SPAWN Nursery’s “Bringing Nature to School” Program

By November 30, 2022December 8th, 2022California, Native Plant Nursery

By: Audrey Fusco, SPAWN Nursery Manager and Restoration Ecologist

The population of the Western monarch butterfly dropped to less than 2,000 individuals in 2020 and recovered to more than 247,000 individuals during winter of 2021. SPAWN Nursery initiated a variety of programs to help with recovery of Western monarch populations after the population sharply declined in 2020. One of the most important and direct ways that we can benefit monarchs and other pollinators is to improve habitat by providing drifts of milkweed and large patches of nectar plants. While the nursery has always grown a small amount of nectar plants to be planted in our stream restoration projects, in winter 2021 the nursery greatly expanded the quantity of nectar plants and the variety of species grown. In fall 2021/winter 2022, SPAWN planted 1,000 nectar plants at the Roy’s project site in San Geronimo and in fall 2022/winter 2023, 1,000 more nectar plants will be planted at our Tocaloma site. In addition to planting nectar plants at our own restoration sites, SPAWN Nursery is propagating native milkweed and nectar plants with elementary school students at schools and installing habitat gardens and monarch waystations on school grounds.

Glenwood Elementary Monarch Waystation

In spring 2020 Audrey Fusco, SPAWN Nursery Manager and Restoration Ecologist, and Charlotte Torgovitsky, founder of Home Ground Habitats Nursery, launched a new program called “Bringing Nature to School”. The program supports the creation of native habitat gardens in schoolyards. The objectives are to provide students with opportunities for hands-on learning in nature while also improving habitat for wildlife. School garden program partners SPAWN and Home Ground Habitats donate plants and other supplies, design garden spaces and provide advice and assistance with preparing the garden site, and work with students and teachers to plant the habitat garden. Through the program, we offer follow-up visits to check in with the primary garden caretaker. The participating teachers, students, and school volunteers maintain the gardens.

The first habitat garden created through the program was built by the 4th grade class at Glenwood Elementary, located in San Rafael. Under the guidance of teacher Julie Ryan, the students cleared a weedy patch of ground near the entrance to the school and planted the garden with milkweed, nectar plants, and native grasses on the last day of school prior to the pandemic shut-down. In September of 2020 the garden was visited by monarchs, and the milkweed patch was full of caterpillars. During the school year of 2020-2021, during the pandemic, students were sometimes able to meet small groups in the newly created garden. Teachers let us know that watching the new garden grow and fill in during their visits to the school brightened their day.

Monarch Caterpillar on Narrow-leaf Milkweed

During the past two school years SPAWN has created habitat gardens with six schools: Glenwood Elementary (San Rafael), Bolinas-Stinson School (Bolinas), Lagunitas School (San Geronimo), Neil Cummins Elementary (Corte Madera), Bayside Martin Luther King Academy (Sausalito), and Marin Academy (San Rafael). Each garden created through the Bringing Nature to School program is adapted to the fit the local conditions of each school to maximize benefits to wildlife. One program partner, the Bolinas-Stinson school, which is located on the coast, has created a mounded pollinator garden. The Bolinas nectar garden does not contain milkweed, because milkweed should not be planted within 5 miles of overwintering populations, and instead focuses on providing nectar with late fall, winter, and early spring-blooming nectar plants. Another school garden, located at the Lagunitas school and San Geronimo Community Center, was created in combination with a salmon habitat restoration project. As part of the project scope, an old storage shed and sandbox was removed from a former playground area on the banks of Larsen Creek. These were removed to reduce sand from escaping and pouring into the creek. The site was transformed into a habitat oasis for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife and can be used as a teaching space and a place that community members and students can enjoy nature. A waystation planted at Neil Cummins Elementary focuses on creating excellent habitat for migrating monarchs by providing groundcover, nectar plants, and milkweed.

Neil Cummins Waystation

During this school year, 2022-23, we are expanding upon the gardens that have already been created and will continue to build new waystations with interested local schools. At Glenwood Elementary we will plant 200 milkweed and nectar plants in a marshy area behind the school. We will also add asters, goldenrod, and milkweed to planter boxes that are situated near the 4th grade classroom. We have donated milkweed and nectar plants to expand upon the waystation which we planted in spring 2022 at Neil Cummins Elementary, in Corte Madera, donated plants and support to create a new waystation at Lucas Valley Elementary, are continuing to plant a large nectar plant garden at Bolinas-Stinson School, and will create a waystation at Strawberry Hill School, in Mill Valley in spring 2023. Additionally, we will assist Marin Academy to create a new monarch waystation in their school garden. We donated plants and support to create a monarch waystation at College of Marin, Kentfield campus, in December 2022, and are donating milkweed to support the new garden at the Fairfax Library.

SPAWN Nursery has created a set of information handouts that provide information about how to benefit monarchs. Please visit our website, to learn how you can help restore habitat for monarchs and other pollinators in your own backyard. Please visit the Home Ground Habitats website,, for additional information about how to create habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.