Were my Mark to have his life over again, he might equally choose to be a meteorologist or a lepidopterist instead of a plant breeder. But as he only has the one life, he is destined to remain merely a weather-watching butterfly enthusiast. It is butterflies this week.
As a country, we are a bit deficient in the butterfly stakes. Moths we have a-plenty and very beautiful many are but the jewel colours of butterflies are in short supply. I have even seen Mark, in a fan club of one, admire the fluttering of cabbage whites around the summer garden.
When he found a beautiful Blue Moon years ago, he became very excited and tried to make a home for it. I have only just looked it up and informed him that his Blue Moon was a male and could never have laid the eggs he hoped for. The females are modest brown but the male was gorgeous. We figured at the time that the Blue Moon had been blown over from Australia but I see they are now to be found in parts of this country so maybe they will turn up here to enrich our lives at some stage. Plant portulaca, though it needs to be the right one.
A stinging nettle turned up in a prominent spot of the veg garden this summer and we are pleased. It can stay and we may encourage a bigger patch of them to form because that is what is needed to bring in the admiral butterflies. We know next door but two had red admirals and was working on yellow admirals last year so we are optimistic. It is just a shame their host plant is so off-putting.
Essentially it is the monarchs which are the most rewarding of all and which have become part of our way of life here. The earlier obsession that saw Mark successionally sow swan plants by the kilometre (I am not exaggerating – I paced out his rows one summer) have passed. These days we have plants seeding down and naturalising with just a bit of topping up from fresh seed as required.
Nasty yellow aphids are an ongoing issue. They suck the sap from plants and can weaken them to the point of death. After trying various ways to control these critters, Mark is pleased to report that there is a spray that works. It kills the aphids without harming the caterpillars. Nature’s Way, a product from Yates. It is not organic, despite its reassuring name, but it is targeted and appears to be safe to use. Nature’s Way is a fatty based spray. In his capacity as my in-house technical advisor, he thinks that the organic canola oil-based Eco Spray from Tui should also work in a similar manner. Both sprays will need repeat applications every few weeks to achieve control. If you only have one plant and are vigilant, you can probably squash the aphids (digital control) but that is not practical on larger plantings or out of control infestations.
It is not the caterpillars that have exerted the greatest influence over our gardening here. Leaving swan plants to seed down in corners around the garden is the easy part. It is the next step – food for the butterflies.
The fashion for minimalist gardens (so last century now) which has morphed into the clean lines of prestigious modern landscaping using large swathes of the same plant in monochromatic monocultures, is one of the unfriendliest types of gardening as far as butterflies, bees and insects are concerned. Most insects need nectar and pollen and that means flowers with visible stamens. Green, sculpted gardens don’t do it.
If you follow the British garden media, you will have noticed a very strong drive to promote gardening which supports eco systems rather than imposing unfriendly garden styles on nature.
All this means flowers, particularly single and semi double flowers. A single flower form has one row of petals arrayed around a sunny centre of stamens which usually means pollen and nectar. A semi double has two rows of petals so looks to be a fuller flower but still has that life supporting centre. Full double flowers only have petals visible and are of very limited or no value at all to insects, including our butterflies and bees. This is not to say you should shun double flowers. You just need to make sure that you have a good representation of singles and semi doubles as well.
Generally, there is plenty in bloom during spring and early summer. We target flowers for summer, autumn and winter to keep the butterflies around. If you lack the food for them, they will just fly away. These days our vegetable patches are a major mix of flowers and produce. This tumble of plants may not appeal to ultra tidy gardeners, but our patch is full of bees and butterflies and many lesser appreciated but valuable insects. We are also factoring in the need for food for butterflies and bees in the ornamental gardens.
You know you are succeeding when you get monarch butterflies wintering over in your garden and when you have plenty of bees buzzing busily. Not only is it better for the balance within nature, it adds vitality to the garden.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.