Monika Maeckle holds cowpen daisy seeds in her front yard, which acts as a pollinator garden.
Monika Maeckle holds cowpen daisy seeds, also called golden crownbeard, in her front yard. Late-season butterflies, especially, are drawn to its flowers' nectar. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For Monika Maeckle, the perfect backyard garden is a place to beeline right after work to see what’s changed in the tiny world of pollinators since her last visit.

“When you see the vibrant life that results from that diversity of plants that you put in your yard, it’s like, ‘What’s going on today?’” said Maeckle, who has been heading up an initiative to register 300 pollinator gardens to commemorate San Antonio’s Tricentennial year.

She’s almost met her goal. As of Wednesday, 283 pollinator gardens have been registered or pledged as part of the initiative, Maeckle said.

One of them is a new pollinator garden in the Rivard Report’s backyard at 126 Gonzales St.

A pollinator garden is a wildlife-friendly habitat. It can be multiple acres or as small as a large pot or planter bed. It typically includes at least six different native or noninvasive plants that are well-adapted to the local environment, according to Maeckle’s website, Texas Butterfly Ranch.

Ideally, pollinator gardens include at least two plants that can host butterfly larvae, such as milkweed, which supports monarch butterfly caterpillars. They also include two nectar plants that bloom in spring and two that bloom in fall.

“If you have a diversity of plants in your garden, if you always have something blooming,” said Alex Gonzalez, a landscape architect with MP Studio who has worked with Maeckle on the initiative. “You’ll be able to accommodate a lot of different species of butterflies.”

Maeckle, a lifelong media executive, master gardener, and co-founder of the Rivard Report with husband Robert Rivard, also heads the annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival.

Earlier this year, she launched the 300 for 300 initiative with a dream to establish bee- and butterfly-friendly gardens all around the city.

She quickly found supporters among the local chapters of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the American Institute of Architects, the Native Plant Society of Texas, Texas Master Gardener Association, and officials with the San Antonio River Authority and San Antonio Water System.

The point is to get people to think about a different way of managing their own pieces of land to make room for the pollinators that once thrived here.

In many cases, the end product can sometimes appear a bit “messy” compared to the typical sterile landscape, Maeckle said. But even native plants lying dead or dormant for the winter serve a purpose for wildlife.

“A lot of people, generally when you talk about wildlife habitat and you talk about pollinators, they support it on the surface,” said Lee Marlowe, a sustainable landscape ecologist with the River Authority who registered River Authority pollinator gardens and her own home on the list.

“Then when they see a natural area that might be a great area for wildlife and it’s a really wild area,” Marlowe continued, “they may not make that connection and … look at it from an aesthetic [viewpoint] and think they don’t like it.”

One solution can be arranging native plants in an organized pattern that appeals more to traditionalists, Marlowe said.

Cecilia Garcia-Hours, an urban designer with MP Studio who has also worked with Maeckle, said she’s seeing more demand for native plants among her customers.

“I think the monarch festival’s done a lot,” Garcia-Hours said. “It’s gotten people that you wouldn’t think would care about this stuff [to be] interested, at least.”

Gonzalez offered a few tips for would-be pollinator gardeners. One is to buy milkweed from local nurseries instead of big-box stores to avoid plants laced with pesticides that can prove deadly to caterpillars.

Gregg's mistflower was planted as part of a pollinator garden at Confluence Park.
Gregg’s mistflower was planted as part of a pollinator garden at Confluence Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For a nectar plant, he recommended Gregg’s mistflower, a perennial whose purple flowers serve as a butterfly magnet when they bloom in fall, during peak monarch migration.

“It’s a gorgeous plant,” he said. “Once you get it established, you don’t have to do anything with it, and it’s usually covered with queens and monarchs.”

For Maeckle, the initiative is proof that a handful of committed people can make a difference for pollinators, one garden at a time.

“It really is a citizen activist thing,” she said. “It’s a grassroots initiative – literally.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.