From Yellowstone to your backyard

A local naturalist offers springtime tips for your first (or growing) garden

By Todd Travis

As the birds chirp and the weather turns, you may think this is the year to finally start that garden. Or you may wonder how to attract birds to your backyard. Jessica Helmbold, a naturalist from Garfield Park Conservatory, offers a few tips to help you get started this spring. She also shares her experiences at Yellowstone National Park that impacted her life and view of nature.

So, what is a naturalist anyway? By definition, it is a person who studies nature, especially plants and animals as they live in nature. Helmbold added, “It’s about the way people, plants and nature are all connected and how we should live in order to preserve life.”

Helmbold has always been interested in science and nature; she credits her parents who grew up spending time in the outdoors and shared that interest with her when she was young. An experience that impacted her life was a visit she made to Yellowstone National Park with her dad when she was 9. “Being in the expanse of nature that is almost untouched by human development was a fascinating experience for me. It was amazing to see how beautiful the area was and how the natural systems operated on their own,” she remembered.

After graduating high school, she took another trip to Yellowstone, which inspired a career choice. “Going back to Yellowstone the second time really reminded me how much I enjoy interacting with nature and spending time in it. I knew that I wanted to be able to teach while interacting with nature at the same time,” Helmbold said.

Jessica Helmbold found her calling as a naturalist at Garfield Park Conservatory. (Submitted photos)

She majored in biology at Franklin College, then went on to get her master’s in environmental science at Taylor University. During this time, Helmbold found that she could have a sustainable career teaching in an outdoor setting. She specifically wanted to work in botanical gardens. Years later, she accomplished that goal and now works as a naturalist at Garfield Park Conservatory. “Part of what I do is educate and inspire the public about nature and the environment,” she explained.

Helmbold has discovered that nature is very interconnected across the world. “What happens in Yellowstone Park or in the rainforests will impact my daily life,” she stated. “It’s important to pay attention to our daily habits and how our consumption affects the rest of nature.”

Helmbold recommends buying things that are fair trade or bird friendly. In addition, people may provide habitats for birds and other animals near their homes by planting native plants and keeping lawns free of chemicals. “Doing some of the small things can really make a big difference,” she said.

Helmbold teaches a class of young students at the conservatory.

For those interested in starting a garden or attracting birds to their backyard, Helmbold recommends the following:


-Put out a bird feeder or a hummingbird feeder. For hummingbird feeders, don’t use red dye.

-Plant native plants (available at the Indiana Native Plant Society).

-Milkweed attracts monarch butterflies.

-Purple coneflowers attract goldfinches.

-Serviceberry or juneberry trees attract waxwings and other berry-eating birds.

-Cardinal flowers attract hummingbirds.


-Wait for consistent warm weather before cleaning the leaves out of your garden beds. Resist the itch to spring clean on the first warm day in March.

-Plant seeds now for vegetables that take longer to reach maturity (tomatoes and peppers).

-Plant seeds for carrots, beets, peas and spinach.

-For a cute tradition, plant lettuce seed on Valentine’s Day (save that for next year).

-Use the Garfield Park Conservatory as a resource.

-Visit your local farmers markets for vegetable plants if you don’t start from seed.

A first trip to Yellowstone National Park at age 9.

Even if you don’t have a chance to do much when it comes to your yard, Jessica encourages people to stop and smell the roses. “A lot of people don’t realize how much nature is all around them because they just don’t pay attention,” she noted. “Whether you’re in an apartment or a home with a lot of land, you will find that nature still surrounds you and you can be connected with it.”

Visit Garfield Park Conservatory to enjoy the gardens inside and out (including a children’s garden for kids to explore nature in its various forms). “It’s a sensory garden, but it’s also a learning tool as well,” Helmbold said.

The conservatory has monthly gardening programs to help answer questions regardless of skill level or space limitations. “We all have a passion for nature, and we want to share that with others.” she shared. For more information, go to

Upcoming Southside gardening events

Green in the Garden • Stop by Blake’s Garden to help plant the spring greens. Participants will also have a chance to start greens to take home and grow (while supplies last). No registration required. Free for all ages. | When: March 19, 2 p.m. | Where: Garfield Gardens Conservatory, 2505 Conservatory Dr., Indianapolis. | Info:

Monthly Garden Sessions • Learn more about gardening in this three-part course. In part 1, learn how to start tomato seeds for home gardeners. | When: March 22, 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. Part 2, how to repot tomato starts will be April 12 and Part 3, how to plant tomato starts in the garden is May 9. | Where: Purdue Extension, Johnson County Fairgrounds, 484 N. Morton St., Franklin. | Info:

Little Explorers: Spring • Calling all little ones who are ready to explore! Take a short walk around the park, exploring nature as we go. There will also be activities and crafts available during or after the walk. This month’s theme is signs and sounds of spring! Registration required. Fee: $4 per child. | When: March 23, 10 – 11 a.m. | Where: Garfield Gardens Conservatory, 2505 Conservatory Dr., Indianapolis. | Info:

Seed Starting • Bethany Community Gardens presents free classes for beginner and experienced gardeners, led by gardening expert, Ginny Roberts. | When: April 5, 6 – 7:30 p.m. | Where: Bethany Community Gardens, 4702 S. East St., Indianapolis | Info:

Spring Lawn Care • Proper planning and actions this spring will add great benefits to your lawn for the whole year. Learn about fertilizer, weeds, aeration, and more. Presented by Richard Huber, Master Gardener. | When: April 7, 6 – 7:30 p.m. | Where: Greenwood Public Library, 310 S. Meridian St., Greenwood. | Info: Register at or call (317) 881-1953

Garden Basics • Bethany Community Gardens presents free classes for beginner and experienced gardeners, led by gardening expert, Ginny Roberts. | When: April 19, 6 – 7:30 p.m. | Where: Bethany Community Gardens, 4702 S. East St., Indianapolis | Info:

Backyard Bonanza • Master Gardener, Mike Harris, will speak about ‘Optimizing Small Garden Area for Vegetables’. The other two sessions that evening will be about creative hot dog toppings and origami. The cost is $15/person. | When: April 20, 6:30 p.m. | Where: Johnson County Fairgrounds, Scott Hall. | Info: