High butterfly season

Plus August gardens, pinching pennies, and a thought about kale.

A flashy focal point perks up the garden during the dog days. Abigail Higgins

Start casing your gardens for fair entries. The start date of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society’s annual fair is August 18, with most entries due the 17th.. Now is not too soon to narrow down and pre-select what’s best of your produce and flowers.


August, when the air and the garden fill with butterflies on the wing, is high butterfly season. Of course they are there all along, perhaps smaller or less showy ones, but nonetheless performing their butterfly activities and living their brief butterfly lives. It should not be necessary (but nonetheless is) to remind gardeners who love beauty, perfection, and butterflies, that butterflies and moths all begin as caterpillars, those often reviled, voracious chewers of leaf and flower.

To create the desirable “butterfly garden,” it is not enough to plant a nectar plant such as buddleia (butterfly bush). Larval food plants must also be present. As Matt Pelikan reminded Times readers in “Wild Side” several years ago, buddleia does nothing to sustain caterpillars, the larval stages of butterflies.

If we desire lots of butterflies, we need lots of caterpillars. Many species have specialized larval foods. Some caterpillar and butterfly guides indicate which plant species the lepidopteran species depend upon.

Perhaps the most well-known of these is the relationship of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) to milkweeds. The monarchs derive their protection against predation from milkweeds’ alkaloid toxins, which impart a bitter taste. Other spectacular and admired butterflies, flying and frequently seen now in Island gardens, are the spicebush and tiger swallowtails. Larvae of the former prefer Lindera benzoin, or spicebush, while the latter are commonly seen feeding on dill and parsley plants.

The following link is for a list of butterflies commonly found in northern New Jersey and New York and their larval food plants, close enough to our area to be useful: bit.ly/commonbutterflies. Plant these and know you are supporting some beautiful butterflies from start to finish. A recurring name on the list is Baptisia australis of the June garden, an easy-care, long-lived garden perennial.

August garden color

Gardeners will adapt to our region’s changing phenology with time, but until then, many are scratching their heads. By mid-July, cicadas were singing. Oriental lilies were open and diffusing fragrance. Phlox trusses were a-tremble at the top of their stems. How to achieve August garden color?

A few suggestions follow. Purchase a few gallon pots of remontant daylilies, such as ‘Happy Returns’ or ‘Rosie Returns,’ and plug them at intervals into the front of your border. Use more dahlias, of several heights and types. These, when well-grown and deadheaded, generally get better and better as the season moves into September.

Filler plants, ones which often are of nondescript, fine texture such as alchemilla, gaura, agastache, verbena, lavenders, or kalimeris, will handle being cut back multiple times and continue to supply a limited amount of substance, if not color. Annuals such as zinnias, marigolds, and snapdragons perform well in the dog days, if kept deadheaded and groomed; the larger ones contribute form.

Conscientious deadheading can also prolong certain perennials, such as platycodon and coreopsis. Prune perennials in May and June to promote stockiness and retard bloom: the “Chelsea chop.” Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden” (Timber Press) contains much information about these techniques.

Garden focal points

Maybe the garden has gone flat and there does not seem to be much in the way of interest as summer heads into the dog days? Take a page from Mediterranean gardens, where historically summers have been scorching, and concentrate on a few power spots riveted by something architectural or eye-catching. The heart of a garden can be a large pot or urn holding an agave, a fern, or three well-grown geraniums: it looks good, with minimum effort.

Penny pinching: Next year’s annuals

Most of us cannot plant and tend our gardens to come out the way they look in garden books. The urn pictured is planted with just five rooted cuttings of New Guinea impatiens. They were taken in early February from a stock plant, stuck in a yogurt container of perlite and water, and grown in the challenging conditions of my “winter garden/conservatory.”

I did the same with the sprigs of variegated ivy planted around the urn edges. Other spots of color around the garden come from rooted pelargoniums that were cut and very casually stuck into existing pots.

The point: Plan ahead, and do not be faced with the choice of either spending a lot of money, or having a dull garden. Some of the plants to take cuttings from now include impatiens, helichrysum, petunia, plumbago, scaevola, salvia, pelargonium, and begonia. “Kitchen windowsill cuttings,” so easy they root in a Mason jar of water, include impatiens, pelargoniums, coleus, and ivy.

Cuttings of many other types may be taken too, utilizing different stages of plant growth: softwood, greenwood, semi-ripe, and hardwood. This type of work is ongoing at the Polly Hill Arboretum greenhouses; call to arrange a visit if you are interested in observing the process or the setup there. I mentioned boxwood cuttings in a previous column, 16 of which now sit in a container of perlite slowly producing (I hope) roots; but whichever plants interest the gardener should be attempted.

Kale craze

The kale craze overtaking the American food world has been a boon for improving our nutrition. However, as with many crazes, tempering enthusiasm with information is wise. Kales, and many edible members of the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family, are goitrogens (wikipedia.org/wiki/goitrogen), containing substances that when eaten raw interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland. Eliminate these issues by boiling kale for seven minutes, drain, refresh in cold water (with ice), and squeeze dry before proceeding with the recipe.