dying trees and sparse, non contiguous plantings on display.

I've heard neighbors complaining about the appearance of the medians for the ~5 years I've lived here.  The time seemed right to do something about it.

Enter an acquaintance of mine Cody Hayo, owner of Pretty City Landscaping, LLC.

Cody reached out to me to discuss his interest in collaborating with neighborhoods on gardening initiatives.  He wanted to offer his  time, expertise and skills in landscape design and implementation to assist neighborhoods trying to plant sustainable gardens in urban settings.  We met over a beer at the Royale in Tower Grove South and discussed our intentions and common goals of improving the city.  I am optimistic that this next generation of St. Louisans, devoted to the city, are the ones with a chance to really make a positive impact on our future, and Cody is one of those small business owners who falls into that bucket.  We hit it off and parted ways with the goal of future collaborations.

The Russell medians immediately came to mind as a perfect candidate for some professional assessment and much needed TLC.

I went back to the Fox Park Neighborhood Association with a plan to engage a landscaping professional to help us design something interesting, affordable and sustainable for our medians.

The board approved of the plan first and then the general members of the neighborhood association voted in favor of the project...we were off running.

Cody donated his time and expertise (pro bono) and helped us research grant options, plant species, site selection and an overall design for our medians.

We met with Cody and longtime Fox Park resident, and all around great guy Chris Barton, to assess the current landscape.

Chris (left) and Cody

Cody went back to the drawing board and designed a plan that would transform the four end caps of the medians.  The first 20 foot of each end cap were chosen as a reasonable amount of work for a volunteer group to plant and maintain as well as to fit within the confines of a "Neighbor's Naturescaping" grant program offered by invaluable local entity Brightside St. Louis headquartered in the Southwest Garden Neighborhood.

One of the unique aspects of this program is a collaboration with the "Milkweed for Monarchs" program within the City of St. Louis:

"In partnership with Mayor Francis Slay’s Milkweeds for Monarchs, Brightside is encouraging Neighbors Naturescaping applicants to consider planting a butterfly garden. Many plants on the STL Monarch Mix plant list will be available on Brightside’s recommended plant list."

This is the route Cody recommended and the path we chose.  The design was set, the local alderwoman signed on in support, the neighborhood association voted again in favor and the plan was in motion.

So we filled out the grant application, including the well-researched plans from Pretty City, made a couple modifications on species based on reviewer feedback, attended a community workshop and a couple months later were deemed the proud yet humbled recipients of a $1,500 grant including the donation of 280 Missouri native plants:

  • 80 Prairie Dropseed grasses (Porobolus heterolepis)
  • 48 Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • 48 Bee Balm (Monarda bradburiana)
  • 48 Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • 24 Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
  • 24 Goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis)
  • 8 Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia missouriensis)

Compost and mulch were provided by the city.

Now comes the fun part...the planting.

Over the course of three weeks, we loaded up personal vehicles with plants and planned three separate plantings.  My lovely wife and kids provided much of the free labor, moral support and back rubs necessary to pull this off.

We loaded compost and mulch in the beds of my kindest of neighbors' trucks. The multi-talented and creative Chris Barton rigged up two 55-gallon rain barrels with a sump-pump, hose and watering wand in the back of his personal truck to feed the Missouri native plants with much needed water to establish themselves before the onset of winter.

With pick axes, post hole diggers, shovels and pitchforks in hand (and no shortage of strong will) we hacked through the densely packed clay soil to overcome the conditions to get our gardens established.

I can't tell you how thankful I am to know such hard working people willing to donate their precious weekends to something like this. Residents along Russell and Oregon saw us working and joined in to help.  But it was the core group that showed up week after week to complete the process.  The work was not easy but we overcame.

Thanks friends and neighbors for sharing the desire to uplift the long-neglected corners of our great city.

Yes, thirteen year olds do work hard...

 Two of my dearest friends and the best St. Louisans you will ever meet

 Ain't no labor like retired guy labor...

 The usual suspects, always there to lend a hand under the toughest of conditions

One down, three to go...

Alright, now the hard work was completed so let's share a couple before and after pics:


after at California Avenue

 after at Oregon Avenue



Now the easy part.  We registered our garden with the City's 'Milkweed for Monarchs' program and became the 188th garden toward the city's goal of 250 total.  There are many gardens north to south and east to west.

map source

Not too shabby, eh St. Louis?

Now what does this all mean, and why should we care?  Well, monarch butterflies are one of the most easily recognizable (read: loved by humans) beneficial insect species on the planet.  They are gorgeous, serve an important role as pollinators and millions of them migrate throughout North America, from Canada to Mexico.  Entomologists and climate change scientists concur that declines in milkweed, habitat loss and climate change are contributing to lowered numbers of monarchs.

The Mayor's office advocated for St. Louis to be included as a city on the cutting edge of monarch education and habitat reclamation:

On Earth Day 2014, Mayor Slay launched Milkweeds for Monarchs: The St. Louis Butterfly Project to foster the connection between people and urban natural resources where they live, work, learn and play. Milkweeds for Monarchs (overview document here) aligns with the City of St. Louis Urban Vitality & Ecology Initiative, is an effort that advances objectives in the City of St. Louis Sustainability Plan, and carries out a priority in the Mayor's Sustainability Action Agenda. The Mayor led the effort by having the City create 50 monarch gardens in 2014; most of these gardens are located at fire houses and City parks across the City. The Mayor challenged the community to plant an additional 200 monarch gardens to celebrate the City's 250th birthday. The program was expanded in 2015 to reach further into the community and to schools. (source)

This is not just talk, as St. Louis was awarded several substantial grants through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to establish the city as the "St. Louis Riverfront Butterfly Byway". (source and source).

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) today announced a first round of grants totaling $3.3 million from its recently launched Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund (MBCF). The 22 grants, which will be matched by more than $6.7 million in grantee contributions, will support the restoration of up to 33,000 acres of habitat in areas identified by experts as key to monarch recovery. “NFWF and our partners acted very quickly to launch this new competitive grant program, and we were delighted to have drawn such a large number of excellent proposals,” said Lila Helms, NFWF’s executive vice president of external affairs. “The grants we announce today will fund on-the-ground projects that will quickly contribute to a healthier, more sustainable monarch population.” Monarch butterflies are found throughout most of the United States, and a majority of the population migrates up to 3,000 miles to overwinter in Mexico. Over the past 20 years, the North American monarch population has plunged from 1 billion to fewer than 60 million, due to many factors, including loss of critical habitat. These beautiful, black-and-orange insects depend not only on nectar-producing plants throughout their range, but also milkweed — the primary food source for monarch caterpillars. (source)

Others in the area are taking note of this movement including a consortium of Universities and  other concerned institutions who are dedicated to researching the latest issues that affect the monarch.

Monsanto Company (headquartered in nearby Creve Coeur, MO) jumped in providing much needed funding to the cause (source):

"The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and Monsanto Company announced today a commitment to partner in support of NFWF’s Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund. As the first company to contribute to NFWF’s Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund, Monsanto will provide $3.6 million over three years to match funds provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies that will support habitat restoration, education, outreach and milkweed seed production to benefit monarch butterflies."

Here's the respectable list of research institutions within the consortium working hard to understand some very complex issues facing the monarch:

  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation: Monsanto will match the initial $1.2 million pledge from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund and provide $2.4 million additional funding to match commitments from federal agencies over the next three years. This support will be targeted to provide habitat restoration, education and outreach and milkweed seed and plant production.
  • Monarch Watch: A nonprofit education, conservation, and research program based at the University of Kansas – focuses on the monarch butterfly, its habitat, and its spectacular fall migration. This grant will enable Monarch Watch to produce and make available milkweed plants free of charge for landscape improvement, including buffer strips on farm-lands, roadsides, rights of way, parks, public lands and demonstration plots along the monarch’s migratory path – which stretches from Mexico to Canada.
  • Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium: The grant will help drive research to create quality habitat, develop guidance and demonstrations for farmers to cost-effectively improve and expand habitat, and monitor milkweed and adult monarch populations to track progress. The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium can serve as a model framework for other state-level initiatives planning to implement monarch conservation.
  • Pheasants Forever: The grant will lead to the planting of monarch and pollinator habitats at more than 70 Monsanto research and manufacturing sites and facilities located in the monarch breeding range. This includes the creation of three Learning Center programs to demonstrate how to establish sustainable monarch and pollinator habitat, which is also the same habitat critical to upland birds. These programs engage, enroll and educate farmers and communities to contribute to a resilient monarch population.
  • University of Guelph: The grant will help to understand migration patterns and identify priority areas for milkweed restoration in the United States and Canada so that investments in habitat improvement are more successful.
  • University of Illinois at Chicago,Energy Resources Center: Researchers will use these resources to identify and prioritize available public and private lands for monarch habitat improvement using geo-spatial analysis. This information will support the success of restoration programs by considering habitat location, quality and cost across diverse landscapes.

Now the Fox Park Neighborhood of St. Louis is a tiny part of this monumental effort.  We are on the list to get an official sign marking our gardens:

So a sincere thank you goes out to Cody Hayo at Pretty City Landscaping and Mary Lou Green, et al. at Brightside St. Louis for sharing their expertise and resources and for the support of the Fox Park Neighborhood Association and the Alderwoman of the 6th Ward.  But most of all, thanks to the small group of volunteers who are willing to heave a pick axe, lug wheel barrows filled with compost and mulch and spend multiple hours during their precious weekends to support improving a long neglected corner of our fair city.

It is you guys that make living in Fox Park fun.

Cheers to Chris Barton, Beth Conroy, Beth Stelmach, Dale Thuet, Rob Moreland (and wife), Shannon Groth and the kids and the new neighbors I met for the first time who came out to help.

In the spirit of transparency, I am a current member of the Fox Park Neighborhood Association and a 21 year employee of Monsanto Company.