Button to scroll to the top of the page.

Biodiversity Blog


Restoring the Vanessa Butterfly Garden

CAMN member digging through rock soil to plant three red yuccas (Hesperaloe parviflora), a favorite for hummingbirds and night-pollinating moths.

Not so long ago, there was a butterfly garden at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory, one of the field stations in UT’s growing field station network. This garden was initially created in 2012 with funding from the family of a former student named Vanessa Stringer. Vanessa is also the name of a large and popular genus of butterfly that visits this area. Two examples are the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and the Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis). Over the years, this butterfly garden fell into disrepair.

However, thanks to the monumental efforts of several volunteers and BFL staff, the garden is being restored beyond its former glory. These restorations include professional design, hardscaping where there was none, and adding a stream feature to the current pond. To talk about this ambitious restoration project is Amy Simpson, a member of the Capital Area Master Naturalists (CAMN), a group that participates in several ongoing projects at BFL, and supports the creation of habitats that are friendly to wildlife and native plants.

 “While attending a plant survey last summer,” Amy explains, “I heard other members talk about the pollinator garden at BFL.They took me to see what was left of the garden. It was overgrown with a broken tree and a stagnant pond. A pretty sad site.”

Amy dug further and found that CAMN had been involved in the initial launch of this garden in 2012 and again in 2019, but the pandemic stalled those plans. In the fall of 2022, it was time to start up the project again. Amy reached out to Jason Lawson, Field Station Manager at BFL, to get things rolling.

Austin McCauley of the Austin Pond Society educates the volunteers on best practices for pond installation, including creating fish caves, plant shelves, and maintaining a healthy microbial environment while simultaneously walking through the practical aspects like pump installation and maintenance. 

“My idea was to set up a series of hands-on workshops taught by experts and attended by volunteers to educate people about how to install pollinator gardens in their own spaces,” Amy explains. “While we have a lot of preserves and parks and green spaces within Austin, creating similar spaces on a smaller scale in residential yards can go a long way to connect those larger spaces to support pollinators of all kinds. And who doesn't want to learn how to have more birds and butterflies in their own yard?”

Jason and Amy discussed BFL's goals for the area, what to keep and what to remove. They agreed the pond was important to restore. They would plant native plant species that appealed to pollinators, eventually offer classes nearby, and post labels near the plants to let viewers know about which species they were viewing. “Then there were practical considerations,” Amy says “like a planting plan, watering all those plants, hardscaping the space, and maintaining the garden going forward.”

The big first step came. It was time to demo the existing space. This included taking out the old pond liner, preparing the ground for native plants, and removing a tree near the end of its life. Then followed landscape design workshops, installing drip irrigation systems, designing the pond, installing it, then several planting days.

Restoration involved the efforts and input of many Austinites. Sheryl Williams of the Travis County Master Gardener program provided instructors for the drip irrigation workshop, and found landscape architects who taught the landscape design workshop. The architects were Sam Truong (Go Native Landscape) and Sandy Stone. Dustin McCauley of the Austin Pond Society taught workshops about the pond. Anita Brunsting of CAMN owns Nita’s Nursery and provided plants. Fiona MacNeill, a UT PhD student working in the lab of Dr. Brian Sedio in the Department of Integrative Biology, also provided different Salvia species following the conclusion of an experiment at BFL.

Anita Brunsting, owner of Nita’s nursery and CAMN member, carefully arranging milkweed seedlings donated by her nursery.

When asked about the wrap-up date, Amy answers with knowledge all gardeners understand. “A garden is never done! It's a work in progress. We still need to add a bench or two, some plant labels, and Jason is planning to seed some wildflowers in the fall. Of course, there will be ongoing plant additions.”

But the summer that is just around the corner will still reveal rewards. “We will see a lot of blooms which will attract pollinators,” Amy states, “but I would think next summer of 2024 we will see the garden looking more full.” 

Going forward, CAMN has a group that maintains the garden and pond on a regular basis. They will set up an iNaturalist project to track species found in the garden. They are also planning to develop education and outreach opportunities within the community.  Currently, attendees of the Science Under the Stars free monthly lecture series are also welcome to explore the garden.

Thanks to Jason Lawson, Field Station Manager of BFL, for his suggestion and edits to this piece. 

 Overhead landscape plan. To see larger resolution version, click here.




Science Under the Stars: How Animals Adapt to Clim...
Meet Stengl-Wyer Scholar: Chatura Vaidya

Related Posts


No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment