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Digging deep to lure fancy flying friends

Starkey Elementary students hope their planting and nurturing will attract the colorful flutter of butterfly wings.

Master gardener Robert Abben had some last-minute instructions for 45 Starkey Elementary School students Tuesday before they dug into their latest project: a butterfly garden.

"As we dig the holes for the plants, we'll have extra dirt," said Abben, 77. "But don't worry about it, because we'll put it back around the plants."

After spending several months learning about caterpillars, butterflies and what kinds of plants they like and need _ and pulling lots of weeds _ the antsy second-graders and a few third-graders took turns digging holes, spreading mulch and planting and watering liriope plants.

"I decided we had to start the garden today, even if we only got to spend 10 minutes at it, " said Connie Rouse, the second-grade teacher who first proposed the project to the Southwest Florida Water Management District in September.

Swiftmud gave a $750 grant for the project, which was spent on timber to outline the garden, plants, watering cans, shovels, garden gloves and other materials. The county provided mulch at no charge.

"Butterflies need certain types of plants in order to thrive," said Abben, who has been a master gardener with the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service for more than five years.

Under Abben's supervision, the youngsters planted 40 liriopes for soil retention around the edges of the 99-square-yard garden and four milkweed plants inside.

Tianna Robinson and Jordan Murphy, both 8 and in Mrs. Rouse's class, were bushed after planting one liriope. "We took turns digging," said Tianna of St. Petersburg.

"I like to dig and get the mulch," said Jordan of Seminole.

For Abben, helping youngsters plant butterfly gardens is just one of many duties as a master gardener, a volunteer position. He also works once a week at the Cooperative Extension office in Largo, gives educational talks and is helping with the development of the new Florida Botanical Gardens in Pinewood Cultural Park.

Abben spends about 200 hours a year as a master gardener. Although he is modest about his work, Abben has been honored several times including in July 1999, when he received a conservation medal from the Timucuam Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Seminole.

"I guess I help with about 10 or 11 butterfly gardens a year," Abben said, as he prepared the piece de resistance Tuesday: slimy caterpillars, which he dropped onto the milkweed plants.

"We're kind of cheating today, but I want to give this garden a head start," said Abben, who raises caterpillars and butterflies as a hobby at his Largo home.

The finished garden will contain milkweed for larval food; porter weed for nectar and shelter; and penta, parsley and other plants, all with different and distinct functions.

"We should be able to attract about four different kinds of butterflies: monarch, sulfur butterflies, the giant swallowtail and the zebra longwing."

Abben said he hoped the youngsters would gain something from their experiences.

"Once you get involved with butterflies, you see there aren't many places for them to thrive as urban sprawl spreads," said Abben.

"Hopefully, as kids understand that, maybe they'll take an interest when they grow up. We're going to need more people involved in the environment."

After working in the garden for an hour, the students had to go back to other classes. It will take the youngsters several days to finish their work.

"But whenever the children work on it, I'll be back," said Abben.

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