Summer television may be loaded with boring reruns and contrived reality programs, but in the garden, August is prime time for one of nature's most spectacular shows: It's butterfly time!
Everybody loves butterflies, which are at their peak in mid- to late-summer. Almost all the people who ask me to design a garden tell me that one of their main wishes is to attract wildlife. I sometimes tease them by asking, "Oh? What kind? Snakes, spiders, skunks, gophers, raccoons?" But I know what they're going to say: They want butterflies and birds.
Fortunately, it's easy to attract these colorful fliers; there's no need for signs, lights, or runways. If you install plants they like, wildlife will appear. And even if they're not on your list, you may see, in addition to the birds and butterflies, bees, chipmunks, rabbits, turtles, frogs, snakes and more. There are three requirements: food, water and shelter. If you want animals to remain as part of the garden, provide long-term shelter and protection for their offspring.
The Global Butterfly Database reports that there are about 17,000 species of butterflies in the world. According to the North American Butterfly Association, 717 species have been recorded in the United States and Canada. In their short lives -- many live only a week to 10 days -- they visit hundreds to thousands of flowers, drinking the nectar and pollinating plants.
Butterflies are harmless -- only one might be considered a crop pest. The cabbage butterfly lays its eggs on young plants in the cabbage family and its larvae (caterpillars) feed on the cabbage heads as they form.
If you want butterflies in your garden, you need host plants, the ones on which a butterfly hatches, feeds and pupates from egg to caterpillar and into an adult. Not all hosts are flowers. Some butterflies prefer trees, shrubs and even herbs. A caterpillar will feed on its host plant until it reaches full size. It then forms a pupae or shell, inside which the wormlike caterpillar develops into a pretty butterfly. Once the butterfly emerges, it needs the nectar-producing flowers.
Some butterflies require a specific host. For example, the monarch butterfly will hatch and grow only on milkweed. Monarchs are very distinctive, with their orange wings edged in black, spotted with white dots. They also live longer than some other butterflies, as long as six months. The ones that hatch in the fall migrate 1,000 to 2,000 miles to the mountains of Mexico. They return north in the spring, mating en route.
Hosts for other specific species of butterflies include daisies and asters (painted lady and pearly crescent spot); oaks (gray hairstreak); plums and wild cherries (coral hairstreak); spicebushes or sassafras (spicebush swallowtail); willows, apples and cherries (viceroy and tiger swallowtail); fennel, dill, parsley and rue (Eastern black swallowtail); verbenas and snapdragons (buckeye).
Once you have installed host plants, it's time to consider nectar-producing flowers. Any of the following species will keep the butterflies occupied all summer:
Flowers, including black-eyed Susan; cosmos (annuals that re-seed themselves dependably); purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea); sage (Salvia officinalis); spearmint (Mentha spicata); lantana (annuals); lavender (Lavandula), and verbena (the most butterfly-attracting plants I have seen).
Other plants that butterflies adore are shrubs or wildflowers more suited to larger gardens. They include joe-pye weed (Eupatorium), which is bushy and tall, up to six feet; butterfly bush (Buddleia), also tall and wide (prune it back to 12 inches before it leafs out in spring); milkweed or butterfly weed (Aesclepias), commonly found growing wild in this area; and goldenrod (Solidago). By the way, goldenrod is not an allergen; it just opens at the same time as ragweed.
Whatever plants you choose, plant the butterfly garden in a sunny area and include shallow puddles for drinking and small, flat rocks so the butterflies can bask in the sun. Never use pesticides in or near a butterfly garden. You may not want to know it, but besides being beautiful and major pollinators, butterflies also serve as a major food source for other creatures.
Bird watching and gardening often seem to go hand in hand, and both are way up there in terms of popularity. Like butterflies, birds need food, water and shelter. Many people install bird feeders so birds don't have to forage for food -- kind of like fast food for birds. Commercial bird seed mixtures come tailored for different species.
While the feeder method is simple, it has problems. Squirrels are a real nuisance. They chew and rip the feeders to get at the seed. Then they hog it and scatter what they don't want on the ground. This can be a big headache in urban gardens because rats and mice are attracted to the scattered seed. They, too, like fast food. Once you have rodents, they are extremely hard to get rid of, especially if you can't use poison because of the danger to domestic animals. I always recommend using plants to attract birds to urban and suburban gardens. Keep a decent pair of binoculars on the windowsill and you can still enjoy the birds' antics.
Food sources for birds are diverse. Common flickers, for example, feed on crawling insects and a variety of berries; purple martins live almost exclusively on flying insects. Hummingbirds, as nectar feeders, count on tubular flowers, mostly ones that bloom red. But all birds need some type of cover to nest and raise their young. Planting a shrub or tree is a big step toward creating that shelter.
If you install plants that are native and have berries, you've added a strong incentive for birds. Some native bird-attracting shrubs and trees are most species of serviceberry, spicebush, inkberry, holly, bayberry, viburnum and dogwood, which alone attracts 86 aviary species.
Finally, add the element of water, usually a shallow birdbath, to give birds a need to visit your garden, especially during dry weather.
There are lots of great sources of information on butterflies and birds.
To observe butterflies closely, visit the Wings of Fancy live butterfly show at the south conservatory of Brookside Gardens, 1800 Glenallen Ave., Wheaton, through Sept. 19. Natives and species from South and Central America fly freely among nectar plants. The conservatory is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost: adults $4, children (3 to 12) $3. Call 301-962-1400; Web site: www.brooksidegardens.org.
To observe butterflies up close in Virginia, visit the "Butterflies Live!" show in the North Wing of the new Conservatory at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, 1800 Lakeside Ave., Richmond. Show admission is part of regular garden fee: adults $9, children (3 to 12) $3. The garden is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 31, includes hundreds of North American butterflies. It also features a host of events that will make you a butterfly expert, including special butterfly plantings inside and outside the conservatory. Call about their special Saturday programs or for other information, 804-262-9887; Web site: www.lewisginter.org.
An excellent book is "The Butterfly Gardener's Guide," (Book No. 175), one of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbooks (revised in 2003, $9.95); available in bookstores, at the Botanic garden or online at www.bbg.org.
Butterfly Web sites include butterflywebsite.com; www.butterflyhouse.org/gardening.html and www.butterflies.com.
References on feeding, attracting and watching birds: "National Audubon Society Birder's Handbook," by Stephen W. Kress (DK, 2000, $24.95); "The Backyard Bird Feeder's Bible," by Sally Roth (Rodale, 2000, $29.95).
A couple of bird Web sites are www.gardenersnet.com/birds and birding.about.com/od/gardening.
Last week's Green Scene column incorrectly described the pH scale of acidity or alkalinity. The scale runs from 0 to 14, where 7 is neutral, less than 7 is acidic and greater than 7 is basic.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.