Trial and Error, Butterflies and Cats

April 20, 2019

Is there a gardener anywhere who has not killed a perfectly healthy plant by placing it in an inhospitable environment?  My admiration for English herbaceous borders has led me to abuse many wonderful plants. When I first discovered the joy of growing things, I did very little research before planting whole beds of perennials.



The most spectacular example of my ignorance was my first butterfly garden. I got the idea from the book Theme Gardens by Barbara Damrosch.


I planned to site the area in the sheltered end of our acre of suburban turf. I did realize that removing so much weedy grass would be challenging, but had an herbicide-free notion of how to go about the task. Our neighbor Roy seemed to mow some portion of his lawn daily. He saved the clippings in black plastic bags which he stacked against the back of his house. The bags had been stacking up for six months when I asked him if I could have them. He immediately started lobbing them over the chain-link fence separating our yards.


I got my kids to help haul the bags to the site in their red wagon. I spread the decomposing grass over the proposed garden area. That grass was almost up to my kneecaps when we finished. The following spring, we defined the border with a rototiller. Truly, that soil was amended to perfection.


I had ordered at least three of every plant suggested in the book. I had seeds for all the listed annuals. My design looked really great on paper. I spent a wonderful April day installing my creation.


Months passed. The zinnias were a blaze of color. The nine hollyhocks threatened to take over the area. Why were there no butterflies?



An hour of close observation solved the mystery. There were butterflies. They were partial to zinnias. In fact they showed little interest in any of the other surviving plants. I was learning a painful lesson. The author, my only authority on attracting butterflies, lives in northern New England. Could it be that plants flourishing there struggle to live here? At least I did find out what would thrive in such a different environment. It never occurred to me that butterflies in different regions might have different preferred plant lists.



I also found out why it was so difficult to detect the insects from a distance. My cat, hiding in the hollyhocks, was bouncing on each and every nectar-drinking butterfly. I had created a cat candy land!          


​​Visitors to my garden often remark that I grow plants they’ve not seen in other area landscapes. I tend to push the limits in discovering what will grow. But now I try to do some research before introducing a selection.


I still have my fair share of failures. Many of these just don’t earn their keep; others are not happy here. The successes

encourage me to keep trying new plants. I encourage each of you to try at one new

selection this season.


Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home. But sometimes she lives to regret it!

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