View from the Garden: Butterflies: A Relief in the Garden

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies.
Eastern Black Swallowtail butterflies. Photo credit: John Anderson/iStock/Thinkstock

As I was removing yellowed leaves from a parsley plant this past week, I spotted four caterpillars that I thought were Monarchs. Because they have been drastically diminishing in numbers over the last few years, I became very excited!

But I decided to do further research and found that what I was seeing were really Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars. Though adult Monarchs and Eastern Black Swallowtails look nothing like each other, it is easy to mistake the caterpillars for each other. They are similar in shape but different in color. Monarch are striped black, yellow and white. Swallowtails are black, yellow and green.

Monarchs eat only milkweed. Black Swallowtails eat parsley, carrot foliage, fennel, dill, Queen Anne’s lace and parsnips. And unlike the complicated lives of Monarchs, which migrate great distances in winter and return in spring, involving several generations to make the journey, Swallowtails spend the winter in chrysalises. They emerge in spring at the beginning when the flowers that supply them with nectar bloom. And then it’s time to begin their cycle of egg to adult again. They lead much easier lives than monarchs. I read that Black Swallowtails like to leave their chrysalises on Queen Anne’s lace. I will have to leave some in my garden.

Even though the caterpillars were not Monarchs, I loved seeing them!

At this time of year, the gardens look tired to me, so I give them a good tidying up. Even plants that have not needed deadheading—like perovskia—get cut. Gaura gets a very good deadheading—right down to buds. Some plants like rudbeckias and echinacea are about bloomed-out and new fresh foliage is beginning at the base. Out come the stalks, even if there are leftover flowers. Platycodon gets reduced even if all of the potential flowers have not shown up from those nooks and crannies where they hide. I cut phlox heads off even with some flowers in place. If you have delphinium or digitalis that have been producing small flower stalks, removing them reveals new foliage. It is probably time to give that nepeta a little trim again.

Foliage plants get a good cleaning also. New hosta leaves are under those tired old ones. Older leaves of alchemilla can be removed to reveal fresh ones. Some astilbe is the same. Many ferns have older fronds that can be removed. Paeonia stems that have become brown can be cut down. Herbs that have gone to seed or are flowering—mint, oregano—can be cut back and will look much better. Time to clean up the stachys and reduce their size if necessary.

I also go through the garden and remove stalks that have fallen down, are very small or have become broken. And I thin out clumps that have become dense over the summer—phlox, aconitum—I even remove small branches of hydrangeas that will produce only very small flower heads next year. If there is a part of the garden that I feel has become too crowded, I go in and remove parts of plants, thinning the garden out to visually lighten it. Annual salvias might have become too large and, while still having many flowers, might just get reduced in size and thinned.

I need the garden at this time to feel lighter in weight. Plants have grown vigorously, produced tons of flowers and foliage. Though they’ve made lush gardens, all of this can seem oppressive to me. Maybe it is my response to the oppressive heat this past summer, but I swear I feel the weight of all of that growth on the plants. They need some relief!

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.


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