In the Garden:
Monarch butterflies are enjoying the wild asters in the fields behind my house.
Monarchs in the Garden
Now that the days are growing noticeably shorter, I'm starting to see newly-hatched monarch butterflies gorging themselves on the nectar of fall-blooming flowers, and it reminds me to keep the needs of wildlife, especially butterflies, in mind as I plan additions to my garden this fall.
Fortunately, butterflies enjoy many of the same flowers I do, and, like me, they appreciate a garden with something in bloom all summer long. I already have a number of butterfly-friendly perennials in my garden, including purple coneflower, liatris, and monarda. And the fields bordering my yard are filled with wild asters and goldenrod, which provide abundant nectar in autumn.
Don't Forget the Caterpillars
However, while these are good sources of nectar for butterflies, they don't provide food for the larvae. While gardeners most enjoy the colorful adults, the reality is that most of the insect's life cycle is spent in the form of a caterpillar. So while planning your butterfly garden, be sure to include host plants such as ornamental milkweeds and parsley. Fortunately, many weeds are good host plants, including lambsquarter, clover, Queen Anne's lace, nettle, thistle, and common milkweed, so we all have an excuse for a weedy garden!
Back to the monarchs: These butterflies' annual migrations from the northeast to their overwintering areas in the mountains of Mexico is nothing short of incredible. Scientists believe that seasonal changes in day length and temperature trigger the urge to migrate. Butterflies that emerge in early autumn here in New England immediately begin preparing for their long journey by feeding on nectar. The butterfly's survival depends on a good store of fat in its abdomen--though they do stop to feed on nectar during their three-thousand-mile migration.
To provide a healthy habitat for butterflies, avoid using pesticides, especially when butterflies are active. I'm still learning to identify caterpillars as "friend" or "foe" -- since all caterpillars munch on leaves, it's tempting to consider them all pests. But most plants can tolerate some damage from caterpillar feeding, so pest control is rarely warranted.
Even organic pesticides can be hazardous to butterflies. I occasionally use B.t., a biological control, to manage cabbage loopers and cabbageworms on my cole crops. It is a very effective control that is targeted specifically to caterpillars. However, this includes all caterpillars, including those of the butterflies I try to encourage. One way to avoid harming non-target caterpillars is to cover crops that have been treated with B.t. with row covers for a week or two after treatment.
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