A Journey to Monarch Island

How Parkville resident Laura Fish turned a generic roundabout into a haven for butterflies

If you stand in the roundabout on Union Chapel Rd off of 45 Highway in Parkville long enough with Laura Fish, you’ll have people rolling down their windows to yell things in your direction. And if you listen, you’ll hear that they’re shouting compliments — things like, “We love it!” 

The thing that they love? Laura’s monarch butterfly garden.

“You’ll hear them, ‘Thank you for the butterflies!’ says Laura. “That pays me. I love that people are paying attention — that I’m making somebody else’s day.”

With the help of her husband, Pete, Laura has been working to turn the public roundabout near their home in Parkville into a monarch waystation since 2016. 

“This was such an eyesore,” says Laura. “It was so bad. I kept saying, when I retire I’m going to take this. And it just ended up — it happened way before I retired.”

Back in 2016, Laura contacted multiple authorities to find out who was responsible for maintaining the roundabout in Parkville. She worked her way through multiple governing bodies before getting permission from the commissioner of Parkville to start her project. But she still had a long way to go. 

Getting the roundabout from a patch of grass to a beautiful garden took a lot of work. It started with Laura and Pete attempting to rototill the rock-hard ground in the snow in February of 2016, eventually asking the Parkville Special Roads District to turn it over for her. After that, Laura and Pete were in the roundabout breaking up the giant clods of dirt when a man drove by, saying his tractor could get the job done more quickly. An hour and a half later, the dirt was a beautiful powder. Laura couldn’t wait to get seeds in the ground.

But the drama wasn’t over just yet. 

‘I knew I shouldn’t have planted,” says Laura. “I knew I shouldn’t. But I got so excited that we laid it all out and I planted seeds.”

Laura says zinnias are notoriously hardy plants, but they came up about a quarter of an inch and just stopped. Laura figured the seeds were bad, so she bought more seeds and replanted them — only for the same thing to happen a second time. 

“A master gardener should know — soil test,” says Laura, who calls herself a “former master gardener” since she hasn’t kept up with the credentials after becoming one in 2007. “I should’ve tested the soil and amended it. So I went and I took samples and sent it off. The soil in this roundabout was dead. There was no organic, life-sustaining force in this at all.”

But that certainly isn’t the case now. After throwing everything she could at the soil to get it healthy again, the garden grew and continued to grow. Monarch caterpillars showed up the same year Laura started the garden, and they’re still showing up six years later.  

“This is a perfect spot,” says Laura. “Who would’ve thought — all these cars and trucks go by. All this exhaust. Why would a monarch come here? And here they are.”

Laura had her roundabout, which she affectionately calls Monarch Island, designated an official Monarch Waystation, #15601, in 2017. All of the work in the garden is performed by Laura and her husband, and everything — the seeds, the dirt, the mulch, the water, and more — is donated by the couple or subsidized by passersby handing her cash donations while she works in the roundabout. 

Laura dutifully keeps track of monarch eggs, caterpillars, and butterflies, watching what they land on to make sure that what she plants is beneficial and even taking eggs home to hatch in the safety of a cage so they won’t be killed by parasites like the tachinid fly. She even added a whiteboard to the roundabout to track how many male and female butterflies are hatched from the garden, and passersby have made it into a bit of a competition, rooting for the girls or the boys when one pulls into the lead.

And that’s exactly what Laura wants — for the community to get excited about butterflies and maybe be inspired to plant their own garden for bees or birds or monarch butterflies.

“I just think they’re kickass insects,” says Laura. “They’re majestic. They’re beautiful. And I would be heartbroken if future generations couldn’t ever see them except in a picture book. They’re worthy of being protected, I think.”

Her work is even more important since, at the end of July, the monarch butterfly was declared officially endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The population of monarch butterflies has declined between 20% and 90% in recent decades.

Laura’s garden is full of different plants — zinnias and coneflower and autumn joy. All the plants surround a flagpole, installed by a local veteran. But the most important plant in the whole garden is the milkweed — the only thing a monarch caterpillar will eat, as the milky sap in the plant makes them taste unpleasant to predators. The milkweed, a tough plant with a sophisticated root system, has been removed by farmers for decades because it’s such an unpleasant weed, but the monarchs need it to survive, so it is the staple of Laura’s gardening endeavors. 

“Monarchs need help,” says Laura. “Bees need help. If I can do something, why can’t I do it? If I help one — what if I saved the last butterfly, you know?”

Laura Fish will receive the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Conservation Award on September 10 for her work on the garden. If you’d like to make a donation to the monarch waystation, you can find Laura in her roundabout most mornings between the spring and the fall.

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