Gardening for butterflies helped couple transform yard
By Betsy Moll Lancaster, New York
My husband, Robert Thill, and I have been planning and cultivating gardens around his childhood home for more than a decade. Our original plan has evolved over the years, and happily, we've had more gardening successes than failures.
Now, with our landscape rejuvenation project in its 11th year, we feel we're finally getting it right. And our garden really took flight last year, when we began attracting monarch butterflies.
Before we launched into that project, however, we spent many years on the rest of the property. We added perennial borders, vegetable plots, and a line of shrubs that separates our yard from our neighbor's drive. We planted ivy, clematis and spring-blooming deutzia to camouflage a chain-link fence.
Today, a vine-covered pergola shades our south-facing terrace and links the patio and perennial beds. The hydrangeas we planted—including peegee, 'Nikko Blue' and 'Snowball'—offer spectacular blooms at different times during the season. A rose of Sharon reliably blooms from August to October at the entrance to our back patio.
But, alas, some of our original plant and placement choices weren't as winning. Six viburnums succumbed to record snowfalls and foraging viburnum beetles. And after our first season of stunted tomatoes and sickly broccoli, we discovered that toxins from nearby black walnut trees adversely affected the plants' growth.
Like all gardeners, we learned from those mistakes. We replaced the viburnums with weigela and Japanese maple, and moved the vegetables away from the walnut trees into raised beds we designed. (We also learned that the 6-foot width of the beds makes it difficult to reach in for weeding and planting—4 feet would have been better.)
Although our gardens are always works in progress, last year we hit the nail on the head. We revised our plans to make way for migrating monarchs, and had our most rewarding and magical gardening season so far.
As a result of our research and labors the previous year, monarch butterflies flocked to our 2006 gardens to feed and reproduce. In the fall of 2005, I read Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern. The book's spellbinding tales of the multigenerational monarch migration and the people dedicated to the monarch's survival inspired me. I knew I had to participate.
I decided to create our own monarch-friendly habitat, which meant growing milkweed plants-the primary food source for the monarch caterpillar. Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves, which contain toxins that don't harm the caterpillars, but make them distasteful to predators.
That September, I scouted local nurseries and found three white swamp milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata 'Ice Ballet'), which I planted near the back patio. I had concerns about growing this swamp plant in well-drained soil, but with regular watering the plants have done well.
Betsy places the caterpillars in glass jars and feeds them daily.
In spring, Robert set up fluorescent lights, trays and peat pots in our basement so I could start milkweed varieties that would do well without such careful watering. I chose some yellow and orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). I also started pink swamp milkweed from seeds sent to me by my daughter-in-law Mary, who maintains a butterfly garden at a Minnesota elementary school.
More Than Milkweed
While I was at it, I started other butterfly magnets, including 'State Fair' and 'Scarlet King' zinnias. By June, the tiny plants, then in 3-inch pots, were ready for hardening off and planting in the garden. The nectar was all set to flow.
A monarch emerges from a chrysalis in Betsy's backyard.
And flow it did! It was a banner year for monarchs. They had visited our gardens in previous years, but last summer they stayed around. Our milkweed hosted monarch eggs, provided food for the caterpillars, and supported the developing chrysalises. By adding zinnias and cosmos in the raised beds, we attracted masses of nectar-seeking monarchs and other butterflies as well.
With all these monarchs to watch, I started an "exhibit" on our front porch, which has attracted guests of the two-legged variety.
I pick the tiny caterpillars-banded in yellow, black and white-from where they hatch on milkweed leaves and place them in sterile canning jars equipped with paper-towel lids. I clean the jars daily and add pieces of freshly harvested milkweed.
When the caterpillars pupate, I hang the emerald-green chrysalises where we can watch them, awaiting the day they break open to ever-so-miraculously reveal the orange-and-black butterflies nestled within.
Because of our efforts, we were able to certify our yard as a Monarch Waystation through the Monarch Watch Web site Monarch Watch. The abundant sunlight and quality soil in our yard helped us meet the certification requirements. Also, we had plenty of dedicated garden areas, easily achieving the 15 square feet required for an effective waystation.
Betsy checks on her monarchs.
It Was Meant to Be
Looking over our original garden plan, we realized that we were on the way to meeting these requirements before we even decided to attract monarchs.
We had already been growing butterfly attractors such as purple coneflowers, phlox, butterfly bush, sedum and bee balm. Our six raised beds, once used primarily for vegetables, now also display milkweeds and cascades of nectar-rich annual flowers.
What's next for our landscape? We've been experimenting with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). And, I understand that swallowtails like fennel and parsley.
Hmm...maybe I could grow those and see what flits in and stops over next year!