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Couple’s ‘little pocket prairie’ beckons butterflies to Indian Hills neighborhood

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Thousands of black-eyed Susans sway in the wind, dominating the landscape near Naismith Valley Park on West 27th Street. At first glance, the lush stand of native plants looks simply like a field of towering yellow flowers, but there’s much more to this 2,200-square-foot garden in south-central Lawrence.

Call it a pollinator’s delight, a butterfly haven, a nectar buffet. This Monarch Waystation is the pride of longtime gardeners Dena Podrebarac and Heidi Rios. They beam as they recount their vision, which began when the married couple moved into their home in summer 2020.

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While the COVID-19 pandemic took root, Dena and Heidi formulated a plan. Their goals for their front yard: plant milkweed and native flora, protect wildlife and foster diversity. Not only a hobby for Dena, it’s a day job too. Since 2016, Dena has worked at Monarch Watch as milkweed coordinator.

When they moved in, the sloped lawn contained sparse grass and a few weeds, which made the conversion easier.

“This was my dream, because it actually is a lot of work to take out a grass lawn and replace it with natives,” Dena remembered gleefully. “Now it’s time for my native yard. My little pocket prairie.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times A rainbow pride flag flies between Dena Podrebarac and Heidi Rios’ home and their “little pocket prairie.”
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The sidewalk in front of the home of Dena Podrebarac and Heidi Rios creates a path through the flowers.

The couple enlisted the expertise of prairie ecologist Courtney Masterson, of Native Lands LLC. Together they plotted and sowed a mix of native Kansas plants: Twelve seed species and 13 species of plugs — or plants that germinated from seeds in a small container of soil. As the pandemic developed, they weeded and watered as needed and transformed their new house into a home, inside and out.

Nearly two years later, the front yard might appear to some as a field of black-eyed Susans, but a variety of grasses, shrubs and flowers dot the ecosystem. Within the labyrinth grow lance-leaf coreopsis, St. John’s wort, hydrangea, hibiscus, America beautyberry and echinacea, to name a few. And of course, lots of milkweed — at least six species: purple, swamp, antelopehorn, butterfly, common and whorled.

Masterson and the couple cultivated varieties that would grow similar in height to each other to give the appearance of a natural habitat without looking unruly. This spring, Dena enhanced the garden’s diversity by adding more vegetation from Monarch Watch’s plant sale fundraiser.

“There’s not short species in the front and mid species in the middle and tall species in the back. It’s not arranged. It’s meant to be kind of random and wild-looking and better for the wildlife,” Dena said. “It is going to be diverse. It just takes time.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Swamp milkweed
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Whorled milkweed

The perennials will ebb and flow at their own pace as the pollen-rich environment evolves. A few years from now, Dena predicted, the black-eyed Susans won’t look nearly as prominent.

“When you have a restored prairie, you have early succession plants, and the black-eyed Susans’ seeds are aggressive, and they fill in. But there are a lot of other perennials in there that are growing and maturing and don’t bloom the first year or two,” Dena said. “We’ve already had several things that have come and gone that have bloomed and (are) done for the year.”

Plants they didn’t sow also have appeared, including aster and aromatic purple bee balm — especially loved by hummingbirds, bees and butterflies.

Rabbits nestle deep within the stand and feast on the still-delicate newer milkweeds; yet despite living near a stream and the 25-acre Naismith Valley Park, the couple has yet to witness any deer or wild mammals other than bunnies within the stems and leaves.

Meanwhile, Masterson continues to provide support when the couple needs it.

“We still text her with a picture of a plant. ‘Is this a weed? Or is this supposed to be here?’” Dena laughed.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times “This site provides milkweeds, nectar sources, and shelter needed to sustain monarch butterflies as they migrate through North America. Certified and registered by Monarch Watch as an official Monarch Waystation.”

Bringing butterflies back

As the sun descended Wednesday evening, a wasp hovered near the couple’s front porch where a rainbow pride flag hung between a set of butterfly wind chimes and a porch swing accented with Monarch throw pillows.

Dena, who grew up in northeast Kansas and moved to Lawrence in 1992, proudly gives a tour of the yard while wearing a mint-green T-shirt. On the back it reads “Bring back the monarchs,” in reference to a conservation campaign.

Dena Podrebarac/Contributed Photo Male monarch

Last week, the couple captured a photo of the first monarch they’ve seen in their garden this season.

Monarchs spend summertime increasing their numbers throughout the eastern United States and southern Canada. They leave their breeding grounds in the fall, traveling some 3,000 miles to southwestern Mexico. Mid-September is when Lawrence will likely witness the bulk of them as they make their journey south, Dena said.

Heidi stood on the porch and dodged the wasp while she answered questions. She began her transformation to Midwesterner a decade ago when she moved here from California to join Dena.

“My next project is to study bees so that I can know which ones to be more afraid of,” Heidi quipped.

The pretty little prairie draws a lot of attention within the neighborhood and on social media. Lawrence realtor Tom Harper recently posted a photo of it on Facebook declaring, “If you need to refill your cup in the midst of our chaotic world, I suggest taking a drink of this yard in Indian Hills neighborhood.”

Self-professed “Broadway nerds,” the couple loves to sit on their porch and take in their homegrown slice of country in the middle of town. Thankfully, the weeding commitment has lessened with time.

“Last summer, I spent hours and hours and hours weeding, and people would stop by and take pictures and talk to me about it, and it was great. And the same thing has been happening this year,” Dena said.

The couple shared nothing but “good feedback” they’d received about the natural habitat from passersby and their neighbors. They registered with the city as a native-planted property, and they remain unaware of any complaints about their yard.

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They’ll continue to consult Masterson for direction and help obtaining the necessary permits, realizing every year both the pollinator project and the process might look different. Mowing — and maybe even controlled burning — could alternate, for example.

“We do want to leave the dead growth there over the winter for the wildlife, for insects that are overwintering. And then mow early spring or burn in January or February, but then some years not do anything — just let it go and let the insects complete their life cycle,” Dena said.

Ready to start a pollinator patch?

The couple offered three simple tips to those interested in taking on a home prairie restoration project: Start small, buy local, and go totally organic.

“Eco-friendly people around town are working to try to change people’s minds about the traditional lawn. And this is so much better for the wildlife, better for the environment than a non-native grass lawn that has to have chemicals and fertilizers and extra water,” Dena said.

Dena and Heidi recommended attending native plant sales hosted by local organizations committed to sustainable practices such as the Douglas County Extension Master Gardeners, Monarch Watch and the Grassland Heritage Foundation.

And, Dena said, make plans to attend “Month of the Monarch” events in September celebrating Monarch Watch’s 30th anniversary. Follow Monarch Watch on Facebook for updates.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times A rainbow pride flag flies between Dena Podrebarac and Heidi Rios’ home and their “little pocket prairie.”
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Black-eyed Susans reach for the sky.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Heidi Rios and Dena Podrebarac

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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