Volunteer Appreciation Week: Volunteer’s Neighborhood Butterfly Sanctuary Brings our Mission to her Front Yard

April 25, 2020
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Down a residential street in Montrose, canopied by trees that would be right at home in Middle Earth and surrounded by million-dollar houses, you will find Patti Thompson’s thriving front yard butterfly garden. It’s grown to be a neighborhood landmark, teaching everyone who happens to walk by a little bit more about the intricate, sometimes unseen world around them.

Thompson happens to have a very dear connection to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Since 2016 she’s also been on the volunteer team, working in the greenhouse and inside the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Teeming with (literal) busy bees, fluttering butterflies and numerous native plants, it’s become a mecca of sorts for neighbors on long walks with their tribes. Parents take pictures of their children posing next to a bed of bluebonnets. Dogs of all breeds sniff the flowers and sometimes chase the bugs that call it home.

In the Montrose mid-morning you can hear the buzzing bees at work, and if you’re lucky you might even see Patti in full gardening gear tending to her living artwork. She’s turned what used to be an unassuming front yard into a veritable paradise for visiting insects, wildlife and curious neighbors.

“When I moved into the neighborhood in 1996 the front yard was shaded by a large ash tree,” Thompson says.

In 2016 Thompson devised an ambitious plan to transform the yard into something not only useful for butterflies and bees, but also pleasing to the senses.

“I started slowly digging up the grass after that and planting flower seeds,” Thompson says. “Every spring, I would expand the beds and add more variety of flowers, adding more natives. The butterflies and bees started coming as soon as there were flowers.”

HMNS horticulturist Theresa Lancaster tells Beyond Bones that she is one of the most passionate, dedicated volunteers at the museum.

“She volunteers in the greenhouses with me every Thursday, docents in the butterfly center at least once a week teaching visitors about butterflies. She also comes in on Sundays to release newly-emerged butterflies and feed our insect zoo and containment room,” Lancaster says.

Needless to say, Lancaster is also a big fan of Thompson’s front yard paradise.

“It’s a great example of how you can create a complete pollinator paradise within the near downtown,” Lancaster says. “She’s a master gardener and a well-versed butterfly enthusiast. You can tell that she absolutely loves interacting with people and her eyes light up as she talks about butterflies. She’s definitely in her happy place.”

Lancaster considers Thompson one of the greatest assets of HMNS. “We are lucky to have people like Patti choosing to spend their time with us at HMNS, it really raises the bar of the enrichment available when you walk through our doors,” Lancaster says.

Thompson’s green thumb handiwork has now expanded to the strip of medians on her street. Every now and then she is joined by a few curious neighbors looking to pitch in. She’s got ideas for even more.

“I’d like to create more ‘defined spaces’ so it looks more like a cottage garden and something others can see in their yards,” Thompson says. “I have signs that say my garden supports native plants and is also a Monarch way station, but I would like to find a way to add more educational info.”

Thompson’s story is a lesson that given enough time, care, and hospitable surroundings, anyone can make the world around them a much more beautiful place than they found it. Right now with most of us stuck at home staring at barren yards and flower beds, you might be thinking the very same thing.

Thompson does have one reminder for those out there about to embark on beautifying their homestead.

“Be sure to create a spot in the garden for yourself to be able to sit and enjoy it,” Thompson says.

This week and every week, we appreciate our volunteers! Find all the ways you can support the museum.

Your contribution matters today more than ever, as we strive to ensure that the museum is ready and able to welcome you back. Please GIVE TODAY to help support our mission of science education.

Authored By Craig Hlavaty

Craig Hlavaty has been covering Houston pop-culture since 2006 at various outlets around the city. He is currently the social media manager at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and eats his tamales with ketchup.

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