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Jan's Butterfly Garden
What a difference a few months makes! The lower right corner of the butterfly garden, July 29.
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Jan's Butterfly Garden
Same space in Jan's Butterfly Garden on May 6; bare is beautiful, at least for the time being.
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A tiger swallowtail visits white buddleia (butterfly bush).
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Liatris and Rudbeckia
Liatris and rudbeckia are good perennial choices for butterflies.
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Jan's Butterfly Garden
Grass-filled in a corner of Jan’s butterfly garden before restoration, on April 24.
Restoring the butterfly garden at the Orchard at Altapass last year (see From the Farm, page 8) was a great learning experience for my friend Judy Carson and me. In the column I wrote for this magazine back in 1999 about establishing the butterfly garden, I described us as “butterfly gardening neophytes.” I wasn’t being modest, as we were reminded during the restoration, as much of what we had to do involved correcting earlier mistakes. We no doubt made more mistakes last year, but we did a number of things right. Here are a half-dozen principles we learned to live by.
1: Do One Thing at a Time and Do it Well: When every bit of a garden needs attention, it’s easy to get distracted, and do a little here and a little there. We learned not to do that. At the beginning of each workday, we came up with a priority list, decided who would do what, and stuck with it, no matter how long it took or how boring or hard it was: taking a mattock to get out all the unwanted volunteer patches of lemon balm; removing every bit of grass from a huge aster clump.
2: Don’t Mulch with Plastic: Or, if you must, do not leave plastic mulch in place for more than a season. Why? It prevents moisture from soaking into the soil and reaching your plants’ roots. Then it gets buried under debris, which breaks down into a substance in which weeds germinate. It also starves the subsoil. When Judy and I tried to pull buried plastic out of the butterfly garden, we found it cemented in place by the lateral roots of catbriar and sumac, which had spread above and below the plastic. When we finally got it out, we found the soil beneath it compacted and a sickly yellow, devoid of organic matter and life. Restoring the butterfly garden’s soil to health will take us years.
3: Beware of Friends Bearing Gifts: Over the years, well-meaning friends of the Orchard (including myself) had donated plants of no or limited interest to butterflies, many of which took advantage of our inattention to invade and overwhelm desired plants. Some donations – a glorious row of daylilies and irises leading up to the garden, a clump of tiger lilies, self-seeding cosmos – are valued additions. Others are requiring many mattock-wielding hours to subdue or eradicate.
4: When in Doubt, Use Annuals: Annuals have many virtues: continuous bloom (if they’re deadheaded) right up until frost; they’re inexpensive, compared to perennials; and they let you experiment. Perennials, wrongly placed, must be moved; annuals give you a fresh start every year. Wherever we knew we wanted something but weren’t sure what, we used zinnias, marigolds, snapdragons and nasturtiums to good effect.
5: Graduate Plants by Height and Give Them Room: Be sure to find out how tall (and wide) a plant will become in maturity, and plan accordingly. Put short stuff in the front, the tallest plants at the back – even on a slope. This is important, not just for the garden’s visual effect, but to give plants enough light to bloom and yourself enough space to maintain them. It’s easy to forget, for instance, how much space a butterfly bush will occupy in mid-summer. It only blooms on new wood, but it grows a lot of it in a season. Err on the side of barrenness in spring; by summer the space will be
6: If You Plant it They Will Come: Butterflies and bees will show up – and stick around – if you plant what they like. Don’t know what to buy? Go to an outdoor garden center, see what the butterflies and bees are visiting and buy those. Butterfly bushes are a sure bet. So are bee balm, phlox, lantana, echinacea, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod and asters. Our butterfly garden attracted the usual suspects last summer – swallowtails, fritillaries, painted and American ladies, buckeyes, monarchs, sulphurs and blues. But at least one Long-Tailed Skipper, a small butterfly with an iridescent blue/green back I’d only seen once before in my life, also showed up. An abundance of them were reported in North Carolina last summer, but for Jan’s Butterfly Garden it was a first.