Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Not Quite Ready For Prime Time

Last year, the good folks in the City of Tampa Water Conservation Department asked me to be in a video about efficient lawn irrigation. Now, of course, we all know I do not have a sprinkler system -- heck, I don't even have a lawn! But they were convinced that I looked like just the sort of "average homeowner" they needed for this video. They even made it sound FUN.

In all honesty, it was fun -- despite the fact the outdoor filming took place in July and August -- what were they thinking? -- when I could literally feel the sweat running down my body and the makeup sliding off my face.

 This is a 30-minute video, so be warned! Feel free to fast forward until you find the  particular aspect of sprinkler system care and maintenance you want to know more about.

They gave me lots of great instruction and encouragement, and a very good teleprompter, and I did my best. We filmed at communities in New Tampa, which all seem to have large lawns and in-ground sprinkler systems and pretty high water use. I kept looking around and thinking about how wonderful it would be to create some layered landscape beds to replace some of the St. Augustine carpet. I loved it when they gave me a set of pruning shears to illustrate how to trim plants that are obstructing sprinkler heads. In fact, the pruning shears were really the only tool they gave me that I actually knew how to use. Despite appearances, I had never even seen a swing joint, flexible polytubing or a PVC saw before. Ask my husband, who is greatly amused by my apparent tool-savviness in the video.

Participating in the video reminded me of how important it is to water efficiently, no matter what your landscape. It is a fact that maintaining turfgrass generally requires more effort (and more water) than maintaining my grass-free xeriscape. But HOW you maintain your landscape is just as important as what KIND of landscape you have. A landscape with no grass at all can be a water hog if you have an automatic sprinkler system that isn't installed or programmed correctly. 

Among the most common problems I see with sprinkler systems are improperly placed sprinkler heads or rotors that water driveways, streets and sidewalks instead of vegetation (contributing to stormwater runoff) and missing or malfunctioning rain sensors. I also see many broken sprinkler heads -- they are easy to run over in a car -- and often the homeowners don't even know the head is gushing like Old Faithful because the system comes on while they are snoozing.

This video's for those people. Really, they are just like me. And if this persuades even one person to fix a leaking head, or move a spray rotor or even replace a section of turf with drought-tolerant plants, then I'll be proud.
By the way, did you remember to reset your irrigation timer when the time changed last weekend?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Scary Critters Are Haunting My Garden!

Since it's almost Halloween, when ghouls, ghosts and goblins are about, I thought it would be fun to look at a few of the fierce creatures I've found in my garden over the past year.

Leading off the Fright Parade has to be the gargantuan mama wolf spider I unearthed not long ago while cleaning out a plant bed. I immediately started shrieking, but somehow managed to refrain from bolting -- my typical spider reaction (see Blog Post titled "Confessions of a Spider Sissy"). When I calmed down, I noticed she was standing over a large egg sac, which she refused to leave even when my husband came running out in response to my screams, ready to squash her under his shoe. I could actually see her looking up at me warily, clearly ready to die to protect her precious eggs. You guessed it: I couldn't kill her. She was an expectant mother.

Instead, my husband brought me my camera, and I knelt down close enough to get this cool photo of her guarding her egg sac. For a severe arachno-phobic like me, this alone was a miracle. But when I backed away, she immediately crawled off the egg sac, dug a hole in the plant bed, came back, rolled the egg sac into the hole and then got inside herself, vanishing without a trace as she covered up the hole behind her.  All this happened in less than a minute, and it was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed. This spider may have changed my entire view of the species!

Last weekend I was reading the Sunday newspaper when what appeared to be a small wolf spider crawled across the page. Aha, I thought. I know your mother.

Then there was the beautiful black and yellow argiope that set up housekeeping last fall underneath our gutters on the back deck. My husband grew quite fond of the big girl and would occasionally toss a gift of a roach or beetle into her web. I read that argiopes are a common garden spider but, sadly, we haven't seen one this year.

Another fearsome insect that is common in my garden is the assassin bug.  Though they reputedly have a very painful bite, I leave them alone and they do the same to me.

Assassin bugs are named for their habit of lying in ambush for their prey, and then striking with startling speed and accuracy. They use their long "beak" to stab and inject a lethal toxin that dissolves their victim's innards so they can then suck up the liquified tissues. Oh the horror!

Fortunately the assassin bug eats many bad bugs, so best to live and let live.

Finally, let's end with my snakelike yard buddy, the glass lizard. Not a snake at all, but a true legless lizard, about 12-18 inches long, with tiny earholes and a remarkable ability to break off its own tail when captured -- thus the name "glass" lizard.  We have several of these fascinating creatures sharing our landscape, and they live underground most of the time. We see them in duff, hiding deep underneath mulch, and even in our compost bin, The compost-dweller became a familiar sight, since he apparently lived in our compost bin for several weeks, making quite a living feasting on spiders, beetles, grubs and other creepy-crawlies there. We saw him every week when we watered and turned the compost, until he finally ran out of food, I guess, and moved on.
 Now that I've given you a glimpse into my haunted garden, it's your turn. What's the scariest creature in yours? 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beating Winter to the Punch

Readers of this blog will recall that it was the record-shattering freeze of January 2010 (remember the 10 straight freezing nights?) that launched us on our Extreme Yard Makeover. Like many folks, we lost darn near every plant in our yard. That's when we decided to "do it over, and do it right." 

And so we did. In addition to following the "right plant, right place" approach, we also embraced "right plant, right region." We wanted cold-hardy plants that would survive a North Tampa winter. Not only does this make sense, it saves cents -- as in not having to continually replace plants each spring. 

Beautyberry is a cold-hardy native that flourishes throughout the Southeast U.S.
It also saves us from having to dash around the yard wrapping and covering everything in our path on a cold night, when we'd rather be drinking hot chocolate in front of our fireplace.

Yet our attitude appears to be unusual, even in our own neighborhood. No doubt about it: residents of Tampa Bay love their tropicals!

We live in USDA Hardiness Zone 9A, though I often select plants from 9B as well. Anything below that is a no-go, unless it can grow in a container that can be moved inside during freezes. In fact, just to show I am not immune to the tropical allure, I recently purchased a stunning heliconia at the USF Fall Plant Sale. But I bought it expressly for a large container, and that is where it will stay. I can imagine, however, that my husband will have a few choice words for it -- and me -- when it comes time for us to tag team this hefty thing of beauty into the shed.

I was heartened to see that many of the vendors at the plant sale -- especially the Native Plant Society -- were actively promoting cold-hardy species. I bought two more rouge plants from them to go with the single lonely specimen I now have.
Ocala (yellow) anise is a cold-weather champion.
When crushed, its leaves smell like -- you guessed it -- anise.
We may not always have winter freezes, but I'm not betting against them. We are in a period of intense climate disruption, and on our way to overall warmer temperatures we are seeing wild extremes in climate. 

A major motivation for our landscape makeover was to save time. In the Spring, we'd rather be fishing or cycling than planting. And we sure don't want to have to keep shelling out our hard-earned money for new plants over and over again. 

Yet the lure of tropicals is so strong for many of us - why is that? All of Florida is certainly not Miami, yet to look at the most common landscaping plants here you'd think it was. Sago and royal palms, ti plants, crotons, and bougainvilleas abound. And none can tolerate freezing temperatures for long. Some can't even take temperatures in the mid-40s -- and you can be sure we will see those every winter.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Cold-sensitive plants grown along a fence, with a southern exposure, may do fine. Ditto for plants grown under the insulating warmth of an oak's canopy. This is where "right plant, right place" comes back into play. We were amazed at the way our large live oak served as a natural blanket for everything in our front yard. This is why our dracaena marginata tricolor, a definite tropical, flourishes there.  Only the threesome on the very perimeter of the oak canopy showed any cold damage at all last winter, and then it was very little. Yet another reason to salute live oaks!

Our tri-color dracaenas are now 4 feet tall and
 quite happy under the shelter of our  large live oak
Some of our choices are marginal for our hardiness zone, but experience has shown they will come back strong even after dying back completely over the winter. Wild coffee is one of those, as is firebush. We can live with them getting whacked every winter because we know they'll "Spring" right back. 

But the vast majority of the landscape is cold-hardy, for a reason. We learned our lesson in 2010. 

The distinctive Weeping Yaupon Holly makes a lovely small specimen tree 
Specimen trees like East Palatka and Weeping Yaupon hollies; foundational shrubs like Ocala anise, beautyberry, coontie and blue-stem saw palmetto; and groundcovers like bulbine, evergreen liriope and asiatic jasmine, take everything Old Man Winter can throw their way. Even flax lily and chenille plant, used extensively as groundcovers in our garden, weather the cold with little damage, indicating that there is some wiggle room with those hardiness zones depending on the specific conditions in which they are grown.

All it takes is a little thought, and planning -- and maybe a bit of luck as well -- to beat winter to the punch! 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Seeing Familiar Friends in a New Light

While bicycling recently on the beautiful Withlacoochee Trail, I was treated to the spectacular sight of masses of native dotted horsemint in full bloom on either side of the trail, which runs 46 miles through the Withlacoochee State Forest. When it blooms in such profusion, horsemint is a showstopper. Ironically, I hardly even notice it the rest of the year, even in my own garden.

Muhly grass in bloom is a thing of beauty
The same is true for many of the fall bloomers in my yard. Take muhly grass, another native readily adaptable to home landscapes. Without its spectacular feathery pink plumes it just looks like a rather unkempt clump of tall grass. Handsome, yes. A head tuner? Not so much.  But when it blooms, as mine is finally doing, it demands your attention! I have been looking forward to its debut for weeks.

Ditto for my cassia shrubs, which are just now setting those bright yellow flower clusters that will keep blooming right though winter. Or the native yellowtop wildflowers shown below, also resplendent with golden crowns.

Even the very drab native poinsettia, which pops up unbidden all over my butterfly garden, looks truly lovely with its delicate red face. This Florida version of Indian paintbrush brings some early holiday cheer to the garden!

But this year's award for impressive fall color has to go to my narrowleaf (swamp) sunflowers.They are at glorious peak bloom right now, helped by last weekend's slow, soaking rains, and they are fully 12 feet tall. Indeed, in the many years I have grown this native wildflower, I have never seen it reach such towering heights. Giant sunflowers, yes, but this native wildflower species, no. Perhaps its astounding growth is a result of the abundance of rainfall at my home this summer. Maybe it's my compost-enriched soil. Who knows? But these yellow flowers are soaring above my 6-foot back fence like giraffes. 
Narrowleaf sunflowers towering over my 6-foot fence

I have even had neighbors walking by my house comment on them. I had to stake and tie them to the fence just to keep them from toppling over!

I like to cut the sunflowers and put them in vases in my house -- although short-lived, they brighten up any space. As you can imagine, I practically need a javelin to reach them this year. 

A nursery grower who raises swamp sunflowers told me I can keep them from getting so out of control next fall by pruning them in mid-July. This will limit their growth to a reasonable 5 or 6 feet, while still allowing plenty of time for the flower buds to form.

Definitely a game plan for next year. In the meantime, I'll continue to marvel at my "sunflowers on steroids" and hope that my back yard isn't cited for interference with commercial air space! 

What familiar friends do you look forward to seeing anew in the fall in your garden?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tour of Native Landscapes

This past weekend I went on a tour of native plant landscapes sponsored by the Pinellas Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. This annual event is a self-guided tour of homes featuring all or mostly native plants. The tour is two days -- with South Pinellas homes on Saturday and North Pinellas locations on Sunday. Last year I did the South Pinellas tour -- this year I decided to see what homeowners in North Pinellas are up to, figuring that their climate, soils and plant selections would be more similar to my Tampa landscape.

On any garden tour, It's always inspiring to see what clever, creative ideas other gardeners are implementing that I might want to "borrow" myself. I always take photos to jog my memory later when I'm looking for an interesting planting scheme or a new way to use yard art.

This tour has the special twist of featuring an amazing variety of native plants -- most of which, sadly, can be only be purchased from a native plant nursery or grown from cuttings or seeds bestowed by generous native-loving friends (which is how I got most of my more unusual natives).

I tend to prefer landscapes with structure and design, and I found plenty to like on the North Pinellas tour, like this inviting natural path in a Clearwater back yard lined with firebush, beautyberry, tropical sage and ironweed.

I was also captivated by the charming seating area at this home, framed by an arbor bursting with coral honeysuckle, a favorite nectar source of hummingbirds.
Water features were present at almost all the homes. I loved this waterfall cascading down to a quiet pool bordered by ferns, salvias and other overhanging plants that give it a lush, tropical feel.
Or this large, beautyberry-fringed pond at a Safety Harbor home.
At the tour stop in Oldsmar, I admired the way the owners blended the natural vegetation -- pines and palmettoes -- with unusual natives like Lizard's tail and even exotics like crinum lilies and orchids. The landscape islands were bisected by a beautiful, curving brick walkway.
Who wouldn't want to sit here and just enjoy the scenery?
Or wander down the brick walkways and explore some more?
Yard art aficionado that I am, you know I honed right in on these whimsical little slippers planted with lovely native wood violets.
I don't think my own yard will ever be entirely native -- there are just so many wonderful non-native but Florida-adapted choices available -- but I love mixing the natives into my garden. They can't be beat for toughness and resilience, and our native butterflies and birds often prefer or even require them. As time goes on, I am bringing more natives, especially wildflowers like this dotted horsemint, into my landscape, joining the tropical sage, scorpion tail, mistflowers and narrow-leaved sunflowers in my Bay-Friendly plant palette.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Fruits of our Labor

Labor Day is the perfect time for all of us to put down the trowels and shovels, grab an ultra-cold glass of iced tea, take a comfy seat on our porches and patios, and just admire the fruits of our labor -- our beautiful gardens. 

In the Bay-Friendly Landscape, the lushness of summer is still evident. Our yard has grown dramatically this year, thanks to abundant rain. We have not provided any supplemental water in at least two months. My primary chore this summer has been pruning, and pruning, and pruning again. 

Butterflies and moths continue to visit, although their numbers are now tapering off. Sulphurs are the most abundant now, and their caterpillars are keeping the cassias nicely in check.

Sulphur caterpillar munching cassia
Recently, we have been serenaded in the evenings by an extremely loud cicada orchestra. I was lucky enough to see one of these gigantic, pop-eyed insects on the ground, presumably right after emerging as an adult in its winged state. But not lucky enough to have my camera with me, unfortunately. 

Can anyone identify this moth -- perhaps a duskywing? It was feeding on the native mistflowers.

The lovely carefree caladiums are still going strong, their happy faces lining our front walkway by the funny antique sink that we use as a bird bath. 

Fall is showing its colors already, in the festive purple beads draping the beautyberries, in the first feathery pink plumes on the muhly grass, and in the berries popping out on the East Palatka hollies. 

As if they are running out of time,the chaste tree is sending up a furious shower of violet blossoms, and the majestic beauty hawthorne is putting out an unexpected second bloom. 

Everywhere, things are happening, growing, changing. 

But I'm just going to sit here for a while, quietly, and do nothing. It is Labor Day, after all.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Natives Gone Wild!

When we first embarked on our landscape makeover in January 2010, we wanted to create a yard that would inspire others to step outside the traditional Florida landscape box -- a large expanse of lawn with a border of shrubs around the house, and a palm tree plunked here and there.

Beach sunflower is a colorful summer favorite
Working with landscape designer Lisa Strange we decided on a mix of native and non-native, but Florida-compatible plants. And, of course, as you all know, no grass. I asked Lisa to include plants that anyone could readily find at their local nursery or home improvement store.Thus our landscape features familiar friends like liriope, shell ginger, flax lily and African iris -- all of which I love and recommend highly.

But as time goes on I am drawn more and more to our resilient, adaptable natives. One that was slow to grow on me (pun intended) was the Ocala anise, a shrub we use as a foundational plant along our back fence.  Last year when we planted them, I had to water them literally every day for months. I think I would have ripped them out if not for the the fact that I invested so much sweat equity in getting them in our root-infested back yard to begin with! 

The anise have been amazingly carefree and drought-tolerant this year.I  haven't given them any supplemental water since May and they look very happy. 

Likewise with the coontie. I now realize that there is some point during every year when the coontie looks like it is at death's door, then it just bounces right back.

This summer I have added a few native wildflowers, with the emphasis on "wild." Some have grown so large and so abundantly they appear to be on steroids. The two narrow-leaved sunflowers planted last year have become multiple plants this year -- and they are nearly 9 feet tall! I had to stake most of them up to keep them from toppling over from sheer bulk, and they haven't even bloomed yet.
The distinctive Scorpion Tail

Another champion wildflower this year is the delicate, leafy scorpion tail, with its distinctive curly white "tail." Again, I started with two plants. Those two spread so rapidly and became so large I've had to prune them 3 times already to keep them from literally taking over my butterfly bed.

Mistflower can become invasive, and requires reining in occasionally
Not far behind is the dainty mistflower, with its fuzzy, pale blue blossoms and leaves that look much like a salvia. I purchased one plant last year, it didn't impress me much and then disappeared completely over the winter. To my surprise, it returned this year, with a vengeance. I now have a large beautiful clump of these pastel beauties and will have to keep it under control through pruning and pulling. 

A close look at dotted horsemint
reveals its exquisite beauty
Tropical sage with GIANT
narrow-leaved sunflowers in back
Tropical sage has reached near-invasive status in my yard. It grows to more than 4 feet high and spreads so readily that I am constantly yanking "strays" up and trying to pawn them off to friends, neighbors, total strangers -- anyone, please take them!

I have been noticing lovely dotted horsemint blooming along roadsides and in wild areas, and am hoping the lone horsemint planted this year in my garden will morph into a whole family next summer. I've left it some room to roam in anticipation.

Other natives I have just planted this year include spiderwort, blue-eyed grass, iron weed, greeneyes and elephant's foot.  Most were given to me by friends who are just as enthusiastic about these True Floridian as I am becoming. With many natives so hard to find except at specialty nurseries, sharing extras from your garden is a great way to promote their increased use in residential landscapes.

I'd love to know what native wildflowers have caught your fancy this summer! 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Confessions of a Spider Sissy

Female black and yellow argiope,
 a common garden spider
Since we have decided not to use any toxic chemicals in our yard, I have had to resign myself to living with creepy-crawly things like spiders. I've even grown to like some of the spiders, like the beautiful female black and yellow argiope that crafted a stunning wheel-shaped web under one of our gutters last fall.

I also admire the pretty little basilica spiders that have built their elaborate three-dimensional webs in so many of our shrubs (see May 2011 posting). 

I have even become positively fearless about taking very close-up photos of these spiders with my macro lens.This amazes my husband, who learned early on in our dating days that a normal conversation interrupted by a sudden "shriek and bolt" means only that I have spotted a spider, not that I disapprove of his choice of outfits. 

Once, on a remote island in the Bahamas, I actually jumped out of a moving car in a complete, brain-freeze of a panic when I saw a HUGE spider crawling on the inside window rim. Fortunately Rick was driving slowly on a dirt road and I was not hurt. Even though he got the spider out of the car, I spend the entire rest of the trip constantly inspecting every inch of that car. 

The spiders in my compost bin illicit the same response. They are big, brown, hairy, hideous things. Wolf spiders? I don't know, because I don't stick around to examine them. I Shriek and Bolt immediately. I admit it -- I am a total and complete Spider Sissy. I am not generally a fast mover, but let me tell you I practically teleport when I see one of those monsters.

I do not recall the instructor in my composting workshop saying anything about GINORMOUS, GARGANTUAN hairy spiders in the compost bin. She showed us pictures and collection jars of worms, sowbugs, beetles, and little spiders. Little, non nightmare-producing spiders.

This photo is by Peter Hollinger, not me. 
I am NEVER going to get close 
enough to a spider like this 
to get a photo of it.
Rick also recently found a black widow in the compost bin. I may never open the lid again.

My rational side knows that spiders are useful, beneficial creatures. They are attracted to the compost bin because it contains a wealth of easily available insect prey for them. They like dark, moist places. That is their nature. 

I'm not getting rid of the compost bin. I love the rich, earthy soil it produces for my herb garden, my butterfly plants and my vegetable Earth boxes. I love knowing that we are not throwing good organic matter into the trash but instead are recycling it.

And I know if I wear good gloves when working with the compost I should not have a problem with spider bites. But I can't help it. If I see one of the monsters, I will SHRIEK AND BOLT. That is my nature.

We do have a secret weapon that we discovered while turning the compost a few weeks ago. A sleek, beautiful glass lizard, about 20 inches long. At first we thought it was a snake, but a close look (snakes don't trigger my shriek-and-bolt mechanism) showed us the little ear holes and head of a legless lizard. These fascinating creatures are called "glass lizards" because they can actually break off their tail if a predator grabs it to escape.

My Hero -- our spider-eating glass lizard.
We see our lizard in the compost bin nearly every time we turn the compost. We are now careful with our little pitchforks not to harm it because this little guy eats -- you guessed it -- spiders! Other insects too, but spiders are apparently a mainstay. Hallelujah!!

The glass lizard comes and goes from the compost through one of the air holes in the compost bin. We watched him slide through the hole when we disturbed him, but the next time we turned the compost he was there again.

Since it's actually the bacteria and fungi that do most of the work in breaking down the compost, I am quite happy to have this glass lizard feasting on any insects he finds in the bin. In fact, I'd like to roll out a welcome mat for him in the bin, or give him a little sign that says "Guard Lizard On Duty," if I weren't afraid to open the lid by myself now.

I think I'll ask my husband to do it for me. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why I Love My Bay-Friendly Landscape This July

Yes indeed. I am loving my low-maintenance, low-impact landscape right now. Let me count the ways -- at least a few of them:

1. While up and down my street I hear the sounds of lawn mowers and weed whackers, silence reigns in my yard. Wait! What's that I hear? Oh, just a bird singing.

2. I can watch my neighbors drowning in sweat as they labor in their yards while I sit on my front porch with a cool umbrella drink in hand. I'm thinking I really need to get that porch swing I've always wanted.

3. My rain gauges are now rarely empty. No more dragging hoses and buckets of water from the rain barrel to quench my plants' thirst. It's finally raining, nearly every day. And the plants look so dang PURTY after it rains.

4. Summer means butterflies! Several visit my yard each day. I am never too busy to stop and watch them. Last week our first sulphur butterfly laid eggs on one of the cassia shrubs. Our black swallowtail caterpillar has gone off to form a chrysalis. And a few more monarchs have emerged from their little cases, though we still haven't been lucky enough to catch one in the act.

5.  July gives me the best of both worlds: My summer flowers are at peak bloom, AND some of the fall bloomers are just starting to produce blossoms too. Double delight!

Liriope is beginning its fall bloom cycle 

My beautyberry is also producing lovely little pink blooms
I still can't believe it myself, but my grass-free yard really is a breeze to maintain. My biggest chores are deadheading and pruning the flowers and shrubs that are growing like there's no tomorrow. And every couple of weeks, Rick or I use our leaf blower to blow leaves off our walkways back into our landscape beds. We STILL have had virtually no weeds this year-- and the few that do sprout are easily pulled out by hand. Other than that, we spend a lot of time just admiring all our beautiful plants and wondering why the heck we didn't embark on our landscape makeover years ago. Bring on August -- we're ready!

Coleus is a versatile plant that comes in several different varieties,
 perfect for mixing and matching 
Our landscape earned designation as a
Florida-Friendly Yard last year

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.