Sunday, October 3, 2010

Buckeye Bonanza and Garden Freebies

NOTE: Pictures have been added!

Every spring and fall, I spend every spare moment in the garden, composting, rearranging plants, finding spots for seedlings, weeding, etc. My methodical mental planning of where I want all the plants to go borders on the absurd, since I always change my mind mid-dig. Every spring and fall I stand back and survey my domain, smug in my satisfaction that this year my garden will achieve a sense of perfection and splendor found only in novels and movies. I sigh, deep and happily, knowing that all my hard work will pay off. Cloaked in fabulosity, my garden slides sweetly into night, and I sleep in bliss.

Fast forward to mid-July: It's brutally hot, hasn't rained in weeks, the rain barrels are empty, and my garden is crispy to the touch. I move slowly through the yard in fear of creating so much friction I spontaneaously combust and burn down the whole damn thing. I turn on the hose to saturate the brittle soil and the folks at the city water co. smile in delight.

Every summer, I water, pinch, weed, deadhead and water some more. But that's all. I do not believe in micromanaging Mother Nature and I let my garden drift into barely controlled chaos. The plants tumble into each other and either thrive or die. I wander the garden and take mental notes of who's happy and who's not. I am a tough love gardener and plants that are quite determined to die, despite my care, are yanked unceremoniously from the soil. In the past year I've created a new category of Plants That Don't Contribute to supplement the two most popular, Dead and Alive. Plants That Don't Contribue are the equivalent of botanical placeholders. They're green and alive but don't attract wildlife, or are green and barely alive and have begun to irritate me. Placement in the last category is a guaranteed one-way ticket out of my garden.

'Chocolate' eupatorium was first given to me as a seedling from a friend. I never dead head it to make sure I always have seedlings to pass on. Here it grows next to a 'Purple Dome' aster.

That's where Terri comes in. Why garden in just one yard when you can vicariously garden in two? Astilbe, japanese anemones I can never keep watered enough, and ibiris growing in too much shade, an extra 'Blue Fortune' agastache to ensure a summer of butterflies, coreopsis, eupatorium 'Chocolate' and obediant plant seedlings that have come together, organized and threatened to take over the garden are all headed to her house. She's thrilled and dreaming of a garden. I'm thrilled to be helping her with one.

About two years ago I planted perennial snapdragons on the premise that they would attract buckeye butterfly caterpillars. Last summer the plants grew thick and strong but I never saw any caterpillars or even buckeye butterflies.

This picture was taken in late spring. The snaps are growing near lavender, rose campion, and orange milkweed. The black wrought iron fence to the left forms part of the dog run. This cultivar is called Dulcinea's Heart.

Perennial snapdragons are similar to some salvias in that they need to be cut back by half, without mercy or remorse, in order to continue their seasonal careers as garden wonders. I knew I needed to cut them back, but I hesitated, not wanting to lose any of the beautiful flowers. Stick them in a little vase and bring them inside? Sigh... this didn't occur to me. My hesitation finally gave way to absolute amnesia and by the time I remembered to cut them back, they had split down the middle from the weight of their beauty and looked pathetic, the stems too close to the ground, the plant almost prostrate in its utter squashedness. I was angry at myself and convinced that, once again, my snaps wouldn't make it into the butterfly buffet. 

Yesterday, when I should have been running errands like a responsible adult, I was wandering the garden, testing out my new Felco's and pruning the trumpet creeper. When I finally headed to my car, a bit dirtier than when I started, I noticed a small greyish caterpillar clinging tightly to my jeans. I scooped it up and ran inside. Flipping through my butterfly book, I suddenly stopped at the caterpillar page. In full color before me lay a picture of a buckeye butterfly caterpillar that matched the small creature in my palm. I scanned the text, nervous I would put it back in the wrong plant. Back into the garden I ran, screeching to a halt in front of the dry, ragged snaps. The leaves were covered in caterpillars of every size. They roamed the branches, oblivious to the plants faded beauty.  I stopped counting at 12 and ran back into the house, jumping up and down as my 15 year old watched me and laughed. And cloaked in fabulosity, my garden slid sweetly into night.  

A buckeye butterfly caterpillar in the snapdragons. I also found them in the verbena bonariensis, which is pictured below. They seem really spikey but were so soft and vulnerable in my hand.


  1. It's often the unexpected surprises in the garden that are a greater thrill than the perfectly grown specimen. Well I think so anyway.

  2. : )

    All I can do is smile right now.

    I absolutely adore your love for butterflies. Right now, I'm in love with Hawks I believe as much as you are in love with B-flies. Maybe I'll study a bit this winter and surprise you next year with some B-fly sightings of my own. Love your enthusiasm, and I'm totally there with you!

  3. Hahaha! I am so overjoyed to meet people like you. Whenever there are visitors (human), they would expect me to get rid of caterpillars. I don't and others think I am weird.

    Btw, I believe the photo up there on the right is a moth. I captured something quite similar.

  4. That's fantastic news. Right when you think all is lost mother nature steps in and does her thing!

  5. What a buckeye bonanza! I, too, have done the jump for joy dance on many occasion when the garden blesses me with some surprise. I think the neighbors have finally gotten used to it... ;-D

  6. Missy - Gardening without any surprises just wouldn't be as much fun. :0)

    KJ - I love raptors! We have Red Tailed and Cooper's Hawks here that sometimes hunt in my garden. I've never seen them catch anything. The little birds must know they're coming since the garden will go completely silent until the hawks leave. They are so beautiful to watch.

    One - I like weird people especially weird gardeners!! Being organic and letting nature control itself isn't weird, it's smart! I think blasting the outdoors with chemicals is weird!

    Marguerite - Every year Mother Nature reminds me that she is the teacher and I am forever her student. The garden is truly hers. I'm just allowed to play in it!

    Kris - One of my neighbors is so used to seeing me covered in dirt and sweat that I actually had to introduce myself when he saw me dirtfree and didn't recognize me! I'd lived behnd him for about 5 years!! :0)

  7. Your cool bug on the sedum is a Ailanthus webworm. It is actually a moth common to Costa Rica, but we have them here in Niagara Falls. First year I spotted one. I did a post on it on my blog.

  8. GWGT - I checked out your blog and you and Onezz were exactly right!!! What a beautiful moth! I had to chuckle at your preferred name of Piet Mondrian bug. Much funnier than the Latin!

  9. Just read all the comments AGAIN, which means I'm a loser or better yet, you need to post another garden story. I am so out of my element amongst this genius garden crowd you've attracted. I hope you'll continue to welcome my amateur comments. : )

  10. Great to know you have got the exact name to that moth. Moths come in many forms, don't they?

  11. I learned something new from your post. I have never heard of perennial snapdragons! They must be missing from local nurseries because they would not be hardy here.
    Also read the post on the 10 things we didn't know about you. The story about Rigby brought tears to my eyes. What kind of person cuts off a dog's ears? It is so great you took him in.
    We have a number of things in common. For example, I love reading and make jewelry too. My husband is the son of a man who had a long career in the Canadian forces.

  12. KJ - You are awesome!! A new post will happen sometime this weekend. There's a monarch caterpillar in the process of making a chrysalis in my gooseneck loosestrife and I'll post about it Sunday night. I'm hoping for more pix by then. Stay tuned!!! :0)

    One - I know so little about moths and insects. I wish I knew more!! I thought the webworm moth was a long skinny beetle!!

    Three Dogs - If I posted every heartbreaking story I hear about the dogs at FOHA, people would stop reading my blog. Despite everything they've been through, all they want is food, safe shelter, and love. If humans had the capacity for forgiveness that dogs do, we'd live in a better world. The Latin name for perennial snapdragons is Antirrhinum and they like a lot of heat. Tough little plant!!

  13. I love all of your caterpillar pictures! Gosh, I'm going to have to start looking more closely and see if I can't spot a few in my garden.


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