Photo by Kurt Jacobson
As I watch an adult American Goldfinch feed a fluttering-demanding fledgling on my sunflowers, I recall when there were no such birds in my garden. Monarch and Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies often visit my flowers and help pollinate my crops. All of these beautiful winged marvels have descended in my yard since learning how to attract them.
I’ve been gardening in my backyard in Perry Hall, Maryland, for 11 years and learn so much with each passing year. I cringe at the thought that I used to peel caterpillars off my carrot tops and parsley then toss them in the field out back, not knowing they would become Swallowtail butterflies. Thanks to the Mother Earth News Facebook Group, I was informed the pesky caterpillars were one of my favorite butterflies. From then on, I learned to plant their favorite foods, dill, parsley, and carrots to attract them.
Early this season I was into my fourth year of treating the caterpillars well, then discovered several of my swallowtail caterpillars disappeared. I posted my sadness on the FB group and was told I could buy a butterfly tent to house my caterpillars that would get them through the caterpillar stage, chrysalis stage, and on to a winged beauty to set free to do as nature intended.
Photo by Kurt Jacobson
Two members of the FB group chimed in with their tips for raising caterpillars. Sarah Hiley has been raising swallowtails she finds in her garden for three years and tells me, “It fascinating to watch them grow from a tiny caterpillar to the chrysalis stage then emerge as a butterfly and fly away.”
Since receiving this support, I’ve raised about a dozen Swallowtails this year. I’ve even seen a swallowtail lay eggs about the size of a poppy seed on my dill and later seen the eggs just after hatching. The thrill of watching them emerge from the chrysalis and fly away is breathtaking. And this excitement doesn’t stop with Swallowtail butterflies.
Photo by Sarah Hiley.
While browsing the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog two years ago, I noticed Asclepias tuberosa-Butterfly Weed-and ordered seeds. I hoped this type of milkweed would attract Monarch butterflies. After starting these seeds indoors in February, I transferred them to my flower and veggie beds and waited. Some two months later, I spied the first Monarch feeding on the milkweed flowers and was ecstatic.
Milkweed plants came up again this year and grew bigger than last year. Several types of butterflies would land on the milkweed, but the real fun was when I discovered nine Monarch caterpillars munching away on one plant. After a few days, I took four of them off and placed them in my butterfly tent. They all formed chrysalis pods, and over the next five weeks each one emerged and flew away to freedom.
Monarch butterflies were in the news recently. I heard on NPR that we have lost 85 percent of the monarch population. They aren’t even eligible to receive “endangered” status until some three years from now. If home gardeners plant milkweed in and collect the caterpillars that appear on the milkweed to raise in protective tents, we can lend this magnificent butterfly a hand in surviving the onslaught of chemicals, habitat reduction, climate change, and predators.
Birds of Prey
I’ve been adamant that no chemicals touch my veggie or flower beds. My garden has done quite well most years but after watching an online webinar by the National Audubon Society about planting a native bird garden, I learned how to have a naturally balanced backyard eco-system. In late July 2020, I bought several of the Audubon recommended plants selected for our growing area - zone 7a - for a native garden bed.
Not much happened that first year, but this year the native garden went wild. The coneflowers attracted American Goldfinches and other native birds. I saw and heard Carolina Wrens hunting insects throughout my garden beds. Thanks to planting the correct species to attract native birds and pollinators, this summer my garden had the least amount of insect damage yet. I harvested lots of green beans, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, and peppers with little or no bug bites marring the veggies.
We also picked over a hundred flowers for colorful bouquets to light up our dining room and living room. I don’t know for sure that my Audubon recommended plants are the source of such a successful gardening year, but I do know it’s been great fun to see all the native insects and birds benefit my garden.
To have similar results, I recommend contacting your local Audubon Society and see what plants they recommend to attract native birds. Native birds have been in the news lately as their numbers dwindle from habitat loss, harmful chemicals, feral cats, and climate change. We can help the birds out by planting crops that support their food and nesting needs.
Try planting dill, parsley, and carrots to attract Swallowtails and milkweed for Monarchs. Last September, I even went so far as to find native milkweed in a field near my home and gathered seeds for my garden. When I came home last week from a 12-day road trip, I was happy to see five Monarch caterpillars munching the native milkweed grown from those foraged seeds.
If you conduct an internet search about Monarch Butterflies in danger, several websites proclaim this majestic butterfly could disappear without our help. It’s not difficult to help butterflies and native birds survive. Why not join the club and be part of the solution?
Audubon guides on what to plant.
Mother Earth News Facebook Group
Vegetables Love Flowers by Lisa Mason Ziegler in books or Kindle
Kurt Jacobson writes about travel, food, wine, organic gardening, and most anything else from his varied professional life. His articles appear in Alaska magazine, Fish Alaska magazine, Metropolis Japan magazine, Edible Delmarva magazine, North West Travel and Life magazine, and MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Kurt lives in the Baltimore, Md., area with his wife, dog and cats. Kurt’s articles also appear on several websites, such as: GoNomad.com, Trip101.com, MotherEarthNews.com, Adventuresstraveler.com, and several others. Kurt is a regular contributor to GoNomad.com writing about Alaska, Colorado, New Zealand, Japan, and the Mid-Atlantic areas. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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