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Inks Lake State Park volunteer plants for pollinators

Inks Lake State Park host Jan Thomas tends a pollinator garden near the park's entrance, one of a dozen. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

When an Inks Lakes State Park interpretive ranger asked RV camper Jan Thomas if she liked to get her hands dirty, the retired hairstylist and avid gardener was quick to respond.

“Yes, I told him,” she recalled. “I sure do.”

Thomas’ husband, Jimmy, sitting in a chair outside their RV, didn’t just nod in agreement with this anecdote about how Jan got started planting and tending pollinator gardens at the state park in Burnet County. He expounded on it.

“We lived on four acres (before becaming RVers), and people would just stop by to look at what she’d done there,” Jimmy said. “It was like they would stop at the chamber of commerce or something and the chamber would tell them, 'If you like gardens, you have to go by this place.' When we put the property up for sale, it sold in two weeks, and I think it was because of her gardens.”

As park hosts, the Thomases volunteer for a number of hours each month. A retired career and technical educator, Jimmy handles maintenance chores. Jan began tending the park’s pollinator gardens six years ago. The park now has 12 pollinator gardens, including the one wrapped around the Inks Lake State Park sign on Park Road 4. Smaller ones are tucked away across the campground and picnic areas.

“They’re gardens designed to attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bumblebees,” Jan said. “That’s why we call them pollinator gardens.”

Jan digs her gardens for more than the environmental benefits.

“I guess making things pretty, that’s one of the things I love about (caring for the gardens),” she said. “Another thing I enjoy is you get to meet people. They’ll just come up and ask me questions or just want to talk about the gardens or the plants.”

Jan recalled an interaction two years ago. She was planting bluebonnet seeds when a mother and her son approached. The son, who was in his late teens or early 20s, was in a wheelchair. She asked him if he would like to plant some bluebonnet seeds with her.

The young man hesitated. Jan told him the beauty of planting the seeds was that, if he returned in the spring, he could witness how his work had bloomed. Still, he said no.

“They just went on,” Jan recalled.

But a few minutes later, the two returned. This time, the young man helped plant the seeds.

Jan doesn’t know if he ever returned.

“But whenever I see those flowers there, I think of him,” Jan said. “And it was something that really seemed to matter to his mom. Those are the things I remember.”

Everything Jan plants is native to Burnet County, including milkweed and other plants specific to monarch butterflies as much of the Highland Lakes is in the "Texas Funnel" monarch migration route. Putting in plants the monarchs need for food and reproduction can help them as they journey south and return north.

For folks looking to create their own pollinator gardens, or add a few butterfly and hummingbird favorites to their landscape, Jan suggested a few of her favorite plants. At the top of her list as a pollinator attractor is Gregg’s blue mist flower.

“When they’re blooming, they just attract butterflies,” Jan said. “They’ll just be all over those flowers. If you want to attract butterflies, Gregg’s blue mist is a great one.”

Others Jan keeps handy are blue mist flowers (as opposed to Gregg’s blue mist), purple coneflower, blue aster, butterfly weed, black-eyed Susans, Turk's cap, tropical sage, and salvia.

“And zinnias, they love zinnias,” she added.

The garden doesn’t have to be large. Adding a few pollinator species to the landscape is a good start. If you need inspiration, just check out the Inks Lake State Park pollinator gardens. And if you see Jan digging around, feel free to stop and chat.

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