Making an impact in your “own little corner of the world”

One of the most exciting parts of the Easter Lake Watershed Project is our ability to work with landowners to install conservation practices to improve our local watershed.

In 2017, the Easter Lake Watershed Project was able to work with Dr. Karen Stiles, a retired marine biologist, to install a variety of conservation practices including native landscaping, soil quality restoration, and a permeable pavement driveway. These efforts by Stiles and her husband have made their home a nearly zero runoff property reducing almost 200,000 gallons of stormwater runoff each year. DSCN5670Additionally, Stiles has been utilizing natural lawn care techniques to build up soil health and to reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides harmful to soil microbiota and pollinators. Beyond her own property lines, Stiles has helped to establish multiple wildflower areas, and has worked with Polk County Conservation to remove invasive species such as oriental bittersweet and garlic mustard within Easter Lake Park. Stiles and her home have provided a great example of how urban residents can become involved in conservation efforts and how they can use urban conservation practices to improve water quality, soil health, and pollinator habitat. In July 2018, the Polk Soil & Water Conservation District named Karen Stiles its 2018 Urban Steward of the Year.

After the completion of Stiles’ native landscaping project in 2017, she quickly realized the benefits to pollinators the changes in her own back yard had made. The exciting results of Stiles’ conservation work inspired her to share with us this story:

Our Little Corner of the World

Three years ago, my husband and I participated in the Iowa Butterfly Survey Network Training at Reiman Gardens. I am a retired marine biologist and as a biologist I wanted to start observing nature in my own “backyard.” Our property backs up to the north side of Easter Lake in Des Moines, and so I was excited to return home and survey a mile-long deer trail that led through grassy areas of the park behind our house. (The deer trail has now become a bike trail.) During prime hours for butterfly activity, I surveyed the trail on four different days. Each day I recorded only one butterfly, a tiger swallowtail. I also noticed that the park was full of invasive species—reed canary grass, oriental bittersweet, garlic mustard, autumn olive, and others. Very few native flowers and pollinators were present.

Insects have interested me since I was a child. Because of that interest I almost pursued a doctorate in entomology instead of marine biology. I grew up in the Loess Hills just south of Sioux City. I loved hiking through the hills and observing the flowers, insects, spiders, and other wildlife. One inchworm species that was always a challenge to find, but exciting to find, camouflaged itself by adhering bits of flowers to its back. Another challenge was finding the tiny yucca moth. To a child, yuccas are huge plants with strange, sharp leaves. They easily attracted my attention. Finding the tiny moth in the yucca flowers became a game for me. The moth is the only pollinator for the yucca and the larva of the moth feed only on yucca seeds. It is still hard for me to comprehend that the moth and yucca plant have successfully depended on each other for 40 million years.

Not all spiders make webs! That was shocking news to me as a 10-year-old. However, I witnessed yellow crab spiders ambush insects visiting their flowers. The spiders often did not appreciate my curiosity as two of them escaped to the ground on a silken thread and others retreated to the underside of the flower.

My walks at Easter Lake (where I witnessed the lack of native wildflowers and insects) and my passion for nature (nurtured by childhood memories of the Loess Hill’s prairies) inspired me to be proactive in my “little corner of the world.” My husband and I started to visit prairie conferences and prairie restoration projects throughout Central Iowa such as Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt and in Western Iowa on my home turf—the Loess Hills. As we observed the positive results of restoration efforts—reduced erosion, return of species and increased diversification of both flora and fauna—we became firm believers in the importance and effectiveness of planting native species.

Fortunately, at that same time, the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and its partners had embarked on an initiative to improve and protect the watershed for Easter Lake. As part of that effort, cost-sharing grants were being offered to residents around Easter Lake. The grants were for projects such as replacing driveways with permeable pavers, doing soil restoration for yards, or landscaping with native plants. The literature put out by the Polk SWCD and its partners states how the deep roots of native plants improve soil quality, help landscapes absorb more rainfall and reduce the amount of runoff. Also, the native landscaping “attracts songbirds, dragonflies, butterflies and other desirable species.” Through our prairie-related activities, my husband and I witnessed considerable evidence supporting the facts stated in the literature. Feeling strongly about the importance of improving and protecting Easter Lake’s watershed, my husband and I applied for the cost-sharing grants being offered. Our applications were accepted.

At first, my husband and I planned to do only about one third of the garden areas in the backyard. We requested, if available, that large pots of native species that were already flowering be used. About two weeks after the initial plantings, my husband and I counted 23 butterflies in our yard, consisting of six different species—12 painted ladies, 2 swallowtails, 3 skippers, 2 sulphurs, 2 fritillaries and 2 monarchs.

monarch butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

We also observed several different species of bees and other pollinators that had not been seen before. We were so impressed and encouraged that, regardless of how beautiful our current cultivars were, we wanted to dig them up to quadruple the amount of garden space for native species; however, this time the plantings would be totally at our own expense. We felt supporting the Easter Lake watershed improvement effort and increasing biodiversity that supports native species were well worth it. Hundreds of plants and over 50 native species are now planted on all sides of our home, in the berm gardens and the large property-line gardens. Since plant species do not bloom at the same time, plantings were carefully planned to provide a palette of colors throughout the growing season. Heights of plants, sunlight, and soil moisture were also considered. Some personal favorites of the species planted are the golden alexanders (host plants for the black swallowtail butterfly), blazing stars, great blue lobelia, prairie smoke, and bright red cardinal flowers.

I feel much like the child exploring the Loess Hills as I anticipate the upcoming growing seasons and being able to watch the native plants mature and observe their mini-ecosystems as the butterflies, pollinators, and other visitors and residents go about their activities. Both, my husband and I look forward to continuing our efforts to be proactive in “our little corner of the world.”

Dr. Karen Stiles, Biologist


Clean Water Starts with You