Make the Difference
The Joys of Creating
a Mini-Habitat in Your Own Backyard
by Diane and Skip
We wanted to share with you the success
in our efforts to create a miniature sanctuary for birds, butterflies,
and other wild creatures. This has been an ongoing experiment, enriching
our lives and giving poignant meaning and purpose to our gardening.
Each year we have gradually removed more of the lawn and have developed
mulched beds containing more than 175 varieties of trees, shrubs, and
flowering plants—most of which are native—transforming our
home into a small but extremely viable habitat and sanctuary for birds,
"flutterbys," and myriads of other small creatures. Our philosophy
is to create productivity through biodiversity by choosing plants that
provide both food and shelter. The result has been very rewarding; we
have seen a tremendous increase in birds and "flutterbys!"
Lawn, by contrast, is consumptive, requires expensive maintenance, and
Butterfly counts taken here throughout the year reveal seasonal fluctuations
in both the numbers and species present. We find that wet
versus dry is more important than temperature when
it comes to attracting butterflies. May and June are drought months,
and we notice a marked drop in populations. But with the advent of the
rainy season (July through September), the almost daily showers produce
valuable crops of tender green leaves on larval host plants—the
presence of these plants are essential for the survival of the eggs
and tiny caterpillars that eventually become butterflys. In our area,
we find that Scarlet Milkweed is a great example of a fine larva plant.
Female butterflies seek out not only new foliage but also specific plants
to lay eggs on. We have discovered that establishing these host
plants is even more important than providing nectar flowers!
For example, it is well known that the Monarch Butterfly lays its eggs
on species of Milkweeds, the bitter milky sap imparts a bad taste to
the larvae, making them repugnant to birds and other predators.
The other plant that protects caterpillars is the Pipe Vine, host for
the Pipevine Butterfly and the Gold Rim Swallowtails. Adult Spicebush
Swallowtail lay their eggs only on our Red Bays and Sweet Bay Magnolias.
Another easily grown larva host plant is the Passion Vine, a singular
choice for our beautiful Gulf Fritillaries and Zebra Long Wings.
In general, for adult butterflies we try to provide nectar flowers for
each season. We are gradually finding out which ones do best in various
micro-habitats around the yard. For example, in October our Climbing
Asters are in bloom, attracting myriads of both resident and migrant
species. Some flowers are star performers, blooming nearly every month
of the year. Among them are Pentas, Egyptian Star-Cluster, Lantana,
Blue Porterweed, Impatiens, and Firebush.
Meanwhile, it will soon be time to put in a border planting of Parsley,
a fine host plant for Eastern Black Swallowtails. We harvest the fresh
greens for salads in winter and dry some for later use; then in spring
and summer, we turn the plants over to the butterflies!
If you are intrigued and wish to start a b’fly garden, even just
in a small niche somewhere, there are many ways to get the needed information.
We suggest contacting your nearest nature center or garden club for
books and advice. Be sure to ask if there is a butterfly garden nearby
that you can visit or a local club for Lepidopterists (butterfly students).
Our own involvement began many years ago with the daily appearance of
a large unknown Swallowtail that hovered and glided near our Key Limes.
We hunted her up in a guide and found her to be a Giant or Citrus Swallowtail,
so named for laying eggs on members of this plant family. We soon made
a little nectar garden; and later, as we identified more species, added
the first Passion Vine. It went from there!
Diane and Skip