A Year in the Life of a Southtown Butterfly Garden

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Monika Maeckle

Last year about this time, we detailed a turf-to-bed conversion in the front yard of our rental house in the downtown Lavaca neighborhood of San Antonio.  We thought it would be helpful to share what happened over the past year on that small square of yard, thoughtfully converted from a drought-damaged lawn to a mostly native butterfly garden with a bit of edible landscape thrown in.

The garden is located in Southtown, one block from Brackenridge High School. Its plant palette includes mostly natives, with a few well-adapted others, including herbs that double as butterfly host plants (parsley, dill, fennel, rue) several tomatoes, peppers, okra and one handsome artichoke.

The following month-by month chronicle details a Year in the Life of an Urban Butterfly Garden. SAWS encourages mindfulness of water consumption and the adoption of native plants. Replacing turf grass lawns with verdant butterfly beds that yield blooms, caterpillars, butterflies and other pollinators all summer–as well as herbs and edibles–becomes an increasingly appealing , water-saving option. Not to mention all the color and wildlife.

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

Austin transplants hold down the fort at our future Lavaca neighborhood butterfly garden in downtown San Antonio, January 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It began in November, 2011.

At the time, work and personal circumstances pulled me back to San Antonio after 12 months of temporary duty in Austin.   I joined my husband Bob (namesake of Rivard Report) at a distinctive green-built downtown “Cube,” one of a pair of rentals conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.  Our plan was to live here one year while building a house on an empty lot on the border of the historic King William district. We’re now well into Year Two of that plan, which has become two houses on that once-empty lot. One of the houses is built and occupied by my parents;  ours, still under construction.

The Cube’s front yard St. Augustine was brown and burnt after 2011′s historic drought. Hilary agreed to let me have my way with part of the yard, planting it as a butterfly garden and edible landscape.

Austin to San Antonio translplants

Austin to San Antonio transplants: rue, milkweed, bulbine and some favorite lantanas.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because I become irrationally attached to certain plants, I choose to recycle them, digging them up from one yard and moving them to another.   The prior year, upon moving from our large family home in Alamo Heights to Austin, I took along several beloved favorites from my well-established butterfly garden–a large rue bush, several milkweeds, reliable red and mealy blue sages, and a couple of bulbines.  These same plants, and a few new ones, made the 75-mile trek to Austin and were now returning with me.

In December, we  prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.   Six-10 layers of newsprint or cardboard covered by three-four inches of mulch and  steady South Texas sunshine will typically kill grass and weeds in just a few weeks, creating a decent environment for transplants, which we installed right away.   Then, we waited.

February

One of the mainstays of my butterfly gardens has been various types of daisies, all members of the Helianthus family.  I love dramatic sunflowers in early spring and have a fondness for Cowpen Daisy, because it blooms from March to November and takes our Texas heat so well with little water.

Last year I planted daisy, sunflower and milkweed seeds indoors in  February.   The milkweed would be used for “caterpillar food,” when Monarchs started arriving in March.

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

By the time of our last official estimated freeze date, March 15, Mammoth Sunflower and Cowpen Daisies started indoors were transplanted to the front yard.   The milkweeds were already hosting dozens of migrating Monarchs, who graced us with eggs which we gladly brought inside for fostering.

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy

Cowpen Daisy became the foundation of the Lavaca butterfly garden.  Transplanted up front in March, 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hungry critters devoured sprouts of Tropical milkweed we had planted in pots specifically for their consumption. We also installed a few tomato, okra and pepper plants, and of course parsley, rue, and fennel, which double as Swallowtail host plant as well as culinary herbs.

April

Our first happy sunflower bloomers showed themselves in late April. Unfortunately,

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

garden vandals saw fit to decapitate our sunny soldiers, leaving their seed heads drooping in the breeze.  In one case, a 12-foot tall sunflower was beheaded by a teen walking past.  A worker installing a fence for a neighbor called her out. The girl dropped the sunflower head and another passing teen lay it on our front porch.  Such are the travails of the unfenced urban garden on a well-trafficked sidewalk.

May

May brought the first tomatoes–heirlooms.   Cowpen Daisies flushed their yellow blossoms, drawing Bordered Patch butterflies, which use them as a host plant.  By now, Swallowtail butterflies regularly visited the garden, nectaring on the prolific daisies and leaving their lovely, round eggs on our fennel and my well-traveled rue.

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue.   They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue. They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

Green heirloom tomatoes

Fried green heirloom tomatoes, anyone? May 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

June

The sunflowers were losing their charm as the weight of their heavy heads caused them to slouch forward in sad fashion.   Sparrows and cardinals started perching on their stiff stems, pecking the protein-rich seeds.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, a.k.a. Jimsonweed, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Tomato and Jimsonweed plants became common hosts for Tomato and Tobacco hornworms, which later morph into the beautiful Sphinx moth. Loathed by gardeners, I find these caterpillars charming with their eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because they are moths, the caterpillars drop to the ground, cover themselves with earth to later rise as a large, hovering night-flyer.

 July

Fourth of July brings peak summer–long, hot days.   Daisies, milkweed, Jimsonweed and sages are taking the heat well.  Sunflower seeds are ready for collection from their tired, dried heads–here’s how to harvest them.

July:  Time to harvest sunflower seeds.  Just scrape them from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

We also had our first brood of Bordered Patch butterfly caterpillars on our Cowpen Daisies.   The fuzzy black critters decimated a few leaves, but the birds soon came and made quick snacks of most of them.  We harvested handfuls of cherry tomatoes and peppers, too.

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly on Cowpen Daisy.   July 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tomatoes and okra

July: Cherry tomatoes and okra are ready in the butterfly garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

August

We start to see Queens in late summer.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars, and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal, flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on  Tropical milkweed..  Male Queens adore Gregg’s Purple Mistfower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you have flowers blooming during the most brutal summer days, you’re likely to see the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.  Males have a penchant for Gregg’s purple mist flower.   Apparently they extract minerals necessary for their virility from the native perennial.

September

Late August and early September signal the start of the Monarch migration in our part of the world.  We usually buy our tags from Monarch Watch in August and tag the first Monarchs over Labor Day weekend.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Labor Day Monarch tagging, 2012:  Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch has run the citizen scientist tagging program for more than 20 years.  Hundreds of thousands of butterflies have been tagged in the two decades by nature lovers like you and me.   The data collected by those citizen scientists has helped piece together the many mysteries of the Monarch migration.

We’ve tagged about 2,000 over the years and had 26 recoveries from the forest floor in Michoacan.  Here’s how to tag Monarch butterflies, if you’re interested.

October

April and October are always some of the best months in the garden in South Texas.  If you’re lucky and plan ahead, you can still be pulling okra off your plants, get a second round of tomatoes and harvest some peppers.

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012.  Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012. Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps now you can see why I love the Cowpen Daisy so much.   The plant just keeps on giving blooms.  The more you cut it back, the more it puts out.  You can shape it into a hedge, let it grow tall and gangly, or chop it short and bushy.  And of course the butterflies love it.

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies as a nectar source. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed in October, 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Butterflies and other pollinators are ubiquitous this time of year because the weather is so perfect for blooms.

November

November is a great time to collect seeds for next year’s butterfly garden.  It’s prime time for planting many native wildflowers, too.

Some dislike the brown woody look of native annuals that must be  allowed to “go to seed” in order to produce blooms next year.   But for me, the seeds add to the charm of these reliable plants.

Lavaca garden, November 2012

Lavaca Butterfly garden, November 2012. Some Cowpen Daisies are spent–good time to gather seeds for next year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin. November 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

And while you’re gathering those seeds, the butterflies just keep on coming.  Our typical first freeze in San Antonio is supposed to be in mid-late November, but climate change has made that so unpredictable that we, like the birds, butterflies, bats and bees, should seize every sunny, warm day and make the most of it.

December

The last month of the year is a good time to make use of those seeds you’ve collected.  Brush them off the sidewalk, put them in a brown paper bag and share them with friends.

Seeds for next year

Seeds for next year, gathered from Lavaca garden, December 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We also like to make seedballs for ranch wildscaping and guerilla gardening projects. The recipe is easy, inexpensive, and makes for a great group activity.

Rollyo seedballs--why wouldn't you?

Roll your own seedballs–why wouldn’t you?   Makes a fun group activity.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Looking back over the year, can you believe how much life–and fun–can be culled from a small butterfly garden?   A modest patch of earth populated with appropriate, native and well-adapted plants beats a vast green lawn on its best days.

what are you waiting for

Photo by Nicolas Rivard

More from the Texas Butterfly Ranch:

Follow Monika Maeckle on Facebook at Texas Butterfly Ranch, or on Twitter @butterfly beat.

 

Related Stories:

San Antonio’s Tropical Milkweed Patch Raises Monarch Butterfly Questions

As SAWS Pushes Native Plants, Texas Legislature Considers Native Plant Bills

SAWS Awards Businesses that Conserve, Braces For Summer Drought

Texas Water: A Modern Proposal

Monarch Butterflies Coming our Way in What Could be Worst Migration in History

Beetlemania at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

Monarch Butterflies Make Milkweed Patch on San Antonio Museum Reach Home

Here they Come! Monarch and Other Butterflies Passing Through, Laying Eggs and Sipping Nectar

 




There are 12 comments

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  1. Morgan Matson via Facebook

    Love my green green grass. So nice to play in, to sit on, to walk barefoot on, to run with my boys.

  2. Morgan Matson via Facebook

    Yes, they do that too. I even encourage them to play in the dirt. But, there is something magical about reading a book in the grass or watching my boys run in the sprinkler during the summer, SAWS police notwithstanding.

    • Monika Maeckle

      Magic = caterpillar converts its body mass to a new life form, rests for a week, grows wings and takes flight.

  3. LD

    kudos to your effort and likes…

    But that no-way is what I would deem attractive, or worthy of investment in time, energy, or thought…

    and good gracious, what is that big wall covering the side of the house…

    note: you still have grass there!

    a bit over the top to save water….

    may i suggest running your sprinkler every two weeks, using MP rotators for sprinkler heads, and a few flower gardens…

    We will never conserve our way to meet our water needs. But i suppose in the event if water ran out, we all could use rock landscapes de facto…. let me know when we get there…. We have plenty of water. It is how we source and pay for it that politicians and leaders have screwed up. Conservation can’t help that. never will.

  4. Hugh Daschbach via Facebook

    Monika, your mentoring and guidance on urban gardening and landscaping is inspiring. Thanks for getting me started in the right direction last year. Last year’s cowpen daisies were prolific and the seeds they dropped must have taken root on their own because this year I have several new plants that popped up on their own. So cool!

  5. Hugh D.

    Monika, your mentoring and guidance on urban gardening and landscaping is inspiring. Thanks for getting me started in the right direction last year. Last year’s cowpen daisies were prolific and the seeds they dropped must have taken root on their own because this year I have several new plants that popped up on their own. So cool!

  6. Monika Maeckle via Facebook

    Smooth, Marc. Thanks, Hugh. No one is suggesting that we dump grass entirely. But let’s keep it interesting. And how about keeping some habitat for all the pollinators? The birds, bees and butterflies will thank you. Plus: it’s so much fun to watch them.

  7. Jesus Rangel

    This is such a good article in many aspects. Thanks for being so passionate about urban gardening. Very helpful.

  8. John Schulze

    Great article and beautiful photos!

    Without even planning for it, we’ve ended up with a butterfly garden. The chain-link fence beside our driveway is now fully draped with passion vines, which have been hosting Gulf Fritillaries, and now there’s fennel with lots of swallowtail caterpillars.


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