RSVP: Sowing seeds in the community

Using her expertise in nurturing wildflowers and creating nature centers, Jerri Osenga, 95, has logged more than volunteer 1,100 hours at the Decorah Butterfly Garden through Northeast Iowa RSVP. (photo courtesy Ellen Modersohn)

On a mild day in early November Jerrine Osenga sprinkled some Smooth Blue Aster seeds into the Decorah Prairie Butterfly Garden on the city’s west side. She had harvested them from another city park. “We can always use more asters,” she said. A butterfly garden needs diversity of plants and colors, and blue can be a rare hue among wildflowers.

Jerrine, known as Jerri, has been looking out for the well-being of the garden for the past dozen years. She is one of many volunteers over the past 23 years, who have indulged their passion for prairie plants to keep this Upper Iowa River-side acreage thriving. Jerri became a key member of the garden’s community of tenders when she answered a newspaper ad in 2011 from then Parks and Recreation Director Rick Edwards and wildlife biologist Terry Haindfield, who had worked to create the Decorah Community Prairie in the early 2000s. They wanted volunteers to help restore the prairie. The flood of 2008 had wreaked special havoc on the prairie and butterfly garden, and they were overgrown with goldenrod, sunflowers, compass plant and non-native plants.

“I fell into a beautiful situation,” Jerri said. 

She recently turned 95, and with a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and decades of involvement developing nature centers near Milwaukee, she likely has greater experience than any other volunteer here in encouraging wild plants to grow. Jerri has logged more than 1,100 hours as a Northeast Iowa RSVP volunteer at the Decorah garden alone.

Jerri knew just what to do to get the restoration underway. “Initially,” she said, “We dug.” 

Out came the invasive plants, roots and all. Volunteers—many recruited by Jerri—have worked hard through the years, meeting Tuesday mornings to cull, plant, mulch and admire the beauty. Over time, the butterfly garden became more of cultivated space. Visitors to the garden can now walk along an encircling sidewalk and wander mulched paths between plots of Prairie Smoke, Ironweed, Milkweed, Stiff Goldenrod, Black-eyed Susan, Purple Aster, and many more varieties. Butterflies — such as Buckeye, Meadow Fritillary, Monarch and Red-spotted Purple — really do flit among flowers, continuing their own life cycles. 

Andy Nimrod, who became Decorah Parks and Recreation Director a few years after Jerri joined the garden project, finds Jerri’s commitment indispensable: “I think Jerri’s calling has been her passion and persistence to keep a core group of volunteers going when people can sometimes go off in a hundred different directions. Having someone anchored to that spot to watch out for it and bring things to our attention is really important.”

Jerri brought Miriam Patton into the prairie and garden project last year, and this year Miriam is serving as a liaison and volunteer coordinator to Parks and Rec. The beauty and serenity of the park naturally draw visitors, but part of Miriam’s job is to plan programming to introduce even more people to the area, which also includes a community garden space.

The County Conservation Board and some schools use the butterfly garden for programming, Miriam said, but she’d like to see more people out there. “This year we did a monarch tagging program, and we’ll continue that. We had an open house, and we’re going to try to do some more things like that.”

Jerri said her intent in helping to reviving the butterfly garden “was a very short, directed goal. I wanted people to appreciate the prairie that they had so they could learn about the plants in the prairie by way of the butterfly garden.”

She enjoys what she calls the mystery of the prairie and wants others to become as captivated as she is by what makes the plants return each year, the various systems that create their sustainability, their interdependence, their adaptability — even how they came to be in the first place. Jerri doesn’t expect to definitively answer any of these questions, though. “To me, it’s just awesome. I’m not of a scientific nature. I’m more of a spiritual nature,” she said.

Like Nimrod, Decorah Parks and Facilities Assistant Corey Meyer appreciates Jerri’s commitment to the garden: “Jerri is a very important cog who ensures we keep our reputation of community involvement and volunteerism. Her quiet leadership fosters harmony in our park system. You will see her working with others or by herself digging out weeds or transplanting new prairie plants to park facilities throughout our system. Her gentle mannerisms, knowledge and a quick wit inspire you to want to make the Decorah community a better place. We are truly blessed to have volunteers like her work side by side with us.”

As with the native plants she nurtures, Jerri has deep roots in the Decorah area. Her father, Silas Erickson, grew up near Burr Oak and her mother Charlotte, grew up near Hesper. Silas, a cream separator salesman, moved his family often, starting out in Decorah. Jerri was born in West Union. Eventually, the Ericksons and their several children settled in the Madison, Wisconsin, area. Later, Jerri and her husband, Donald Osenga, made their home near Milwaukee.

She was drawn back to Decorah because her parents had retired here in 1970 and when Jerri’s husband died, her mother asked her to move nearby. Jerri is happy she could spend that time with Charlotte, who lived to the age of 106½. Even at that advanced age, Jerri said, “She was able to recognize all of us. So, I don’t make much of my age.”

Although it’s too late in the year now for volunteers to gather at the butterfly garden each Tuesday, Jerri still goes out there many days. She’s still sowing seeds and watching to see what will happen next.

If you are interested in learning more about volunteering, contact Northeast Iowa RSVP by stopping by their office at the Decorah Public Library, calling 563-277-5181 or send an email to .

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