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A 2020 Kansas Butterfly Garden

-by Greg Hoots-

The year 2020 has been historic by any measure.  There were many firsts and worsts. At our home in Kansas City, Kansas, my wife, Cheryl and I were fortunate to claim a “best” this year, our butterfly garden. We planted our first vegetable garden in the backyard more than a decade ago, and about five years ago we began converting it to a butterfly garden.  Every year, we find ourselves frequently saying, “this is the best garden we’ve ever had.”

This Tiger Swallowtail enjoyed the plethora of flowers in our backyard.

I have to admit, we spend a lot of time caring for our haven for butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and songbirds.  If I’m admitting things, I’d have to say that my wife spends more time working in the butterfly garden that I do, but not by too much.

This year was no exception, but it was exceptional; it was the best garden we’ve ever had. We started in January with the arrival in our mailbox of the many seed catalogs which appear the week after Christmas.  We spent a few winter hours, scrutinizing the brightly colored flowers and foliage which advertises various varieties of seeds, bulbs, and plants.  We have our favorites.  We select the Zinnia varieties which we will plant on “the hillside,” a steep incline that vexed me for many years when I attempted to mow the steep slope. Our favorite source of Zinnia seeds is Johnny’s Seeds, a mail-order seed and plant-seller. Three years ago, I purchased an electric rotor tiller that would operate on very steep inclines which would rob the oil from a gasoline engine, and I tilled the hillside. That spring, I planted Zinnias, Black-eyed Susans, and Daisies on the hillside, while Cheryl continued to expand and develop our butterfly garden, cultivating beds of Milkweed, the only host plant on which the endangered Monarch butterfly will lay its eggs.  While we grew many flowers from seed, Cheryl also planted more than a hundred annual and perennial plants in the garden that year.

The Zinnias produce side branches with blooms, creating a mass of nectar-rich flowers. This view is from August 7, 2020. Notice the arbor was covered with vines by mid-summer.

In early 2019, one of our annual improvements to the butterfly garden was the installation of about 150 “paver” bricks which I purchased used.  The seller indicated that he had salvaged tens of thousands of these bricks from the basement floor of a former railroad station which he demolished.  We used them to create a defined border for the hillside garden, making it easier to keep grass from encroaching on the garden’s edges.

In March of 2020, we began cleaning debris from the previous year’s garden while preparing for planting.

In early 2020, we decided that we wanted to install an arbor for an entrance to the hillside, so in March of 2020, just as we were going into Covid-19 lockdown, we purchased a cedar arbor and installed it in the garden.  It was somewhat of a challenge, as we were placing the structure on a hillside, but when the afternoon was over, the arbor was installed in the garden.  A month later, Cheryl planted a single Morning Glory plant on each side of the arbor, selecting Carnival of Venice, a white flower with purple and red stripes. Soon, the cedar lattice-work was covered in twisting vines, bearing heart-shaped green leaves and hundreds of colorful booms which opened each morning.

In selecting plants for the butterfly garden, we generally choose plants that fall into one of two categories, nectar producers and host plants.  Both of the plants provide food for the butterfly cycle; the nectar-producing flowers yield food for adult butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds, while the host plants provide a habitat for butterflies to lay eggs and food for caterpillars which hatch from the eggs.

Common Milkweed produces large clusters of flowers and broad leaves which provide a habitat for Monarch butterflies.

Our large-leaf Common Milkweed stand has expanded every year, and in 2020, we were fortunate to have young milkweed sprouting late in the summer, while our early plants were being used as caterpillar food.  The other valuable product of the Milkweed plant are the seeds which it produces.  The Milkweed produces clusters of flowers which emit a sickening sweet aroma when ripe.  Bees are attracted to the fragrant flowers, while adult female Monarch butterflies seek the broad thick leaves on which to deposit their eggs.  Once the eggs hatch, each one produces a tiny striped caterpillar which immediately begins eating the milkweed leaf.  Once the flowers have reached maturity, they form horn-shaped seed pods which contain hundreds of seeds, with each seed attached to a thin feathery wisp of a tail.  Once the pod matures, it will split, and the Kansas wind will carry the seeds to spots where they fall to the ground and take hold, producing plants, next year.

By mid-October, the Common Milkweed seed pods have burst open, scattering their seeds in the Kansas wind.

By mid-May, the Zinnias which we planted in late March were knee-high and exhibiting a single, green, undeveloped flower bloom in the center of the plant.  In two more weeks, they were flowering.  Once the first bloom was produced, the side branches of the plant develop as it continues to grow in height, and each branch will bear another flower. The Zinnia blooms provide an excellent food source for butterflies through the last remaining days of October, after which each petal of each bloom will produce a new seed.  Each year, we buy new seeds produced a controlled environment, as the colors of the seed produced on the hillside will not remain true when planted the following year.  For example, bright scarlet red flowers may be pollinated by bees which previously visited an orange or coral colored flower.  The cross-pollination of flower varieties will yield seeds which produce plants of a fairly uniform light Fuchsia color.

A Giant Swallowtail feeds on an orange Zinnia, a Benary Giant variety.

Once the Zinnias have finished their life cycle, we let the plants stand all winter.  They provide valuable cover for small, ground-feeding birds such as Juncos and Sparrows.  Then, when we have a nice warm day in late February of the following year, I remove all of the previous year’s Zinnia stems and debris before tilling the hillside for the new year.

By July 8th, the hillside garden was in full bloom. Notice the Black-eyed-Susans at the far left that were volunteers which took hold in the Zinnia patch.

While I plant the Zinnia seeds on the hillside, Cheryl plants scores of annuals and perennials every year in the garden.  Among our favorites are the red and purple Salvia plants.  The red Salvia is a favorite of hummingbirds, and it is among the latest flowering plants in the garden, providing much-needed food for migrating hummers.  Another late-flowering plant is the Lantana.  The Lantana, which produces scores of small trumpet-shaped blooms, is a favorite of butterflies, and in mid-summer, one can find butterflies feasting on the plant’s nectar almost any day. The Lantana will bloom until the first hard frost.

When butterflies lay their eggs, perhaps as many as 90% of the eggs will not survive to the butterfly stage.  When the caterpillars hatch, they are tiny, barely visible to the eye.  For the next three weeks, the caterpillars will grow in size ten times over as they spend all of their time eating the host plant.  During this stage of their lives, the butterfly larva is extremely vulnerable to predators and disease. Some are eaten by birds or other insects.  Some will be stung by flying wasps which will lay eggs inside the caterpillar, making the larva a host for the wasp’s eggs, resulting in the death of the caterpillar. The few caterpillars which survive form a type of a cocoon or pupa which hatches into a butterfly in about two or three weeks.

Cheryl had placed five tiny caterpillars in this habitat, and they all hatched on the same day!

Cheryl goes to great lengths to increase the odds of the tiny new-born caterpillars becoming butterflies each year when she spies the tiny creatures on their host plants, (Milkweed, Dill and Parsley), and she removes the branch containing the nearly microscopic colorful worms. Then, she places the branch in a bottle of water and puts the bottle inside a small habitat enclosure made of butterfly netting.  Each day, she clips new sprigs of the host plant and adds them to the bottles where the caterpillars are eating furiously.  It’s quite a daily commitment.  In two or three weeks, the mature caterpillars climb to a point on a stick placed in the cage where it attaches its cocoon. In another ten days or so, the butterflies hatch.

An Eastern Black Swallowtail walks up Cheryl’s arm as she releases it on August 10, 2020.

When the winged insects first hatch, they hang upside down as their wings dry, and then the butterfly will begin exercising their wings.  After about thirty minutes, the butterflies are ready to be released.  Depending on the outdoor temperature, the availability of sunlight, and the length of time that the caterpillar has emerged from its pupa stage, it will immediately fly high into the sky when released or it may choose to sit on a flower in the garden and feed and sun itself briefly before taking flight. When they hatch, the butterflies are unafraid, and they will walk onto an extended hand or finger, making their release easy.

This Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly, having only emerged from the pupa stage, feeds on a Lantana bloom before taking flight.

On September 5th, Cheryl released this amazing Monarch butterfly.

When fall came to the butterfly garden and the growing season ended, we began to think about what we wanted to do to expand the garden next year.  About eight or nine years ago, I built a simple compost box from cedar lumber in which we deposited garden debris for many seasons.  In October of 2020, Cheryl and I disassembled the old compost box, which had produced a huge quantity of rich black loose soil. Just behind the location of the prior composter, we constructed a new compost box, essentially a cedar box with no bottom. Then, we constructed a 36-square foot raised bed on the spot where the first box had once been.  I used 6-inch by 6-foot cedar fence slats to construct the sides of the raised bed, making the cost of the new bed less than $25. Then, Cheryl selected and planted about 40 tulip and daffodil bulbs which she purchased from Brecks, and now, we await the spring of 2021 to enjoy the new bed of flowers in our backyard.  Once the flowers push through the soil surface, we will plant a second crop between the showy blooms.  We plan to plant Dill and Parsley, both host plants for the Black Swallowtail butterfly, in the same bed with the early spring flowers.

Our final project in the 2020 garden was to construct a new bed which will produce spring flowers as well as Dill and Parsley.

Now, we anxiously wait for the first signs of spring to see the grassy paths between the flower beds begin to turn green, and the first flower of spring, the lowly Dandelion, emerges from its winter rest.

When the snow fell on October 26th, the Red Salvia was still blooming strong. As amazing as it is, the plants, blooms intact, survived the early season storm for a couple additional weeks.

Now, as we face the first day of winter, we’re already thinking about what will be our big 2021 butterfly garden improvement project.  One thing is for certain, this year, we will have the best garden, ever.

A sunflower volunteer in the upper garden was covered in snow in the October storm. Notice the spent milkweed seed pods just below the sunflower.

Click on any image below to view in a gallery format or as a full-screen image.

Categories: Blog, Family Stories

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