The garden through the year: monthly comparison photos

Butterfly Mind

Last winter I obsessed over the garden. I scoured seed catalogs, bought graph paper to design flower beds, stood at the back door staring at the bare hill and tried to visualize what it would look like with plants on it.

Now that everything is dead and gardening season is over, I wanted to take a look at the gardens’ transformation through the months.

Back garden

2 back garden in Feb marked beds copy Back hill, marked for flower beds. February 2018

3 back hill forsythia in bloom copy mar18 Forsythia in bloom, March 18, 2018

3 back garden in Mar 25 snow copy Back hill, March 25, 2018

4 back hill Apr 21 copy Back hill after transplanting plants from front garden. April 21, 2018

5 back hill May 21 copy Moved more plants from out front. May 21, 2018

6 back hill June 17 copy Bought some plants, others filling in, seedlings starting to grow. June 17, 2018

7 Jul back hill Flowers blooming, weeds proliferating. July 2018

9 Sep 1 back hill garden As filled in as it’s going to get. Late August, 2018

9 sep 8 back hill Peak. Some things starting to fade. Early September, 2018.

10 Oct back garden Time to clear out spent stems…

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Divide and transplant: October gardening

I went outside to pull a couple of weeds this morning and wound up in the garden until dark, cutting back milkweed and blackened echincea. The autumn debris pickup is this week, so I’m trying to get all finished-for-the-season stuff out to the curb.

I also cleaned up the herb garden. It was all wrong. There was no harmony of height, shape, or color, and I couldn’t handle the chaos anymore. Low herbs like the silver mound Artemisia and the lemon thyme had spread such that greenery ringed the old woody stems at the center like a donut: the plants were bare in the middle. The spacing of the plants within the bed was off as well, with random dense clumpings adjacent to bare swaths of dirt due to plant losses during the year (catnip, rosemary).

I ripped out all the creeping thyme — it was unattractive and taking up valuable real estate — then didn’t stop pulling things out of the ground until I’d moved every plant in the bed except the roses.

herb garden after replanting 2881
Reorganized herb bed. I hope everything survives. Or at least most of it does.

  • Moved goldenrod from herb bed to back of the big bed next to the other goldenrod, behind the bee balm.
  • Divided the two giant clumps of lemon thyme into four clumps each; spaced the new smaller clumps along the border by the driveway. Also put one down by the street and one in the mailbox bed.
  • Divided the silver mound Artemisia in four; place three around the edge of the mailbox bed, and one by the street in the herb garden. The mailbox placement is likely wrong. I’ll need to adjust next year if they survive.
  • Moved the baby rue cuttings to the back, by the lawn and between the three rose bushes.
  • Divided the marjoram in four; placed two alternating between thymes by driveway, placed one by redbud (ripped out lemonbalm — it was the wrong height for that space), and moved one down by the street.
  • Moved penstamon from street to house edge of herb bed so we can see it from the window
  • Moved all three lavenders: they were taller than the rose behind them, and their spacing was weird. Moved one to the back of the herb bed next to the black-eyed susans, moved one to the center of the fat part of the herb bed, and moved one over by my chair in the other bed (the guara I transplanted next to my chair died).
  • Moved the little yellow tickseeds to the edge of the herb bed, by the driveway and spaced between the roses.
  • Cut a couple of clumps off of the lemon balm and moved them over to the back of the big bed; ripped out the mums that were there and replaced them with the lemon balm.
  • Moved a Russian sage from down by the street to between the two roses closest to the house; this looks like it may not have survived the transplant.
  • Planted a rosemary between the two roses closest to the house.

herb garden above view 2884
Another view of the tidied herb garden. I wish we had mulch 
Everything has room to grow. They won’t fill in their allotted space next year, but maybe the year after that.

Now I need to study my gardening books to see when I’m supposed to prune the roses and other shrubs.

Oct 1: still hummingbird(s)

I was worried that all the gardening I did yesterday might be too late in the season, and that when I sit in my garden chair I may no longer see butterflies and hummingbirds.

At 5:30 this evening I did see a hummingbird, though — it’s not too late! It sniffed around the transplanted zinnias, but they are wilted from being moved yesterday. The hummingbird wasn’t impressed. It moved over to the bee balm instead. 

It’s about 66 F right now, and sunny with clear October skies. I didn’t get a photo of the hummingbird, but I’m glad some wildlife is still around. 

Fall gardening: Sept 30

I still haven’t cut the milkweed back, and I’m so glad I haven’t. I just counted 10 monarch chrysalises in the garden — 3 on the rue, 6 on the stairs, 1 on the rosemary — and there’s still at least one fat caterpillar on the plants. The monarch on the stool in the garage emerged today while I was out running errands. My husband sent a video:

There’s a chrysalis under the stairs that looks like it will emerge any minute, and two of the ones on the rue look close as well.

Caterpillar party: swallowtails on rue

Monarch chrysalis on rosemary
I also counted 13 swallowtail caterpillars on the established rue. Two of my cuttings have begun growing and thriving in the herb garden, so I’m excited to have them establish fully next year.

I moved a bunch of stuff today and planted some asters as well:

  • Moved three black eyed Susans  to the herb garden; ripped out the catnip.
  • Moved some of the zinnias to where the black eyed Susans had been. The zinnias were to tall and were getting leggy.
  • Where the zinnias had been, Planted 3 New England Asters and 2 cornflower blue asters that look like mums: Peter III Blue asters from YoderMums.
  • Moved the white pentas behind the asters, and the firecracker flowers behind those.
  • This opened up space by my chair, and I moved the guara next to my chair because it was hidden in the milkweed and I could never see it.
  • Planted cabbages and pansies in the flower boxes.

Fall flower box
Now I can see the rest of the garden from my chair again. The zinnias were gorgeous in their prime but they got way bigger than I expected and started blocking my view. I couldn’t see the birdbath, the lantana, the Shasta daisies, the gomphrena, or the bee balm.

Garden at end of September, with new purple asters

Garden after moving the zinnias and planting asters
It took me all day to plant everything and now it’s too late to sit in my chair and enjoy it. I hope the butterflies will still come. And I don’t know if the hummingbirds are still around, but I hope so. They’ll really like the guara.

September 30 garden


The garden is transitioning from summer to fall. The milkweed is mottled and scraggly, the sweet basil is yellowed and setting seeds. The parsley bolted, the Thai basil fell over under its own weight.

It’s time to do some cleanup.

Yesterday it rained all day. It was one of my favorite types of autumn Saturdays: chilly, grey, raw. We spent most of the day running errands. We bought new alarm clocks for the kids, harvest candles for the mantle, pumpkin-pie-scented wax melts to make the house smell autumny, and at the last-minute, mums for the garden.

Our daughter and I spent a good half hour inspecting the different colors of mums, gravitating repeatedly to particular ones (white for our daughter, burgundy for me), thinking about the colors in our garden, looking at pictures of the flower bed on my phone, and brainstorming what we needed to clear out and where we could put our favorite-colored specimens.

Today, the drizzle and pregnant grey are gone. The sun shines bright in a clear blue sky, and raindrops glisten on the green grass. The mums are out there waiting for me. I see our daughter’s white ones in a happy clump where the parsley once was. The wind is chilly right now, though, despite the brilliant sun. I’ll need a jacket and gloves while I work.

For now, I’ve got my slippers on and am sipping coffee from the chair by the window. Leaves shiver on the pear trees across the street, maple branches swing, and coneflowers and salvia nod in the wind. I’ll plant the mums when my cup is empty.

I think I’ll have a refill.

Caterpillar catalog (and the plants that make it possible)

When I returned home after a weeklong trip to Whistler, I was giddy to walk around the garden and find not one monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, but two.

Newly emerged monarch on rue

After finding those, I of course crawled around in the mulch and dirt to inspect the undersides of leaves. I found three more monarch chrysalises plus a bunch of fat swallowtail caterpillars who will soon be crawling off to metamorphasize as well.

This is SO EXCITING Y’ALL. Here’s a full caterpillar catalog of what I’ve found so far:

Some friends at work are also interested in butterfly gardening, and are looking for host plant ideas. Since we work for a company that makes, ahem, blogging software, my friend naturally asked “Did you do a blog post on what all you planted?” Nudge nudge.

Shockingly, I have not. So here it is! Kris and Liz, this is for you.

The plants

For Mother’s Day, our son gave me Christopher Kline’s book, Butterfly Gardening with Native Plants: How to Attract and Identify Butterflies. Combined with a bunch of online research, experimentation with a butterfly garden in Florida, and talking to bunches of people who garden for butterflies and caterpillars, this book helped me plan a garden that includes both host plants (that caterpillars eat) and nectar plants (that adult butterflies drink from). The most successful plants in our garden are the following:

Host plants

Milkweed (Asclepias): We planted both common milkweed and swamp milkweed. These are by far the most insect-loved plants in the garden. They are constantly covered in various species, including aphids, beetles, and, late in the summer, monarch caterpillars. Milkweed is both a nectar plant and a host plant. We’ve seen adult giant swallowtails and monarchs drinking from its flowers, and have found at least a dozen monarch caterpillars on it. Word of warning: milkweed will get covered in aphids. The caterpillars will still come even when every surface is crawling with aphids, so we kept our milkweed intact even though it’s not very attractive once it has stopped flowering and it’s coated in tiny orange insects.

Rue (Ruta graveolens): This is possibly my favorite addition to the garden. The leaves are a silvery blue-green, the plant stays neat and tidy (it doesn’t get leggy or messy), it can take the heat (and drought) and still look healthy, and the swallowtail caterpillars adore it. As an unexpected bonus, the monarch caterpillars love it for building chrysalises. We’ve found at least 3 chrysalises in the small, shin-high plants.

Butterfly host and nectar plants

Nectar plants

Milkweed: all the butterflies big and small love milkweed.

Indigo salvia: Aside from the milkweed, these purple flower spikes are the most popular in the garden for butterflies to drink from. Bees also love these flowers.

Pink salvia: Okay, maybe these are tied with the indigo salvia for nectar popularity, at least for hummingbirds. I see hummingbirds drinking from these almost every time I sit in the garden.

Bee balm (Monarda): Butterflies and hummingbirds love this as well. Hummingbirds dart between the pink salvia and the bee balm.

Thai basil: I’ve seen some small butterflies and moths (and caterpillars) on these flowers.


Butterfly host and nectar plants

Cone flowers: Butterflies always visit these.

Joe Pye weed: Butterflies love to drink from Joe Pye flowers. Joe Pye weed gets really tall and floppy unless you get the dwarf varieties.

Monarch on Joe Pye weed

We planted some other things that weren’t as awesome as we expected:

Parsley: parsley is a host plant for swallowtails, but the swallowtail caterpillars definitely opted for the rue over the parsley, at least this year. I didn’t find any caterpillars on the parsley, and found at least a dozen on the rue.

I guess the parsley is the only one :-). We have lots of other nectar flowers — brown-eyed Susans, Mexican blanket flowers, some other stuff I can’t remember the names of — but the ones I listed above were definitely the most successful.

If you can identify any of the caterpillars in the catalog, please let me know! I think most of them are probably moths, but I don’t have a good ID book.

September gardening

cabbages and pansies for boxes
Cabbages and pansies for garden boxes
We thought we were going to wait till spring to start any gardening, but none of us could stand waiting.

I’ve been poring over gardening books, planning the spring beds. Our house looked sad and bare, though, after we ripped out the previous owner’s shrubbery. So we decided, we can at least put in some evergreens for winter, right?

Hick's yew with berry
Hick’s Yew (Taxus x media “Hicksii”)
holly in the garden
Japanese Holly (Ilex crenata “Helleri”)
With our freshly painted porch and door, we thought it might be nice to add some garden boxes too.

window boxes on porch rail
Fresh paint and garden boxes
We’ve never had garden boxes before. They are my new favorite thing about our house. Besides the turquoise front door. And the oak floors. And the kittens.

flowering kale cabbage
Pansies and flowering kale
We wanted something alive at our house when winter comes, and the man at the garden shop said pansies and cabbages would be great for garden boxes. The only real gardening I’ve done was in Florida, and I know nothing about winter plants. I am trusting blindly. Even if they don’t last through winter, though, they look awfully pretty now :-).

porch rail garden box
Garden box on the front porch rail