2017 Innovative Projects 2nd Place – Snetsinger Butterfly Garden (SBG): Satellite Garden Program, Centre County, PA



In the fall of 2010 Master Gardener Pam Ford received a worried call from a teacher at Easterly Parkway Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania. Her pupils were studying the Monarch butterfly life cycle, and in their display tank hungry caterpillars were fast depleting the supply of milkweed leaves. Someone had suggested that the teacher contact the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden; surely they would have some milkweed. Well yes, responded Mrs. Ford, and meeting at the garden, she helped the teacher gather milkweed leaves so that the hungry caterpillars might be rescued. A bit later, meeting at the Snetsinger Butterfly garden with other Master Gardeners and “Butterfly Bob” himself, the group discussed the incident. Ford wondered aloud, why not encourage the school children to raise their own milkweed? The children could observe the life cycle as it actually happened in nature. Watching caterpillars pupate in a tank is fun, but finding an egg or caterpillar on a milkweed plant outdoors, or seeing an adult sip nectar from a flower – now that is truly electrifying! The idea developed in conversation; soon students were planning their own butterfly garden. The next spring, Master Gardeners helped the children with design and planting, and gave presentations in the classroom. In this school setting the Snetsinger Butterfly Garden’s Satellite Garden program was born.


Today (2017) there are thirty-nine “satellite gardens” and more are planned. These satellites can’t be explained without reference to the “mother ship.” The Snetsinger Butterfly Garden (SBG) is a three-acre habitat within Tom Tudek Park, a public park in State College, Pennsylvania. The SBG came into being when Robert and Wendy Snetsinger, friends of the Tudek family, proposed a partnership to develop three acres in the park as a butterfly garden in memory of their children Clare Snetsinger and Tom Tudek. So around 1996 Robert Snetsinger, a retired Penn State entomologist, set about improving this old farm field as butterfly habitat. Thanks to Snetsinger’s steady work (he passed away in 2016) the number of butterfly species in the garden increased fivefold. In 2011 the garden was formally designated the “Snetsinger Butterfly Garden” in recognition of his achievement. Meanwhile in 2007 the Penn State Centre County Extension Master Gardeners had joined forces with Snetsinger. Under the direction of Pam and Doug Ford, Master Gardeners created several demonstration gardens that educated the public about gardening for butterflies and other pollinators. Before long the Master Gardener participation had grown to fifty; signature events like “Wings in the Park” drew hundreds of families; and the SBG’s lovely gardens and public programs had earned a glowing reputation throughout the region. As concern about monarchs and pollinators got into the news, more and more local groups got interested in doing something to help. The stage was set for the satellite garden program to take shape.

The innovative idea behind the satellite garden program is that Master Gardeners can multiply the power of outreach by teaching satellite garden stewards how (and why) to plan, plant, and tend a pollinator or butterfly garden. Satellite garden stewards then become actively involved in transmitting these gardening principles to their own constituents. They take ownership. This approach complements more passive techniques such as public presentations by Master Gardeners. The latter tend to draw self-selected audiences, but a pollinator garden project at a school, church, or retirement community has the potential to reach people who might not otherwise get exposed to ideas about pollinator conservation or native plant gardening.

The satellite garden program aims to disseminate science-based content about garden practices that promote habitat for butterfly species and for pollinators, mainly native bees. Briefly, we stress several basic principles: keep the entire life cycle in mind when planting; focus on natives; avoid pesticides; provide appropriately designed water sources; delay end-of-season cleanup until spring. Of course, more traditional presentation of information on specific plants’ horticultural needs and characteristics is part of the message, but the program is also innovative in that it encourages people to reconceptualize home gardening, to think about gardening not only for aesthetic enjoyment but for wildlife habitat.

By the Numbers:

  • Thirty-nine satellite gardens, each with its own Master Gardener “captain.”
  • Twenty-eight presentations at satellite garden sites in 2016
  • 2,130 contacts at satellite garden sites in 2016
  • Over 400 plants distributed to satellite gardens in 2016

The majority of SBG satellite garden sites are at schools, but there are also gardens at churches, retirement communities, public parks, a public library, a children’s museum, and a community organization dedicated to providing opportunities for developmentally disabled young adults. Typically the process begins with someone contacting coordinator Pam Ford. Conversations ensue and a Master Gardener captain is identified to serve as liason. (This aspect of the program affords leadership experiences for Master Gardeners.) A representative from the Master Gardeners will usually travel to the site and give a presentation about pollinator and butterfly gardening, tailoring the material to suit the prospective stewards’ ages and specific goals. The Master Gardeners help to develop a planting plan and list; a hands-on activity developed by Ms. Ford teaches about garden design principles specifically geared to pollinator and butterfly habitat. The plan in hand, a planting date is set. Stewards marshall their volunteers. If the garden is at a school a PTO group might help; at a retirement community or church it might be a garden committee.


The plants are mainly natives, of course, though nonnative annuals are important for late season nectar sources and to fill gaps while the perennials are still growing. Where do the plants come from? Occasionally a group will have funds to purchase plants on the commercial market. In general, though, this is a very low-budget program. For example, Master Gardeners winter-sow thousands of seeds in milk jugs. (The SBG website has details on how this is done.) Sometimes milk jug projects are incorporated into the satellite garden development process – this way school children can raise seedlings for their own satellite gardens and learn in the process. By using this method, satellite garden hosts can obtain robust plants at very low cost. Other plants come at no cost, from divisions dug up at the SBG itself. In a quite literal way the gardens are “satellites” of SBG.







Planting seeds in milk jugs,
State College Friends School


On planting day several Master Gardeners attend to demonstrate proper techniques. Plan in hand, stewards install the plants, water, and compost. As the garden matures, the captain stays in touch with stewards to advise on issues like maintenance, watering, cleanup, replacing dead plants, and the like. Often the stewards will hold a formal dedication. This can be an joyful and inspirational occasion as the community members gather to celebrate their achievement and to mark it with an official sign. Once the garden is established, the stewards are responsible for ongoing care, but Master Gardener captains are always available to ensure continuity, help solve problems, and supply educational resources.

Installing the satellite garden at Phillipsburg Elementary School

The satellite garden idea has sparked a ripple effect in terms of outreach. For example, at several elementary schools the fifth-grade class members serve as the official stewards for the garden. They “pay forward” by giving presentations to younger pupils. In this way they not only master important content and presentation skills, but foster an ongoing, school-wide commitment to the garden. The satellite garden becomes an integral part of the school’s life. This may engender still more ripples. When the Corl Street PTO decided to plant trees on the school grounds, for example, they asked for advice to make sure they chose appropriate native trees – an indirect result of the educational outreach that occurred when the satellite garden was first installed. Students have “paid forward” in other ways. At a nearby high school, for example, students in the Agricultural Sciences program established a pollinator garden and then gave presentations to the school board. They are expanding their garden (located in a heavily used parking lot area) nearly every year. At all the gardens, public signage creates another type of ripple effect by provoking curiosity on the part of random passers-by in settings like state parks, where people may visit out of an interest in nature but not necessarily connect wildlife habitat with gardening.

Another way the satellite gardens have a ripple effect is as educational resources in their own right. At Corl Street Elementary, for instances, the garden is used not just for science studies but even for art classes. One fifth-grade class researched all the plants in the garden and created laminated cards that will be posted at the garden site, so children can learn about the plants while interacting directly with them. And of course the kids will probably educate their parents too! Going forward, many garden stewards will pursue Pollinator Friendly Certification, and in the process they can keep on learning about pollinator habitat.

A number of materials have been developed to support the satellite garden program. Satellite garden guidelines explain criteria for qualifying, responsibilities of both the Master Gardeners and the hosts, and the like. A more detailed Stewardship Manual is in progress. Checklists for Master Gardener captains outline yearly duties. Several Power Point presentations geared to different age levels explain pollinator friendly gardening. An original garden design activity was created by Pam Ford. First, the presenter explains that pollinator gardens need to supply host plants as well as nectar resources from spring through fall. Then a brief discussion of design principles follows: plants should be in large clumps (to help pollinators find them); large plants should be placed behind shorter ones, etc. The activity kit contains laminated cardboard symbols that are labeled for color, height, whether they are host plants, etc. Participants move these around on a cloth background to create a design. Physically manipulating these symbols facilitates a powerful learning process. The SBG itself is a supporting resource, of course; satellite garden stewards often incorporate tours there as part of their learning process. Finally, the SBG website provides plant lists, a bird directory, planting plans, and many other resources that satellite garden hosts can use.

Results! Monarch caterpillar on
milkweed at Centre Learning
Community Satellite Garden

It is important to note that though SBG as a whole is large, the actual pollinator demonstration garden area at SBG takes up only the periphery of the three-acre site. So even though the SBG is unique, the satellite garden idea is certainly replicable. Any reasonably sized Master Gardener pollinator demonstration garden could potentially spawn its own “satellites.”