When you plan your garden in early February, what do you consider most important? Do you want fresh vegetables, fruit, flowers, or a mix of each? Do you think only of what you want, or do you also consider the pollinators that will, or won’t be stopping at your pollinator buffet?
Before you think this post is nothing more than another horticultural guilt trip, wait. The truth is, I never considered insects like butterflies, wasps, caterpillars or bumblebees when I first began planting a garden over thirty years ago. I was terrified of insects especially those of the stinging variety. I was stung several times as a child. Once, I stepped on a bumblebee at the park, and another time, I sat down on a wasp that had crawled out of our morning newspaper. I was unlucky in, or just clumsy. You decide.
When I began gardening, I would have enjoyed a Monsanto kind of garden, the type where everything feels very tidy and very sterile. One where weeds don’t dare show their ugly faces, and nothing buzzes about in pure nectar-filled ecstasy. A garden where everything smells of chemicals at least one day out of the week. How do I know what that kind of garden is like? Because, my friends, when I started, I had that kind of garden. Everything was orderly and neat, and if I occasionally burned something I liked with a herbicide, oh well.
Remember, I began with Hybrid Tea roses. In those bad old days, they were on a strict spray regimen of pesticides one week and fungicide the next. I shudder to think about all the spraying I once did.
Spurred on by my success in such sterile, yet blooming surroundings, I began to wish for something more. I decided I wanted a butterfly garden so I read Theme Gardens – How To Plan, Plant & Grow 16 Gloriously Different Gardens by Barbara Damrosch, and I remember being surprised by what she wrote. Here’s one of my favorite quotes in the book, “People often have strange immigration policies toward the insects on their property, dividing them into “good” bugs or “bad” ones.” I thought, heck yeah, those stinging bugs can get out of here, or die. I didn’t know stinging insects don’t sting unless you get near their nests, or accidentally step, or sit on them. While they are busy sipping nectar in the garden, they won’t bother you. I also didn’t realize that if I sprayed pesticides for “bad” bugs, I killed everything else. That’s what broad spectrum means.
The very butterflies I wanted to attract to my garden have caterpillars that munch on their preferred appetizers. Even this summer, I still lost many of my fuzzy black-eyed Susans to Checkerspot caterpillars. It happens. What struck me most about the book was that Damrosch contended butterflies liked an “untidy mess” of a garden. I looked out at my straight and pristine rows and wondered why.
I was a bit uptight in my twenties. Ask my mom. She’ll tell you.
Now, I know, and as Maya Angelou said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Butterflies and other pollinators need several things to survive. I no longer use much of anything for bugs or weeds, organic or non-organic. Occasionally, I use Bt. on only a few plants, and I pull weeds all the time. I don’t use broad spectrum anything in the garden and haven’t for the last twenty-five years. Gardening takes a lot of daily maintenance, and my garden gets out of control just like everyone else’s. It’s only show ready on show day.
Butterflies and moths need food for their children (larvae) and nectar for the adults. Male butterflies need shallow, wet depressions to congregate and gather salts for mating. They are quite aggressive for such delicate little creatures. I watched some sulphur butterflies today as they swooped and spun in the sky. It was magical, and you can’t buy that kind of magic for any price.
I have a very messy garden now, and its condition fluctuates as the weather does. If we get rain, the plants expand and fill the space. If the temperature rises above 100F, plants shed extra leaves and shrink in upon themselves. This used to worry me, but after the summer of 2011, not so much. Yes, the daylily clumps look forlorn in July and August after several days above 104F, but they will be fine as soon as temperatures moderate. We even had rain yesterday morning so some of my photos are full of water droplets. Later, the sun came out, and I ran to capture photos of my beloved visitors.
You see, pollinators, even the stinging ones, mean more to me than most of my plants anymore. That may mean I’ll neglect planting the fuzzy black-eyed Susans next year, or maybe I’ll plant them again. It’s hard to say. I love what they bring to the table as much as I love Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm.’
I guess I’m also saying that if you want Swallowtail butterflies, you need to plant what they and their children want to eat. That all depends upon which type of swallowtail you’re wanting to attract and what types are in your area. Here is a list of butterflies common to Oklahoma from the Butterflies of the World Foundation. So, if you’re wanting to attract the Spicebush Swallowtail, for example, you should plant some shrubs in the Lauraceae family like Lindera benzoin, common spicebush, or Sassafras albidum. If you grow a variety of nectar plants like Phlox paniculata, Echinacea purpurea or E. pallida, or the aforementioned black-eyed Susans, you should have the adults covered. Try to grow nectar plants that bloom for a long time, and those that bloom in different seasons to make sure you have enough nectar throughout different butterfly lifecycles. This is one reason I’m so passionate about garden mums and asters, both true asters and Symphyotrichum spp., our native plants still commonly known as asters. These late bloomers peak in September and October and should be part of every garden. They are also so easy to grow.
One of the easiest summer flowers to grow from seed is Zinnia elegans. I can hear you groaning from here. I know zinnias get mildew, but if they are grown in a sunny spot (all-day blazing sun), they don’t get it in Oklahoma until the end of summer, and, in the meantime, what a show. Although it’s not best to water them with sprinklers, the ones shown above were, and they still don’t have any mildew. Standing in the middle of this butterfly haven, I felt honored to be there as bumblebees, butterflies and carpenter bees all worked so feverishly. Hopefully, the butterflies will drink their fill and then lay eggs on some of the plants I grow specifically for them like parsley, dill, fennel and butterfly weed. I’ve also been adding numerous native shrubs to help butterflies and other insect species. Don’t forget cosmos either. Super easy to grow. I put them in a cutting garden this year.
I think more and more about layering my very messy garden with all the good things insects like to eat, except the grasshoppers of course. I still hate them, and they find plenty to eat in my garden all by themselves. I already grow many native perennials, but I needed more shrubs and trees. If you’d like to read more about layering in the garden and how it affects birds and insects, read The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy and The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage, by David Culp. Both are excellent. I turn to them again and again.
Happy Bloom Day dear friends. Thank you Carol from May Dreams Gardens for sponsoring Bloom Day every month on the 15th. I appreciate the opportunity to share.