Field for Butterflies
A Detroit transplant learns to love the Kansas soil and plant for the butterflies.
By Lenora Larsen, Paola, Kansas
"Plant it and they will come" is the butterfly gardener's mantra. My field of dreams began in 1981, when a job transfer moved me from downtown Detroit to rural Kansas. Twenty years of gardening in Michigan had not prepared me for conditions in Kansas, where my Zone 6 location features heavy clay soil, floods, tornadoes, lengthy droughts, incessant winds, oppressive summers and winter temperatures that can fluctuate between zero and 60 degrees in 24 hours.
But I also had some advantages, including a natural gas well for free energy and a lake for free water. One of my best discoveries along the way was that I_had an unlimited supply of limestone slabs underneath my clay soil. This would eventually provide great building material for walls, paths and raised beds.
A 100-year-old farmhouse had recently been moved to the property, but the yard was a clean slate. Overall, my biggest advantage was my mother, a landscape designer. After several days of studying and measuring, she drew up the master plan that still guides me after 25 years.
We decided that the English landscape style, with its great sweeps of beds, would fit the site's scale. Yellow, purple and silver foliage would provide drama and continuity with five stalwarts: goldmound spirea, purple smoke tree, catmint, Powis Castle artemisia and purple castor beans.
I work full-time and am the sole caretaker of a garden that has grown to 4 acres and will continue to expand. How do I manage? Native shrubs and vines, vigorous perennials and self-sowing annual flowers minimize maintenance. A thick layer of alfalfa hay mulch controls weeds and improves the soil. With no pesticides, birds play an important role by gobbling bugs and spreading seeds.
As I expanded the gardens, my first epiphany was the hopelessness of improving the soil. No plant should be forced to live in a bed of Kansas clay and limestone. So the raised beds were dug out and refilled with a good planting mix consisting of well-composted manure.
The second epiphany was my realization that those stinky dill worms I'd been killing were butterfly caterpillars. Will I ever recover from the grief and guilt of hurting baby butterflies?
Butterflies are now my priority and inspiration for gardening. I already had many native wildflowers, but successful butterfly gardening means supplying the native foliage that is a caterpillar's diet. Unlike adults that sip nectar from a variety of flowers, butterfly caterpillars are persnickety. Most can eat only one kind of leaf.
Zebra swallowtail caterpillars eat only pawpaw leaves. No pawpaws, no zebras.
For monarchs, milkweed must be planted. I planted them, and-through the University of Kansas' Monarch Watch program, which aims to reverse habitat loss and support migration-my yard is now certified as Monarch Waystation #875.
These days, joy has replaced my initial frustration. My native plants are unfazed by floods, droughts and 50-mile-an-hour summer breezes. The process of researching, finding, planting and eventually welcoming a new species of butterfly is incredibly satisfying.
Each summer, the tropical brilliance of my Kansas garden rivals any commercial butterfly house. When you plant for caterpillars, butterflies fulfill the promise of the field of dreams.