Monarch butterflies are emerging left and right in the garden. A couple of weeks ago on a rainy day, I started a new compost pile for my garden clippings. As I cleared out a space to put up wire fencing to contain the pile, I noticed what looked like an injured monarch on the ground. It was moving slowly and it’s wings didn’t look quite right.
A few minutes later I saw another slow-moving monarch on the ground. It’s wings were kind of shriveled and it looked like it was trying to dry them out. In the rain.
And then I realized: these two butterflies had just emerged from their chrysalises and were getting used to their new bodies before taking off for flight.
Since then, the monarch butterfly population has been on a steady increase. I see them soaring through the garden every day, sometimes only one butterfly at a time, sometimes multiple. I’ve been seeing tiger swallowtails as well, and eastern swallowtails, though not as many as monarchs.
When I was out in the garden on Labor Day, I went to get the wheelbarrow to collect weeds in, and right before I flipped it over to roll it up the hill, I saw a chrysalis on it. Then I started looking around for chrysalises and I found several more.
Chrysalis on the veg patch fence
Chrysalis under deck
Chrysalis on extra bunny fencing under deck
Chrysalis on overturned wheelbarrow
Monarch caterpillar in the process of making a chrysalis
The milkweed is looking pretty gnarly. This is the time of year I start getting antsy to tidy the garden, so I wanted to chop it down. Before cutting anything, I inspected for caterpillars, and the milkweed is crawling with them. So for now it stays. I need to think about where to move the plants next year so that when they get unsightly like this, I don’t have to look at them but the caterpillars can still enjoy them.
A goldfinch perched this morning on a purple coneflower head. This is one of my favorite things to see in the garden: these tiny bright golden birds swaying on the long stems of summer’s Echinacea.
The only problem with this scene is that, combined with the kids starting school next week, it reminds me that fall is coming soon. Which means winter will follow.
I don’t feel like I’ve recovered yet from last winter. I’m not ready for the garden to go to seed. I’m not ready for endless months of desiccated plants, without green and flowers. The Shasta daisies and Rudbeckia flowers are already starting to brown on the edges.
The good news is that the garden is full of butterflies and hummingbirds. I worked from my dogwood chair yesterday, with monarchs and swallowtails drifting all around me. When I approached the flowers where they drank, I was close enough to the many small moths and butterflies that I could hear their wings whir.
Other good news is that the garden is pretty much filled in as much as it’s going to this year, so I can get a good look at how to move things around and fill in next year.
That big one was supposed to be a dwarf
Sunflower bed 😍
I’m pretty happy with how the front beds turned out. They still need some help, but the area with the cleome, zinnias, and butterfly bush are a hot spot for all the fluttering insects I like to watch. I haven’t seen as many hummingbirds in the bed as I did last year, when I had bee balm out there, but they do sometimes visit the cleome and the zinnias.
Out back is a different story. I rarely look out back in the afternoon or evening without seeing a hummingbird. They particularly love the Mexican sunflower, but I’ve seen them at the cleome, zinnias, and even the nasturtiums as well.
It’s hard to believe that last year that was all grass. I still have a lot I want to do with these beds — I want the far left bed to be mostly pinks and greens, with a little bit of soft purple. I’ll ditch the yellows and oranges. The Joe Pye weed, cleome, milkweed, rue, sedums, and ornamental grasses will stay, and I want to add some of the Northern Lights zinnias I have out front. I love their pink and purples, and zinnias are unanimously the favorite flower of our household. Everyone loves them.
The middle beds out back definitely need some help. The lower bed on the left is currently a mix of silvery blue foliage and yellow-green pepper plants. We’re thinking about doing a raised bed for peppers next year, and then I can fill in that lower area with a small moon garden of silvery plants. Higher up the hill are the Mexican sunflowers, which I adore, but I don’t like where they are. I have other ideas for that bed to put some neater looking plants there, but I’m not sure where I’ll put the Mexican sunflowers next year if I do that.
I’m meh about the bed with the Shasta daisies. I need to move some stuff around in there. The far right beds are pretty okay. Next year I’ll probably put in another Mexican sunflower on the far right, and I’m thinking about replacing the nasturtiums with a Persian Carpet blend of zinnia seeds, since we all love zinnias (as do the hummingbirds and butterflies), and when I asked our daughter which new type of zinnias she liked, she picked this one.
I’m going to keep soaking up the garden as much as I can before winter comes. August is the worst month for gardening, but it’s the best month for enjoying the butterflies and birds who come to harvest the abundant nectar and seeds.
I need to get out my real camera, but in case I don’t get a chance to do that before the flowers pass, I wanted to capture where the blooms are right now. I’m enjoying watching everything fill in. I’ve got my fingers crossed that next year, when everything is a bit more established, it will begin to fill in more.
The bees, small butterflies, and hummingbirds were out in full force yesterday. Still not seeing many of the larger butterflies yet, though — the monarchs and swallowtails. I remember having to wait a long time for them last year as well.
We’ve got two bird feeders out back, which we love to watch. Birds are super active in the newly planted back hill, including ground birds like doves and robins. With the higher bird population, I fear for the poor caterpillars out there. Rue is generally covered in swallowtail caterpillars, and I’ve only seen one so far this year. I’m hoping with the variety and number of plants out there, they’ll be able to find some shelter and at least grow up to become butterflies.
The monarch caterpillars are getting fat. During the eclipse, I walked around the garden inspecting the undersides of leaves, taking inventory. I counted 11 or 12 monarch caterpillars on the milkweed, along with 3 swallowtail caterpillars on the rue and the parsley. The milkweed looks terrible — it’s gone to seed and is covered with aphids and big orange bugs that are eating the aphids. The echnicea looks terrible too — brown and fried — but in the mornings, goldfinches perch on the dried heads and sway while they eat coneflower seeds.
The monarch caterpillars are drawn to the rue for making their chrysalises. I have been surprised by how popular the rue is.
It currently hosts swallowtail caterpillars who are eating it, and monarch caterpillars who are hanging in their chrysalises from it.
And just because I like to check in each year to see what the status of all the plants were in prior years, here are some photos from the garden in late August:
Before we sailed yesterday, I spent several hours in the garden, sitting under the dogwood tree, reading butterfly books, and photographing all the butterflies that came to visit the zinnia patch six feet from my chair. There were moments when the zinnias hosted monarchs, swallowtails, painted ladies, skippers and a hummingbird all at the same time.
The day was dry, the sky cerulean, a breeze blew the butterflies and flower heads, and the temperature was a comfortable 77° F. The zinnias were most hopping at about 2pm.
View from under my dogwood tree
Sulphur — clouded?
Monarch and swallowtail
Flower box and blue sky
I went out at the same time today. The sky is cloudier, it’s warmer, and I mowed the grass. The large butterflies are just not here today. I wonder why.
By August, our flower boxes are usually brown and desicated. Somewhere along the way we had forgotten to water, and in summer sun and heat, it doesn’t take long without hydration for the plants in these tiny boxes to shrivel and die.
This year I lined the coconut liners with plastic and I water them every day. And, what do you know, it worked! I put these plants in the boxes on July 2, and here they are a month later, still alive. It’s amazing what the basic necessities of life will do.
Front bed and flower boxes
Flowers on the stairs
Marigolds, sweet potato vine, and marjoram (or oregano?)
In other news, the rue cuttings I started on May 19, and put in the ground sometime in early July (maybe the same day I planted the flower boxes), have new growth! Only one of the cuttings actually had baby roots when I transplanted them into the earth, but now two of the cuttings have survived, put energy into their roots, and are finally starting to make new leaves as well.
I also planted a phlox — Phlox paniculata ‘Younique Old Pink’ — after the kids and my husband came home from a hike a few weeks ago and my son said, “Mom! Do you have any phlox in the garden? We saw some on our hike and it was _covered_ in butterflies.”
Of course I had to have some.
I’ve been on a hunt ever since. It was in every nursery in the spring, but late July and August are not really gardening season, so none of my regular suppliers had any. I found some at Lowe’s today and grabbed one. I planted it next to my chair, under our bedroom window. It is quite fragrant, and I can’t wait until we can open the windows again and smell it from inside.
Phlox flowers after planting and watering
Younique Old Pink Phlox
New rue growth
New phlox in the ground
Everything is in bloom, and I love it. I spent much of my day off today in the garden, watching butterflies and enjoying the summer abundance. I need to get out my real camera to capture some of this beauty so I can keep it for winter.
I cut back the bee balm this week. It’s stems sprawled, leafless and leggy, and a mildew rusted the few withered leaves that were left. A fresh crop greens the ground where the desiccated bee balm swayed before, and fresh stems leaf towards the sky.
Cutting that back inspired me to demolish the catnip as well. It had bushed into a chest high tangle of brown stems and withered leaves at its base and almost to its tips, leggy and past its prime. Birds and bees still loved it for its flowers and seed heads, which caused significant internal conflict about cutting it back. We’ve got a ton of other flowers and seeds and branches for perching, so I whacked it.
After two weeks out of the garden, and after a drenching rain, I needed to trim and neaten. Weeds trashed the garden. It looked like an abandoned parking lot. The grass was shin high and gone to seed as well. The yard was not tidy like I like it.
All week I watched the forecast, hoping for a pleasant Saturday to garden. All week, the forecast called for rain. I slept in, and when I awoke, the sun shone on sparkling wet grass.
I spent the morning tearing out weeds, snipping dead flower stems, chopping aphid-infested seed pods off of milkweed. And in doing so, found our first monarch caterpillar of the season:
Everything is blooming, and the hummingbirds don’t mind that I cut back the bee balm. One just thrummed in front of me, zipping over to the firecracker plant. It’s drinking there now. I’ll finish up the mowing and go sit in my chair to enjoy the flowers without the distraction of weeds and tall grass.
I was sitting by the window yesterday, drinking my afternoon coffee and working, when I saw a non-yellow, non-white flutter of wings down by the milkweed in the garden. We’ve had scores of white and pale yellow butterflies so far this year, but any others have been rare.
I kept watching until I saw it again, then there it was: the first monarch of the seasons. I’m in the garden now, drinking my morning smoothie, and then I’m going to inspect the undersides of milkweed leaves for monarch eggs. Maybe we’ll have caterpillars soon. 🐛