07 March 2021

Butterfly garden photos for the Trinity "Seeds and Weeds" Zoom group

[Note: all of the photos will supersize if you click on the picture]

When you park in the driveway, the first thing you run into (literally) are a cluster of plants for butterflies.  At the back, emerging from the worst possible soil (gravel mulch) are a dozen milkweed plants (a late-summer photo already showing seed pods.)  In front of that are purple coneflowers; butterflies love it as a nectar plant.  The sage that is admixed with the coneflowers has minuscule blossoms that attract a variety of bees and other tiny pollinators.

Going up the sidewalk requires passing a gauntlet of flowers reaching for sunlight (a crabapple tree on the left shades that part of the garden).  The Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan) is extraordinarily easy to grow; these plants are also emerging from a gravel mulch.

That same bed from the lawn side is dense with Monarda in late summer; they have overgrown the lilies that were blooming there in the spring and early summer.  The phlox is tall enough to hold its own, and the balloon flowers (Campanula) are reaching out for sunlight away from the crabapple.  More milkweed at the back.  

One more bed for butterflies.  The pussytoes (Antennaria sp.) at the bottom is the favorite food plant for the American Lady butterfly.  That cluster of plants will harbor a dozen caterpillars during the summer (most of whom will fall victim to spiders unless I rescue them).  Behind them more milkweed and the usual nectar plants.  And a bed of not-yet-blooming goldenrod; some people view it as a weed, but it is a marvelous plant for butterflies and especially for bees in the autumn when so many other nectar sources are dying.

I absolutely love New England asters.  Again, easy as pie to grow.  AFAIK, not a food plant unless maybe for some moths, but a great nectar plant for that late-season time when other plants are dying.  And the palette of colors is eye-catching.

Lastly a composite of pix of individual plants.  The Rudbeckia and coneflowers we met earlier.  The milkweed upper right shows the resilience of that species, emerging from stones and gravel next to a brick wall.  Bottom left, jonquils graced with a late dusting of snow.  We plant jonquils and crocus right in the middle of our yard; they emerge early spring and we mow around them a time or two, then they fade away or get consumed by the rabbits.  Lastly one of the bearded irises.   Complex blossoms like these are of little or no interest to butterflies.  Large bees (bumblebees) will climb in, but we love them for the awesomely complex structure and patterns of the blossoms.

These gardens are in Madison, Wisconsin, which is at a latitude similar to Boston, but because we are midcontinent, we are in plant hardiness zone 4b (minimum temps 30 below zero) - more equivalent to upstate New Hampshire than to your Boston area, which benefits from the thermal buffer of the ocean nearby.  But I think all these plants would grow in your gardens


  1. Gorgeous. And inspiring - I didn't think much would thrive in a gravel mulch! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Two points to offer in that regard. First, gravel mulch remains such for maybe a year, after which it becomes progressively admixed with fallen leaves etc that begin forming soil between the gravel pieces.

      But more importantly, plants do not "eat" dirt. For the most part they use it as a place to anchor their structure; then they begin to "eat" the CO2 in the air and drink the water that falls to create all their structural elements. If a deep root system can tap a few vital minerals, they are all set.

  2. Beautiful.

    It is tragic to see how all national big box stores and many supermarkets always push the same cheap annuals for gardens without little appreciation for local species. This makes all yards look the same and keeps "us" addicted to the same easy, unimaginative annuals.

    Frustratingly, even our local nurseries are kinda forced to follow that misguided lead from the big box stores because "people" keep asking for the same stupid flowers.

    My tip: Move to the back of your local nursery, find a knowledgeable clerk and make their day by asking about local species, especially perennial pollinators.

    And as an add-on: The National Park service has noticed a lack of pollinators and is taking action, at least on a few of the National Battlefields in the DC area. They have to maintain these fields, but seems to have decided to let more pollinators grow instead of just maintaining enormous lawns that have no relation to the state of being during the various wars. This is lovely during spring.

    Another tip: Do not go on the trails near the visitor center. Pick up your map at the visitor center and find the trails on the other side of the battlefield. They're quiet and have lovely flowers all Spring, Summer and Fall long. And if your (un?)lucky you'll find a small overgrown sign indicating the horrors that happened in those fields long ago.

  3. I needed this. I just bought a piece of land that has an old formal garden that needs restored. I am less about the formal and more about the pollinators and butterflies. How do you get it to look that good? I always feel that my gardens look arranged. I love the casual beauty of these gardens.

    1. jschmidt, what you need is a) time, b) patience, and c) flexibility. I would suggest not setting up a rigid scheme or plan for the garden (except for the basic principles of taller things toward the back, and putting a mix of spring flowers (bulbs), summer flowers, and autumn bloomers in the spaces you have so that there will be something to enjoy all year long. Seeds and small plugs are cheap; get lots of different stuff and put them in the ground - they will let you know whether they like it there or not. If you have a local arboretum, visit there and walk through the gardens in different seasons. Ask at your local library for the names of local groups (native plant societies, garden clubs, butterfly/bee groups etc) and go to meetings. The garden will tell you what works or not. The east side of a building will be different from the west and the south and north. And if you have a dog loose in the yard you will have many fewer problems with rabbits...


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