By Jan Busco, campus organic gardener

When master’s student Ian Dixon-McDonald and friends began the Students for Sustainable Living and Urban Garden in 2008, they set out to transform the scruffy patch of packed dirt surrounding the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences into “a place where people grow food and socialize, wherein we act out our dreams for a better world.”

Their vision has blossomed into a beloved space where students grow organic produce, improve soil quality and encourage beneficial native plants and animals. Today, seven years later, those seeds of belief continue to bear fruit and even help save a species.

During the first week of summer session, the air in the NAU Greenhouse was warm and protected from the hail and cold rain outside. One of our volunteers carefully transplanted hundreds of milkweed seedlings from a large flat into individual pots. The gangly seedlings are neither spectacular nor strong, but their upright growth suggests fortitude, and character. The tiny plants have two weeks to toughen up before being moved outside into the garden, where they will provide breeding ground and habitat for threatened monarch butterflies.

Northern Arizona, a monarch hotspot, plays a crucial role in species survival as they make the 3,000-mile trip from Canada to Mexico. Milkweeds are the only plants on which Monarchs, whose numbers have declined by 90 percent over the last 20 years, will lay their eggs and provide the food emerging larvae need to grow and morph.

In the garden, volunteers pull weedy foxtails to uncover a basalt terrace where sun and soil provide a perfect place for milkweeds. In June, students from Mountain Jacks Kids Camp, Coconino County Step Up, Upward Bound and STAR programs will plant the milkweeds to create a butterfly haven and move the SSLUG vision another step forward.