Summer planting tips from a gardening meteorologist...
In the last two weeks, nearly all areas in D.C. metro region picked up two inches of rain or better. Finally something to make a gardener smile...
However, the heat has been keeping pace, and, with not much rain in the forecast for the next week, don’t put that watering can away yet.
Gardening, caterpillars and butterflies
All gardeners have their horror stories when it comes to caterpillars in the garden devouring their hard work. In my early days, I admit the first thing I would go for was the organic spray to douse those devils. Let’s face it: ridding the garden of them comes pretty naturally.
Caterpillars are not exactly most people’s idea of pretty. In fact, nature designed them to not be very attractive, or at least to look intimidating whether it’s those strange big eye spots, bristles going all directions, glaring colorations, or, of course, the single-minded eating and pooping!
Then, of course, I got caught up in the joy of planting things that attracted butterflies to the garden. I have butterfly bushes, butterfly weed and verbena for the swallowtails; marigolds and coneflowers for the sulphurs; black-eyed susans and asters for the fritillaries; Joe Pye weed and cardinal flowers for the monarchs; day lilies and salvia for the skippers. It made summer afternoons a viewing festival with all the fluttering. What is really great about all these plants is they are generally easy to grow in our climate and they work like magic to bring the butterflies in. Here is a great site listing all the butterflies in our area, just pick your state: Butterfliesandmoths.org
I believe that one of the greatest assets a gardener can have is a sense of curiosity and being willing to experiment. One day I noticed hordes of caterpillars on my pansies and violas. Since it was well into the heat of summer and they were far past their prime, I was not really interested in going into a spraying fit. I really do try to avoid spraying at all costs. There are just too many good insects that suffer from it, including bumble bees, mantises, lady bugs, honey bees, wasps and dragonflies just to name a few.
Back to my story, those pansies disappeared thanks to all the munching. Hooray, no cleanup work and the payoff was that a couple weeks later the garden was aflutter with hordes of fritillaries! I was hooked on finding other ways to help promote the caterpillars that would bring me a show like that one.
So what is a newly-born caterpillar enthusiast to plant? There are a lot of options. For many of us monarchs are the “king”, and butterfly weed is a good choice. For me a patch of fennel is a must. They are a real favorite of the swallowtail, my favorite. The great thing is they munch the foliage but I still get the bulbs which are great for cooking. Marshmallow and hollyhocks are good for hairstreak caterpillars. Thistles are good for painted lady caterpillars. Common buckeyes love the snapdragons that I can never resist planting and some of them even come back as perennials. I even break down and allow clover (to me a weed) to have some spots in the garden for the beloved sulphurs.
I hope you will try being a foster gardener for caterpillars and butterflies too. As always, any tips you have are appreciated. Talk to you in two weeks. Until then, happy gardening.
Capital Weather Gang meteorologist David Streit is also an active gardener. He earned a certificate in landscape design from the USDA Graduate School and volunteered many years at the National Arboretum.