The Simple Things….continued

I started off my Friday post with a quote from a previous post about “sometimes doing the simple thing is also the best thing for our pollinators.” I sort of intended that post to be about pollinators and then it wasn’t. Sometimes that’s how it works out.

What I had in mind there was that rather than bringing out the big old can of spray every time we see a weed or an insect, there are really much easier approaches to dealing with both. I know I’ve talked about my “Freedom Lawn” (aka lawn full of weeds like clover and violets) as being a lawn that’s beneficial to lots of pollinators.

In preparing an upcoming lecture on pollinators, however, I was a little startled to discover that 5 different species of butterflies, as well as my beloved ants, use the clover and violets as food sources. And I know I talked last year about how the clover was sort of “detouring” the rabbits away from some of my perennials and vegetables. It’s working so far this year as well (with a little encouragement for my rescue dog, Amie, as well!). That’s what I call freedom!

I’ve also talked in the past about how some customers in my retail gardening past would come to me, puzzled, because they would have no vegetables in their gardens. I would ask them if they saw any bees and they’d say no. Then I’d ask about their insecticide use and inevitably they’d be doing a chemical 4 step lawn program and a grub program and probably something else as well.

So I’d try to gently explain that bees were very susceptible to pesticides–the grub control in particular most likely was one of those dreaded neonicotinoid type pesticides–and that they might be working at cross purposes by at best driving away all the bees and at worst killing them. I’d say that if they didn’t want to be hand-pollinating their crops they might want to back away from the pesticide use a little.

This was always very unwelcome news and was usually resisted quite strenuously. And then I’d tell my story about the butterflies. It’s really simple and very effective.

The year before we got married–but I was dating my husband and gardening on the property–I noticed there were no butterflies.  Hmm, I thought, this is strange. What’s wrong here? So I started to read up on them and found that they were very susceptible to pesticides. At that point, way back in 1994, I decided that we weren’t going to use any because I’d rather have butterflies than perfection.

By 1996, when I applied for certification as a backyard habitat, I counted 36 different butterflies and moths on the property. Technically that was only 2 springs without pesticides. It doesn’t take much. Stop using pesticides and they will come. It’s the simple things…..




Wordless Wednesday–A Shrub for Butterflies

Lilac 'Paliban'

This is not a native plant–and yet the butterflies, and a lesser extent, the bees seem to adore it anyway. And neighbors and passersby–because this is in a garden just a few feet from the road–adore it as well.

This is a dwarf korean lilac. Most folks, to the extent they know these shrubs, know the more popular one, ‘Miss Kim.’ This one is called ‘Paliban.’ It’s certainly not a lovely name but it is a lovely shrub. I chose it because it is a little smaller than ‘Miss Kim.’ ‘Paliban’s ultimate size should be 4-6’ tall and wide. ‘Miss Kim’ is a little larger at 4-7′. You may not think that’s a huge difference but if the plant is happy, 7′ is a large shrub. We routinely had customers planting them under windows and then complaining that they were growing up and obscuring the windows! Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

Because this is a post about plants for pollinators, I won’t talk about pruning. You can find that information here.

I routinely find eastern tiger Swallowtails on it, as well as all manner of skippers, an occasional hawk moth and lots of bees: bumble bees, honey bees, leaf cutter bees and others that I just watch and can’t necessarily identify. I’ve even found brown dragonflies on it–lots of them.

So while I am a huge fan of native plants, I am also a huge fan of fragrant plants, and this is one of my favorite fragrant plants. Since it does seem to attract lots of wildlife, as well as the all important pollinators, that works for me!

The “Freedom” Lawn

Before anyone gets too excited, I’d love to claim title to this concept but it’s not mine. As near as I can figure, it dates back to 2005, to a book written by Hannah Holmes called Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn. Holmes is a science writer and she spent the year studying nature in her backyard. During this time, she decided that the overly processed and chemically laden lawn that many homeowners had been routinely slave to (oop– my bias is showing) did not need to be the norm.

I’ve been trying to nudge the Spoiler in this direction–with varying degrees of success-for years. It’s not that he disagrees with the “organic” approach–it’s that he has no idea what a “chemical” is. A week or so ago he tried to tell me that Preen was exactly the same as corn gluten. My head hurts just thinking about it!

In any event, we don’t knowingly use chemicals on the lawn. I’m not quite sure what the Spoiler does when I am working–nothing dire I hope.

In any event, the concept of the Freedom Lawn, as I understand it, is to allow the lawn to be more than just a monoculture of grass (even if it is a blend of different types of grasses as it should be–ryes, fescues, blues, etc.)

Instead, the lawn (if, indeed, you choose to have one at all–with Pam Penick’s new book Lawn Gone, some folks may just decide that there’s no need for a lawn whatsoever!) becomes a blend of lawn grasses, flowering plants, native plants and even, yes,–gasp–weeds. This makes the lawn more heat resistant, drought resistant, insect and disease resistant and it will even stay green a lot longer without artificial irrigation in the summer. What’s not to like?


Here for example are those violets that give most homeowners fits. I find them charming–and so do several species of butterflies that use them as nectar plants. If you want butterflies, you’ve got to stop using pesticides. That’s why we’re losing our monarchs and our bees.

veronica and clover

Weeds? Or Wildflowers? You choose. This is clover and creeping veronica. I’ve also got a dwarf native hypericum, also known as St. Johns Wort, growing in the lawn. Now if you don’t want it there, it’s a weed. That’s how clover came to be listed as one of the “weeds” that are killed on all the pesticide products–because the manufacturers couldn’t figure out how not to kill it when they were killing all the other weeds.

But clover actually fixes nitrogen in the soil–in other word, it helps feed the soil. And the rabbits in my yard like to feast on it, leaving my “ornamental” plants alone.

It’s also a benefit to native bees and some butterflies. So you decide: weed or wildflower?


Finally, I’ve got lots of these ferns popping up spontaneously all over the yard. When they get too large for the lawn, I transplant them to my garden beds–we have plenty of shade for them.

But, for those used to the “golf course” look, there’s a lot not to like here. My yard looks nothing like a fairway and is in no way “manicured.”

But it’s a great habitat for all sorts of wildlife.

So you ask yourself a couple of questions: first–look at what I wrote about the heat resistance, etc.

Next, think about this. Right now, every single house in my neighborhood with children has a yellow sign on the lawn that says that some sort of pesticide has been applied. What’s wrong with that picture? Is it so important that those folks not have crabgrass that they’re applying chemicals where their children play–even though we have a law in this state that forbids us to do the same at their children’s’ schools?

That’s a scary thought–and maybe if more folks thought about it, they’d allow a little more clover, violets and other so-called weeds into their lawns–maybe even crabgrass.

I have no desire to put landscapers and lawn guys out of business–two of my neighbors earn their living that way. And they still could, even if more folks chose freedom lawns. There would still be plenty to mow.

National Pollinator Week

Today begins National Pollinator Week, a week devoted to celebrating and promoting pollinators of all sorts.  And boy oh boy, do our pollinators need help!  The honeybees have suffered what is estimated to be at least a 50% reduction in their numbers due to a syndrome called colony collapse disorder.

Our bats have been decimated by something called white nose fungus.  Bats in 19 states as far west as Oklahoma are now affected.  It is estimated that as much as 95% of the population of some states have died off.

Many other pollinators–insects in particular–suffer from a combination of habitat loss and chemical attack.  Many folks do not realize the important role that insects–beetles, flies, ants, and some of the other “less desirable” types of pollinators play in our ecosystems.

Several great resources exist for learning about the different types of pollinators and how to garden for them.  The Xerxes Society has a great web site and many on-line resources, as well as many resources that can be purchased.  They deal primarily with invertebrates.

The North American Butterfly Association is devoted, as its name implies, specifically, to butterflies. It has specifics on butterfly gardening and regional butterfly gardening guides.

The Pollinator Project is the most broadly based of the resources out there.  It is responsible for National Pollinator Week.  It includes lists of plants for different pollinators, and regional gardening guides for selecting plants for all sorts of pollinators.

Finally, for resources on the ruby throated hummingbird (the only hummingbird that is resident East of the Mississippi) the US Fish and Wildlife Service is the place to go (strangely enough).  It has great resources, including a downloadable guide about attracting pollinators using native plants.

But a few simple things to remember, no matter which pollinators you are trying to attract: limit or completely avoid pesticide use since most are very sensitive to pesticide–even organic pesticides.

Create habitat, which is defined as food, water, shelter (or cover) and places to raise young.  Now this will be different for the different types of pollinators.  Places to raise young for hummingbirds might be trees and shrubs.

For butterflies, it’s going to be larval food–in other words, stuff for the caterpillars to eat.  And shelter or cover for butterflies is a wind break, because they are very susceptible to wind!

For bees, again, slightly different.  Bees see in the same color family as butterflies–blues and purples and yellows and oranges and whites.  So those flowers are good for bees (and bad to wear to picnics!).  Most bees are ground nesting so you’ll want to take pains to disturb your ground very little, obviously to try to observe where the bees are nesting to avoid harm (to you and them) and to avoid chemicals in the ground–and that might include lawn chemicals as well.

The references have lots more great suggestions.  But this week–during pollinator week–why not decide to take one step to save the pollinators?

A New Butterfly in the Yard

For anyone new to my blog, the whole reason I am an organic gardener is the butterflies.  When I began gardening on my property 20 years ago, there were no butterflies.  I found that a little odd, so I researched what butterflies needed.  In my research, I found that they were extremely sensitive to any sort of chemicals.  So I decided that I just wouldn’t use any.

Of course, convincing The Spoiler  [my husband, who gets that name for just such reasons as these] is a little harder.  Every spring I have to explain to him that no, we don’t use Preen™ because it is a chemical and we don’t use those and besides, the birds mistake it for seed and ingest it and die–very bad results.  And really, on those occasional times where he has preened first instead of discussing it, the results have not been spectacular.  I’d far rather hand pull the weeds.  Better exercise for me and far, far better for the environment and our backyard friends.

So a couple of weeks ago I was just astonished to see this largish brown “something” in the yard.  At first I thought it was a moth–but then I realized it was “basking” with its wings open and moths bask with them closed so it had to be a butterfly.

I still haven’t gotten really close to it–it’s shier than the larger varieties like the swallowtails and the monarchs–but every evening when I come out to walk with the dog around the yard there are at least a dozen, flitting from the violets to the clover in the lawn (which is another nice reason to have some variety in the lawn–lovely butterflies will visit).

Unfortunately, because it is so shy, I’ve not been able to photograph it so I’ve included a link, below.

My best guess at what this new visitor is is a red admiral.  There is a serious “irruption” of them going on, from Oklahoma (where my sister lives–she even emailed me about her irruption) to Ontario Canada.  Irruption for those not familiar with the term simply means “unusual gathering of large numbers.”

This will be my 30th species of butterfly in the yard since we’ve gone “mostly” organic (I say “mostly” to atone for the Spoiler’s occasionally lapses into chemicals when my back is turned!)

For those of you still not convinced about the power of organics, if 30 different butterfly species in the yard can’t convince you, I don’t know what will.  And it didn’t take 20 years–I had 25 species after just 5 years of “mostly” organic practices.  I have over 70 different bird species–when the Spoiler isn’t doing them in with his chemical pellets.  And I have lots of other wildlife as well, some mostly loved only by me.

But it’s hard to deny the beauty of butterflies–our flying jewels as they have been called.


I’ve talked before about how I grow lots of parsley for the swallowtail butterfly larva.  This is what I’m talking about.  In the photo above you can see two tiny parsley worms–the actual larva–about mid-photo.  They’re black with grey stripes about midway through the body.

This next photo shows a fairly mature parsley worm. He’s almost about to pupate into a cocoon at this point.

What’s ironic about these photos is that you can see the rim of a flower pot in the shots.  These worms are on the pot of parsley that I kept for myself growing just outside the porch door.  The two hedges of parsley in the garden beds have been yet undiscovered by the butterflies.  I guess that’s okay–I can always go harvest my parsley from there.

Another sad thing is that the day after I took these shots I came home to find a very determined hornet eating something right at the base of the pot.  I almost stepped on him, which was how I discovered him.

So of course I immediately looked for my parsley worms and there were none.  The little ones–there had been 3 total–were gone.  Once the hornet finally flew away–and I was able to watch him for quite a while–I realized he was eating the remains of the largest parsley worm.  Talk about a broken heart!

So unless another butterfly finds my parsley hedge, I guess I’ll have no new swallowtails this year.  What a sad end to a lovely worm.

But if you ever find these scary looking creatures on your parsley, suffer them gladly, because they turn into beautiful yellow butterflies!

Foliage Follow-Up

I enjoy foliage Follow-up almost more than Bloom Day because, for those of you that  have been reading for awhile, you know I love my plants to “do more than one thing.”  So I always try to have interesting foliage around.

Take this coleus, Kingswood Torch, in the hummingbird planter, for example.  It’s a shade plant, so it’s there to brighten the shady area.  But because it’s in the hummingbird planter, I needed a bright pop of color to try to attract the birds.  Notice that bright line down the center of the leaves?  It would be even brighter if it got just a bit more sun.

You can see that as well with these fancy leafed pelargoniums (geraniums).  Yes, they’re pretty much the same window box geraniums that you see everywhere–at least the two in the front, ‘Happy Thought’ with the yellow variegation, and ‘Mrs. William Langduth,’ with the white variegation–are.  The one that’s just about visible in the back is called a stellar geranium because its flowers are star-shaped.  That’s technically an “heirloom” geranium, I suppose–it’s called ‘Vancouver Centennial’ and it was named for just that and has been around since something like 1887.

No one should grow this plant without stern warning!  It is extremely aggressive and once you have it, you have it forever!  However, in the right spot–such as between two granite walls and bedrock, where we have it, it really is a pretty plant with a lovely little flower.  Just do not put it where you do not want it to spread because it will take over on you!

I’ve talked on this blog before about how kind Greenland Gardener was in giving me a raised bed to trial.  One of the things I always grow in my gardens is parsley.  I usually put a pot out by my front stoop for me and 2 6-packs in the gardens for the swallowtail butterflies.

Well, the butterflies haven’t found the parsley yet this year, and this garden is growing so fabulously that I have little parsley hedges.  The rabbits have nibbled a bit, but scarcely enough to make a dent!

I’ve joked that the parsley leaves are as big as my hand and everyone wants to see.  This is not quite the best photo–but how do you photo your own hand?  And of course The Spoiler was nowhere to be found when I needed him!

I’ve put no extra fertilizer in–just the compost and garden soil I started with.  Maybe the butterflies don’t recognize this as parsley–or maybe they’re scared!

Good News for the Monarchs


[Image from Wikipedia]

A story last Friday on the CBS  Evening News (you can watch the video here, but of course you’ll first have to sit for a video for a drug commercial–just as if you were watching the real news!  Sorry) talked about the remarkable resurgence of the monarch butterfly.

Just last year the news was terribly bleak. Bad weather at the monarch’s wintering grounds in Mexico had caused a dramatic decline–by up to 90%–in the monarch’s population.  But when the butterfly specialists who check on overwintering populations went this year, they were pleasantly surprised.  The Monarch has made a remarkable comeback, aided in part by the gentle weather this past winter (in Mexico at least).

But of course as the successive generations of monarchs  migrate up the flyways, they face some challenges.  One is loss of the milkweed that they lay their eggs on.  Butterfly conservationists urge conservation of remaining stands of milkweed, and planting of new milkweed habitats to aid the monarchs.

A second may be the plethora of pesticides in our  midst.  Butterflies are uniquely and highly sensitive to pesticides.  Anyone who’s read my “About” statement knows that that was how I became an organic gardener to begin with–I noticed the absence of butterflies on my property, wondered about it, studied what butterflies needed, found they were highly sensitive to pesticides, and concluded that I just wouldn’t use any.  It has worked on a small scale for me and can work, I think, on a larger scale for others.

Butterflies (and moths) are important pollinators and with bees and bats so imperiled we need to do what we can to assist them.  That means no pesticides if we want to attract them.  It’s quite a commitment.  But anyone with children or pets ought to be committed to that already, don’t you think?

Secret Lives

All of us have the lives that we live every day–the job we do, the one we get paid for, the way we make our living and how we are known to most of the world.  For 15+ years I was a real estate lawyer until I had had enough of my clients telling me that they were “smarter” than I was (until something went wrong, of course).  Meanwhile on the weekends I would go work in a garden center that was a little paradise and the folks there would practically kiss my feet for showing them plants that would grow in the shade.  It didn’t take me too long to figure out that I needed a career change!

Vladimir Nabokov never made a career change.  He was always known as a novelist, perhaps best known for his then scandalous book Lolita.  But all his life he was fascinated by butterflies, and studied them and even wrote some scholarly articles on them.

In his day, according to a recent article in the New York Times, his ideas weren’t taken seriously.  One paper, on a group of blue butterflies known as the Polyommatus Blues, was scoffed at in its day.  But a recent scholar who was doing research  on Nabokov and his butterfly studies in preparation for his 100th birth anniversary, has discovered that there is merit to Nabokov’s ideas after all.

Without getting too technical, what Nabokov proposed was the butterflies had come to North America from Asia across the land bridge by way of  Siberia.  From there, they had made their way down to South America.

At the time of the paper, in the mid 1940s, no one could conceive of butterflies travelling such distances.  Now of course we know of the monarch migrations.

It is nice to see this novelist getting recognition for this scholarly work on butterflies.  Who knows what other hidden talents may emerge from other “sleeping giants?”