Archive for the ‘Landscaping’ Category

Butterfly Magnets

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Earlier this week, I posted about my effort to find a suitable location in which to install my new plant, Duranta erecta, also known as Sapphire Showers. This new plant is shown above. My goal has been to use this plant to solve several simultaneous landscaping challenges. First and foremost, I would like for this plant to obscure the electric meter and other utility interface boxes from view. I need to leave access to these fixtures, but I don’t need to leave them fully exposed to view from the road or the yard. After studying the placement of the underground utility cables, I decided that the best location was just a few feet from where I had originally planned to place it.

Secondly, there are some unsightly stumps in this area, and I would like this plant to shield them from view as well. The stumps themselves are leftovers from some very thick greenery that I took out last year when I started my butterfly garden. Some of that greenery was a cluster of the highly invasive camphor tree, and some of it was anise bush (Illicium parviflorum). Although that is a decent landscaping plant, it was originally planted too close to the house, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage. There are actually numerous stumps clustered closely together at various angles ranging in size from about half an inch to four inches or so. I have trimmed them as close as I can to the ground, but there’s still quite a bit left. As best I can figure, it isn’t worth the effort or scraped knuckles it would take to get them the rest of the way to ground level or to remove them by hand. They are also too close to the house to safely operate a stump grinder. So, my goal for now is to simply make them less visible while they slowly decay over the coming years. If you look closely, you will see these stumps in some of the pictures I post now and then.

A third goal for this plant is for it to be an integral, positive addition to my butterfly garden. I have a patch of ground in that garden that has gone bare over the last few weeks, presenting a good opportunity to rework the design. My thought has been to place this plant in that section. When this section is viewed from the front, the first foot or so above the ground is hidden by several rows of flowers and low-to-the-ground flowering shrubs. You can see this perspective in the picture below. All of those plants are species native to Florida, and all of them serve as nectar sources for adult butterflies. Species represented in this section include Lantana depressa, Salvia coccinea (Scarlet Sage), Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan), Gaillardia pulchella (Indian Blanket Flower), Coreopsis lanceolata, Silphium integrifolium (Rosinweed), Scutellaria lateriflora (Blue Skullcap), and Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Milkweed).

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All of the plants in that section produce showy flowers that attract adult butterflies in search of nectar. But if you really want to attract butterflies to your garden in large numbers, it is imperative for you to plant sources of larval food, that is, you need to feed the caterpillars. Nearly all butterfly species are highly selective with respect to the types of food they can eat as caterpillars. As adults, the females will seek out those plants as a place to lay their eggs. They then hatch out as caterpillars and happily munch away until it is time to pupate, and then emerge as adult butterflies. The butterflies seek out nectar sources for sustenance, seek mates for reproduction, and the cycle continues. So the key to successful butterfly gardening is to plant larval sources specific to the butterfly species you wish to attract, and to plant a variety of nectar sources sufficient to entice the adults into hanging around instead of wandering off elsewhere in search of food.

Because the larval sources in a butterfly garden are intended to be eaten by caterpillars, it is a fairly common practice to position them in places where they are not visible to most passers-by. This is what I have been doing (with mixed success) in what has become a largely bare patch. There are still a few specimens left in this patch, but they blend in so well with the sandy ground and leaf debris, they are nearly invisible at first glance. An example of this is bronze fennel. There really are three decent sized bronze fennel plants in the picture below. They are all along the right-hand side of this picture, but unless you know what to look for, you will have a really hard time finding them. Can you spot them?

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By the way, bronze fennel is a favorite of the Black Swallowtail butterfly, and I have had several of them start their lives here since I started this butterfly garden. I see them fairly frequently nowadays. Another favorite of the Black Swallowtail is rue, which is the plant that inspired the design of the clubs symbol on a standard deck of playing cards. I had several of these in this area, but they all suddenly and mysteriously died in recent weeks. There are also several species of foods that humans eat which serve as larval sources, although I do not have any growing here yet. This includes parsley, dill, fennel (the edible kind), carrots, and others. Expect to see some of these show up here in a future post once I figure out how I want to integrate these food crops into my butterfly garden.

Some plants serve dual purposes as both larval and nectar sources. A classic example is the genus Asclepias, commonly known as milkweed, as mentioned above. There are many species of milkweed, several of which I have growing in my butterfly garden. All of them serve as larval food for the Monarch. In fact, Monarch caterpillars are incapable of eating anything other than milkweed. Milkweed grows natively throughout North America, but it usually gets taken out along with other native vegetation when land is developed. This is why gardeners planting milkweed is so crucial to the survival of this beautiful and unique species of butterfly.

Just a couple days ago, I found the youngster below, happily munching away on one of the many milkweeds in my garden. Monarch caterpillars are voracious eaters, and will strip a milkweed of its leaves and flowers in a matter of days, leaving nothing but nubs and bare stalks. If you look near the left-hand edge of the picture above, at about the same level as the pot, you will see what a milkweed looks like once the caterpillars get through with it. This actually does not harm the plant; it will bounce back completely in a couple weeks or so.

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Another plant that serves a dual purpose is the genus Passiflora, commonly known as the passion vine or passion flower. These take up considerable space, so at this time I only have one specimen, a P. caerulea, or blue passion vine. These serve as hosts for two of the butterflies we have locally, include the Zebra Longwing (our state butterfly) and the Gulf Fritillary. Passion vine flowers are short-lived, but incredibly exotic looking. In the picture below, you can see one that was in my garden a couple weeks ago. One day it was a bud, the next day it was as you see below, and by the third day, it was gone. While present, butterflies will stop by for a drink.

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In the picture below, you can see what the vine looks like, along with a Gulf Fritillary caterpillar. As adults, they look like the one shown back up at the top in the first picture of this blog post. There you will see it enjoying my new plant, even before I placed it in the ground. Take note of its size relative to the flowers on the Duranta.

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In the next picture, you will see another butterfly that stopped by during the time I was conferring with my wife about the placement of the new plant. Look closely. It is mostly white with some black markings, and it is on a flower very near the center of the picture. You will note that this one is much smaller than the fritillary. This butterfly is not familiar to me. I am not 100% sure, but I believe it is a female Checkered White. I arrived at this conclusion after consulting my copy of the Butterflies of Florida Field Guide. If any of you are butterfly experts, please feel free to correct me!

Also in that same short time, a butterfly of a third species paid us and the Duranta a visit. This one was a tiny blue butterfly that was too small and too quick for me to get a picture. By consulting my book, I determined that it was probably a Cassius Blue. The largest specimens of this species have a wingspan of only an inch. I don’t grow any of the larval host plants for either of these species, so we may or may not see some return visitors. Nonetheless, we very much enjoyed the show while it lasted!

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When the butterfly show ended, I proceeded to install the new plant. As you can see by looking at the shovel, it took quite a hole to place it in the ground properly. I had remarkably few roots to deal with, so the digging was fairly easy. It was very nice knowing with certainty that I was digging well away from any utility cables! Once I finished the hole, I filled it partially back in with some Mel’s Mix, augmented with some Plant Tone organic fertilizer. After placing the plant, I filled the hole the rest of the way with Mel’s Mix, tamped it down, and watered it thoroughly.

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So, in this final picture, you can see the finished product. There it is, perfectly centered between the naked milkweed stalks and the invisible fennel! Ah, the joys of gardening!

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Until next time, happy gardening!!

Round Plant, Square Hole

My goal for this morning’s project was straightforward. Put this plant …

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… in this space:

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The plant is a Variegated Ginger Lily (Alpinia zerumbet). This ornamental plant is a close relative of the edible ginger. A native of India, this plant is a hardy perennial when planted here in Zone 9. When mature, it should reach a height of about 6 feet (~2 m), which is about half the size of the non-variegated variety.

The designated space is the back corner of a planting bed located in the back corner of our pool’s screen enclosure. This space is actually behind the other plants in this bed, so the new plant will not be the central feature of this area. We are hoping that the visually striking leaves of this plant will add a nice touch of balance and contrast to the brightly colored flowers along the front edge. As you can see, the space has some minor obstacles (rocks, dead Muhly Grass clumps, and a sprinkler head), but it doesn’t look like it should provide too much of a challenge.

The first order of business is to gather up all the tools I think I will need to get the job done:

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  • Bucket — I actually used three 5-gallon buckets before the job was done. I used one to hold rocks and two to hold the soil I dug out.
  • Trowel — needed for obvious reasons
  • Cultivator — not used much in digging the hole, but used quite a bit while preparing the new soil
  • Anvil pruner — I cannot remember the last time I dug a hole around here without encountering roots, so I start by assuming they will be there. Some people might prefer the bypass type of pruners, but I have a strong preference for the anvil type. I find with these, I can make clean cuts though surprisingly thick stems and roots with remarkably little effort. I find it important to buy a fresh set periodically to make sure the blade is nice and sharp.
  • Folding pruning saw — When digging, I find it saves some jangled nerves if I locate my pruning saw and have it at hand BEFORE I begin, rather than waiting until I encounter a root too thick to cut with the pruner.
  • Gloves — I’ll confess that I’m about as good at keeping gloves on while I work as I was at keeping my shoes on as a kid, but I do start out with good intentions. During a project like this one they tend to go on and come off several times throughout the course of the chore.
  • Hat — I like to work in this hat because its broad brim helps keep the sun off my neck as well as out of my eyes.
  • Sunglasses — this is Florida, after all.
  • Kneeler — the best thirty bucks I ever spent was when I bought my garden kneeler. It goes with me everywhere I go in the garden. I usually use it in the kneeling position, shown here, but occasionally flip it over to use as a bench to sit on while doing a task that’s going to take awhile, such as picking a row of bush beans. The need for this tool on a project like today’s is obvious, given the rocks and the extended time needed on the ground to dig a good-sized hole. What I find, though, is that it’s nice to have it around for those quick down-and-back-up activities that happen all the time in a garden, in that I can keep my knees off the ground, I never have to worry about painfully locating rocks and sticks with my kneecaps, and I can use the side bars as leverage when standing back up. If you don’t have one, ask yourself “why not?” When you realize you don’t have an answer, click the link at the bottom of this post to order your very own from Amazon (or just click right here), just like I did. You won’t regret it.
  • Tape measure — I actually didn’t think of this in time to get it in the picture, but I ended up using a tape measure several times. I measured the pot (9 inches in diameter and 9 inches deep) so I would know how big to make the hole, I measured to see if I had it deep enough yet (several times), and so on.

Having assembled my tools, it was time to get underway. The first thing to do was pull up the dead Muhly Grass and dispatch the remains to the compost bin. That task was finished in a couple minutes without any surprises.

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Next, I had to clear away the rocks from the designated space, allowing me free access to the soil below.

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After that, I had to make sure the location passed inspection. Emma looked it over and said it was fine, so I proceeded with the soil removal part of the job.

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It wasn’t long until I encountered the first real surprise. There was a PVC pipe right across the middle of where I had planned to dig. And, no, it didn’t lead to the sprinkler head I pointed out in the picture above. I didn’t take the time to figure out where it did lead; I simply moved my targeted spot over a few inches to avoid it, and proceeded to dig.

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I did expect to find a PVC pipe leading to the sprinkler head mentioned previously, so I was not surprised when I found it. I measured between the two pipes to make sure I still had room. With a 10 inch space and a 9 inch pot, I didn’t have much room to spare, but at least it was doable.

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What I did not expect was to find yet another pipe, but I did! Fortunately, it was on the edge of where I was planning to dig, so it did not requiring moving the hole yet another time. It was the last one I encountered, so I at least had one side of the hole to work in without obstacles.

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By the time I was through digging, I had accumulated quite a pile of roots. The largest one I encountered was about an inch and a half in diameter, a pine root which I hit at about seven inches below ground. This is when I was really glad I already had my pruning saw handy. It zipped through the root in a matter of seconds, and I was able to keep going without getting diverted. The rest of the roots were manageable with the anvil pruner.

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Finally, it was time to start filling the hole in. Before doing anything else, I used my measuring tape once again to locate the center of the intended space. Ginger Lily needs to have good drainage, so before establishing the soil base, I placed several rocks at the bottom of the hole to help drain water away from the plant.

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I then poured on a layer of vermiculite to fill in the spaces between the rocks, thereby keeping the soil from settling into the spaces and preventing good drainage.

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After that, I placed a layer of peat moss and about a cup of Plant Tone organic fertilizer, followed by a mixture of peat, vermiculite, compost, and potting soil. I used this to fill the hole back up to the 9 inch mark, so that the base of the plant would be at ground level when finished. Finally, with the hole completely prepared, I carefully removed the plant from the pot (finding it to be moderately root-bound), and placed it gently into the hole. I then filled in the spaces around the plant with the potting soil/peat moss/vermiculite mixture.

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After replacing the rocks, doing a little clean-up, and watering it well, my task was complete. I had successfully placed a round plant in a square hole!!

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Here’s a view of the planter bed from the front side. You can barely make out the Ginger Lily to the left of the palm, near ground level. As mentioned earlier, it should get considerably larger than this, so by the time it is grown, it should be quite visible from the front side.

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And here’s what it looks like from across the pool.

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As discussed above, the best thirty bucks I ever spent was when I bought the garden kneeler. I looked around quite a bit before selecting one. I compared options and suppliers, and read online reviews. The one I picked is the Yard Butler GKS-2 Garden Kneeler, which I bought from Amazon.com. This is neither the cheapest nor the most expensive, but it seemed to offer the best value. A few months ago, I bought a second one — not because the first one was worn out, but because my wife and I were tired of having to juggle only one of them between us! So, we now have two, and we’re both happy.

Here’s a link to the model I use (simply click on the picture):

Two other tools I used today that you might find handy if you’re doing a similar project are the anvil pruner and the folding pruning saw. I actually bought mine at K-mart a few days ago, since I happened to be there and knew that I needed them. They made really short work of all those roots, and made the task about as effortless as I could imagine. Because I was so pleased with them, I’m providing links below to the same model products at Amazon.

The anvil pruner:

The pruning saw:


Happy gardening!