Our ‘Funny Farm’ offers community vegetables, butterflies and education.

By Ann Lovell

NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia—Jim Johnston knows a lot about butterflies and the plants that support them. Walking through the resident-run and managed vegetable and flower garden at The Chesapeake, a LifeSpire community in Newport News, the active sights and sounds of butterflies, hummingbirds and cicadas provide a rhythmic harmony to Johnston’s monologue on insect life in the garden.

“This is milkweed from South Africa, which the caterpillars just seem to really love,” Johnston says, pointing out a particular plant. “For me it’s been an annual. I just can’t seem to winter it over.”

It’s a hot August day, and the zinnias and sunflowers are in full bloom at “The Funny Farm,” which was named by a resident after the original group of farmers joked about the wide variety of vegetables growing in the community space. Sitting in the shade after a tour of the garden, Johnston suddenly stops his explanation and says, “There’s something you don’t see too much of. See that insect, right there? That’s not a butterfly; that’s a clear-winged sphinx moth — called the hummingbird moth. It comes from the caterpillar of the tomato-horned-worm class.”

As a master gardener, Johnston uses his skills not only to provide conditions for butterflies to flourish; he also educates area students on the importance of butterflies, bees and other pollinators to the life cycle of plants.

“Caterpillars will hide in here. It’s hard to find them,” Johnston says, pointing out some of the plants. “When I do these talks with kids, I always have one of these things with me — a caterpillar or two — and say, ‘Who can find the caterpillar?’ And even the teachers normally can’t find them. You really have to look.”

Johnston began growing butterflies in earnest in 1995 when he helped elementary school science teachers raise their own butterflies instead of ordering “expensive caterpillars” from a biological supply house.

“Three teachers had ordered what they thought were Monarch butterflies,” Johnston explains. “Instead, they got Painted Lady. I suggested they grow their own Black Swallowtail, since they are native to the area and fly from mid-April to mid-October, which is much more conducive to the school year than the Monarch life cycle. One of the teachers already had dill and parsley growing on her back porch, so we started there. Then I planted fennel in the garden.”

Each caterpillar is plant-specific for food, Johnston explains. “The Black Swallowtail lays its eggs on parsley, dill, fennel, rue, Queen Anne’s lace, carrot greens and Golden Alexander. The Monarch only lays its eggs on milkweed plants.”

Since beginning his work at the Funny Farm, Johnston has planted milkweed, fennel and parsley. Curiously, he’s also seen another butterfly — the Zebra Swallowtail — that only eats paw paw leaves.

“The Zebra Swallowtail has been nectaring here, but it doesn’t have any place to lay its eggs,” Johnston explains. “We don’t have any paw paw trees here, but there must be some nearby.”

While Johnston started the butterfly work at the farm, residents at The Chesapeake have been raising vegetables much longer. Cliff Francis, who oversees the vegetable garden with a team of others, started helping with the farm the spring after he moved to The Chesapeake in 2003. In 2016, Francis says, the gardeners planted 110 tomato plants that yielded more than 1,200 tomatoes — plenty to share with the community.

“A lot of people don’t realize that it takes right much work,” says Francis, a retired Navy captain who learned to farm as a boy growing up in the Great Depression. “They think you can plant tomatoes today and have them tomorrow, but it doesn’t work that way.”

Anyone who has done any kind of farming — or even tried to plant a backyard vegetable garden — knows the truth of Francis’ statement. Raising vegetables and flowers takes hours of work, but the efforts are worth it, he says.

“These farmers derive great pleasure growing produce to share with residents and staff,” Francis says. “The work is satisfying, even on hot summer days.”

To schedule a tour of The Funny Farm or to request a speaker for your church or school group, contact Jim Johnston at 757-223-5266 or Cliff Francis at 757-223-1888.

For more information on living at The Chesapeake, contact Liz Gee at 757-223-1600 or email [email protected].

Ann Lovell is corporate director of communications for LifeSpire of Virginia, formerly Virginia Baptist Homes. For more information, email [email protected] or call (804) 521-9192.

LifeSpire of Virginia operates four continuing care retirement communities in Virginia: The Chesapeake in Newport News, The Culpeper in Culpeper, The Glebe in Daleville and Lakewood in Richmond.