A few wooden steps lead up to a flat area and a few more go back down to ground level. Flower beds are on both sides. The beds are filled with flowers: pentas, lantana, milkweed, plumbago and firepower. Butterflies flutter freely among the plants. The newly created butterfly garden is between the classroom/exhibit building and the Weeki Wachee River at the Springs Coast Environmental Center in Weeki Wachee. The garden is the latest project for the hands-on science program offered by the center to Hernando County students.
The center is a 23-acre facility owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and leased to the Hernando County School District. It is directed by teacher-on-special-assignment Cheryl Paradis.
"It's their way to partner with the school (district)," Paradis said of Swiftmud.
The garden is six 8- by 8-foot boxes with a total of 75 plants on a drip irrigation system supplied by rain barrels.
"We picked all Florida-friendly plants," said Paradis, 49.
She credits Aventura Nursery with assisting with the plant selection.
The school district's maintenance department made the boxes and filled them with soil. Paradis put in the irrigation system and the plants with the help of Central High School exceptional student education teacher Lisa Hallal.
The butterflies started arriving immediately.
"While we were filling them we already had four," Paradis said.
She said she has seen at least seven species of the showy insects. She has books to help students identify and classify the various butterflies.
Second-grade, fourth-grade, sixth-grade and high school students take turns visiting the center.
"We saw 6,400 kids last year," Paradis said.
She has been at the center for two years. This is the sixth year it has been available for students.
The idea for the butterfly garden came about, Paradis said, because she wanted to have a butterfly day for second-graders. The best way to do that was to install the garden, she said. It will be part of the nature walk for the fourth- and sixth-graders as well.
"I want them to see the butterflies in their natural environment," she said. "The students will be great observers. I structured the garden so they can walk through it."
The garden attracts more than butterflies. Paradis saw four deer there one recent morning.
"The kids won't see the deer," she said, "but they'll see the tracks."
Another teachable moment.
Creation of the garden was made possible through funding from the Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union, which gave $1,000 in grant money to the Hernando County Education Foundation, which in turn awarded it to the education center.