Chabad House Garden Protects an Endangered Species

A butterfly garden composed of plants native to the U.S. Midwest has been started at the Chabad of Wilmette-Center for Jewish Life and Learning in Illinois. It will serve as a teaching tool for children, a boon to the environment and a draw for beneficial insects.

from by Charlotte Adelman:

In the summer of 1992, Rabbi Dovid and Rivke Flinkenstein came to Wilmette and established a Chabad center in this leafy suburb north of Chicago. “Stop in and meet us,” is the couple’s motto. One day last year, I took them up on their offer.

As an author specializing in native plants and gardening, I stopped by to discuss environmental consciousness. “Doesn’t Torah law require Jews to be environmentalists?” I asked. “Doesn’t the Jewish concept of tikkun–repairing the world, physically and spiritually—include a concern to protect the environment?

While the media frequently highlights threats to plant and animal life in faraway places, less attention is paid to local ecological destruction, as in Chicago and its suburbs. Even the well-informed often know little about our local environment’s continuing degradation.

For example, most people are unaware of the Monarch butterfly’s catastrophic decline. Over the last 20 years, along with land development, farm land loss and pesticide use, there has been an 80 percent decrease in the population of these magnificent butterflies. Yet, all it takes to help is simply including in our gardens and landscapes the milkweed flowers (Asclepias species) that the Monarch females lay their eggs on and their caterpillars eat.

Native landscaping on the relatively new grounds of the elegant and impressive Chabad of Wilmette-Center for Jewish Life and Learning, I suggested, would dramatize their commitment to the environment, and publicize and help to do something about it, in a small but meaningful way.

The Flinkensteins were interested, so I suggested creating a butterfly garden composed of plants native to the Midwest.

Flowers, Grasses, Sedges and Shrubs

Why the Midwest?

Despite our tendency to think of landscaping in terms of popular Eurasian plants, it makes common sense to choose the equally ornamental and more butterfly-friendly native Midwestern plants that naturally grow and thrive in a local climate. Once native plants are established, they require neither fertilizers, watering nor pesticides. Mostly disease- and insect-resistant native plants have lower maintenance needs than most others that have been introduced from Asia or Europe.

Chabad decided to remove some of its lawn and replace it with a pollinator-friendly garden, featuring native Midwestern flowers, grasses, sedges and shrubs. This ensures that its message of helping the environment will be visible and inspirational to members and visitors interested in creating their own similar gardens. My husband, Bernie Schwartz, and I made a charitable donation enabling Chabad to retain the services of a landscaper specializing in native plantings.

Enter Monica Buckley, owner of Red Stem Native Landscapes, Inc., on Chicago’s North Side. At Chabad, she faced the challenge of repairing a difficult location and turning it into a beautiful garden that is sustainable and pollinator-welcoming. As she explained, the site “has some sunny spots but is mostly in shade, and at one end has a steep drop-off.”

Before planting, Red Stem’s crew had to remove a lot of debris. Most of the existing topsoil had been scraped off, as is the local practice in new construction, leaving subsoil that was then compacted by heavy machinery during the synagogue’s construction; so the existing soil also had to be removed and replaced with topsoil because compacted soil lacks air. The different sun levels created several habitat types within the same garden. The slope required choosing plants that are compatible with dry conditions. It also eliminated plants that cannot handle being in the path of runoff. The bottom half, by village mandate, had to be lawn.

To further complicate things, the entire planting area was covered by a previously installed lawn irrigation system.

“Lawn, of course, is a water hog, and native plants are not. And because there is a slope, we planted plants that would be OK with dry conditions,” notes Buckley. To help the garden sort itself out, Red Stem planted similar species whose water needs vary somewhat. For example, they included both purple coneflower and pale purple coneflower, which likes things a bit drier. “They often can grow together just fine, but in this case, one may supersede the other with time. This is the way of native plantings!”

Garden as an Outdoor Classroom

Today, children studying in the classroom can view Chabad’s native planting though the windows, so they “will be able to watch the wildlife and appreciate the woodsy, flowering view,” says Buckley. Going outdoors provides up-close looks at butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects. The flowers run the gamut of shooting stars, sun drops, wild geraniums and columbines to orange coneflowers that populate the sunny openings in the plantings, and woodland phloxes, zig-zag goldenrod and blue-stemmed goldenrod sharing space with woodland grasses, sedges and the indomitable shade-loving wild ginger.

Butterfly milkweeds provide long-blooming orange summer flowers and serve as “host plants” for Monarch butterflies. The females lay eggs only on plants their caterpillars eat—namely, Midwestern species of native milkweed (Asclepias). Providing four-season beauty are the red chokeberry and black chokeberry bushes that Red Stem planted along the north side of the building. In spring, they are fragrant with white flowers. The lustrous green leaves of summer turn gorgeous colors in fall, when abundant berries match the shrubs’ names. In winter, intriguing shapes are on display, and the shrubs’ persistent fruits provide many birds with emergency food.

“We are delighted to be partners in sustaining the beauty of G‑d’s world. This beautiful prairie garden aptly accents our center’s mission in making this world a dwelling place for G‑d, with all of His creations,” says Rivke Flinkenstein. She invited me to view the evocative sign Chabad installed to recognize our contribution. In shape and color, it resembles one of the blue butterflies, members of a group of small delicate butterflies that include a dainty local species, the dainty Spring Azure.

Buckley believes, and I agree, that the Chabad native garden “will help ensure that the children bring a love and appreciation for nature with them into adulthood. Learning early about the essential relationships between plants and insects and birds—and how native plants support our native wildlife—increases the chance that there will be people in the decades to come who are willing to defend and protect the diversity of species that is our birthright.”

Chabad is providing Jewish children with a convenient location for discovering and learning to love nature.

Noting the butterfly’s vital role as a pollinator, Chabad’s website for children states: “While the butterflies seem to be just flitting around, having a good time and sipping nectar, they are actually fulfilling an important task: they are spreading pollen and helping the flowers reproduce. The footsteps of man are directed by G‑d” [Psalms 37:23]. Wherever we go, we have a mission to accomplish. Like butterflies, we can help others and accomplish good things everywhere we go, even when we are having fun.”

This article, which originally appeared in the Chicago Jewish News, has been adapted and reprinted with permission.

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