Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Nursery is Open

Is there anything more beautiful in nature than a butterfly? These fluttering slivers of stained glass are easy to attract to your garden all summer long.
The Gulf fritillary is a frequent visitor to my garden
Passionvine is a fritillary favorite
Butterflies need host plants (where they lay their eggs), nectar plants and shelter. Provide these and they will come!
Monarch laying eggs on milkweed

I am a butterfly novice, but there are so many wonderful references available from people who are true experts in the subject. For those who want to delve deeper I recommend these for starters:
Butterfly Gardening in Florida
(University of Florida IFAS publication: an excellent overview!)
Florida Butterfly Gardening
Native Habitats for Monarch Butterflies in South Florida
(A must-read for all who love monarchs because of the concerns it raises about scarlet milkweed, the milkweed species most commonly sold and which most of us rely on to attract monarchs. Without a readily-available alternative, I am going to keep my scarlet milkweed, but I'll be on the lookout for other varieties too.)
A wonderful Blog about the Butterfly Garden at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa.

In my garden I am learning as I go (aren't we all?). Last year we so enjoyed all the monarchs that came to our milkweed that I decided to see what else we could entice. This Spring I planted parsley for black swallowtails and cassia for sulfurs. Our first black swallowtail cat is now dining on the parsley, but the cassias have so far been ignored by the sulfur,.

Our first black swallowtail baby
My passionvine, which had just been getting a growth headwind after dying back to the ground over the summer, has already been stripped bare by the first batch of Gulf fritillary caterpillars. No worries -- it will come right back. Plus, I transplanted some a month ago to another section of fence and the fritillary scouts haven't yet found that one.

I'm also making more of an effort to learn about and provide a variety of nectar plants for butterflies of many species. I have really boosted the number of native wildflowers in my garden, thanks partly to gifts from friends, and now have mistflower, salvia, ironweed, elephant's foot, purple coneflower, horsemint, scorpion tail, blanket flower, narrow-leaved sunflowers, yellowtop, greeneyes and ironweed. Listing all of them has made me realize how much I seem to be trending toward native plants in my butterfly gardens.

Many of our native trees also are excellent nectar sources, including the Chickasaw plum and Walter's viburnum. I don't really see butterflies on mine, but the bees are crazy for the small white Viburnum blossom each Spring -- and the even smaller, but equally irresistible East Palatka holly blooms.

While on vacation recently in coastal North Carolina, I saw a lovely little butterfly garden in a boutique shopping village, with a sign identifying it as a "Certified Monarch Waystation." When I got home and looked this up, I discovered it is a program of Monarch Watch, sponsored by the University of Kansas. The program encourages homeowners, schools and businesses to create an oasis for monarchs during their long migration to Mexico.  You fill out an application stating which of the monarch essentials you have provided and, if you qualify, you receive a certificate designating your habitat as a "Monarch Waystation." The certification costs $16 and there is an additional fee if you want the very handsome aluminum sign to place in your garden. My cynical husband views this program as just another way to part silly old me from my hard-earned money, but I think it is a great way to draw attention to the beautiful monarchs and show that you are giving nature a hand.
Our newest monarch chrysalis, draped in raindrops

 What are your favorite butterfly plants? And, how many of you are seeing zebra longwings (our state butterfly) in your yards? I have not seen any for more than a year in mine. Am wondering if the severe winter of 2010 had anything to do with that.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Tool I Can't Live Without, and General Ruminations on Rain

There is one tool no Florida-Friendly gardener should be without -- a rain gauge.

The lack of rain at my Central Tampa home lately has me thinking about the value of this handy little device. It rules my world in a way no other tool does, especially in the dry months of the year. If I am not home when it rains, all I have to do is check my rain gauge to see how much water I've received. If it's a half-inch or more, I'm in high cotton! My plants are good to go for up to a week -- or longer, for the beds in deep shade.

This is a BIG DEAL for us as we have no irrigation system at all. Our landscape relies solely on rainfall, or hand-watering. Sure, we planted mostly drought-tolerant plants, but even they need some water.

An in-ground rain gauge
A rain gauge mounted on our fence

Standing in the heat after a long day at work and hand-watering (with a shut-off nozzle, please!) is not my idea of fun. Nor is lugging water from our three rain barrels. In fact, we actually have a micro-irrigation starter kit we have yet to install, but that is on our to-do list to help get us through these dry months before the rainy season begins. (I promise we'll install it, Virginia!)

Rain gauges are even more important for people with irrigation systems and turfgrass. If you know it has rained a half-inch or more the day or two before your official lawn-watering day, turn off the automatic timer and save yourself some money and all of us some water for our future.

Last Friday, it rained. Or so I thought. As soon as I pulled into my driveway, I went to check the rain gauge. It showed a paltry one-tenth of an inch. I checked my other rain gauge, hoping that  there was a leak in the first one. No difference. Rain gauges are just not like those mirrors in the department stores that make you look much thinner in that cute pair of jeans on sale. They don't lie.

So, we watch and wait, and hope for dark clouds and thunder any day now. 


  • Even if your rain gauges are bone dry, let your garden tell you when it needs water. This is true whether you have grass or groundcovers. Our landscape is proving to be a lot tougher than even we hoped. I babied everything last year because it was new, but now I am making myself resist the urge to water until I see plants wilting. Then they perk right back up. 
  • Turfgrass needs water when the blades fold, or when you can see your footprints in the grass. 
  • I water selectively. Beds in full sun, such as my butterfly garden, need to be watered more often than those in deep shade. 
Oakleaf hydrangea and caladiums in deep shade are very water-thrifty

  • New plants always need to be watered frequently for the first few weeks, until they get a toehold in their new home. This is true even for our native and Florida-Friendly plants. New trees need LOTS of water. They are major investments; treat them with love.
  • When you do water, water deeply at the root zone. Don't just give the foliage a quick spray and think you're done. Water less frequently, but apply more water when you do. This encourages roots to grow deep and strong so they require less water over time. This is true for grass and ornamentals. If you have an irrigation system, find out how to do a "catch-can test" here to determine how long your zones need to run.
  • Finally, plant the Right Plant in the Right Place and save yourself some trouble from the start. Impatiens in sunny spots need water every day in the summer.My African iris and bulbine, on the other hand, never seem to need supplemental watering, and they bask in brutal sun all day.

Our front yard has a mix of full shade, part shade and full sun.
Plants are grouped according to their sun and water needs.