Celebrate the Winter Solstice with Seedballs this Saturday

This Saturday at 11:11 AM, the sun will move directly over the Tropic of Capricorn and we’ll experience the official start of winter–the December solstice. The sun will set on Saturday at 5:40 PM, clocking only 10 hours and 15 minutes (and 35 seconds if you’re counting) of daylight.  This starts the march toward spring and marks the longest  night and shortest day of the year.

Earth

Get ready for a long night this SAturday, December 21.  It’s the winter solstice.  Photo via NASA

In 2012, millions of survivalists, doomsday believers and new age spiritualists bought into the false notion that the world would end on the day of the winter solstice.  A false reading of the Mayan calendar accounted for the madness.   And here we are again, noting the first day of winter and the march toward spring.

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seedballs! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seedballs.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

At my house we choose to celebrate the arrival of winter with an annual rite of making seedballs.   Some folks bake Christmas cookies.  Others craft tamales.   We like to mix soil, clay, water and seed with a generous dash of chile pepper to make seedballs, a facilitator of wildflowers, the nectar sources and hosts for next year’s butterflies.

What are seedballs?

Introduced in the 70s, seedballs are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed together into tidy germination bombs that are said to have an 80% higher success rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil.  Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind and a dash of chile pepper makes the seeds less tasty to insects and birds.

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Generally, seedballs don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.

Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape situation like a ranch or roadside.  Wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Seedball party?  Count me in.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Seedball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seedball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages a concoction that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and

What do you need to make seedballs?  Seeds, soil, clay and water

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water–and chile powder.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

sand.  I’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, one-two parts red potter’s clay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and one part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact.  Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll a spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick.  If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait.  The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper.  The pepper discourages insects, birds and other critters from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a better chance at germinating and becoming wildflowers for pollinators.

Seedball properly planted

Seedball properly tossed.  Throw them wherey they won’t compete with grass. Make sure it has contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.

When you toss them, make sure they land where they can make contact with soil, as in the photo above.    If the seedballs have to compete directly with grass, leaves or forbs, germination rates of the seeds decrease.

Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Seedball

Seedball improperly tossed. Make sure it makes contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

  • 3 parts local soil or potting soil
  • 1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
  • 1 part native wildflower seeds
  • Water, as needed.
  • Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
  • Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
 
 ****
 
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.

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Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden Outperforms Lawn Anytime in San Antonio

Last year about this time, we detailed a turf-to-bed conversion in the front yard of our rent house in the downtown Lavaca neighborhood of San Antonio.  We thought it would be helpful to share what happened over the past year on that small square of yard, thoughtfully converted from a drought damaged lawn to a mostly native butterfly garden with a bit of edible landscape thrown in.

The garden is located in Southtown, near downtown San Antonio.  What follows is a month-by month lowdown of a Year in the Life of an Urban Butterfly Garden.   Hopefully you’ll be inspired to get busy and start your own.

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

Austin transplants hold down the fort at our future Lavaca neighborhood butterfly garden in downtown San Antonio, January 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It actually started in November of 2011.

At the time, work and personal circumstances pulled me back to San Antonio after 12 months of temporary duty in Austin.   I joined my husband at a distinctive green-built downtown “Cube,” one of a pair of rentals conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.  Our plan was to live there one year while building a house on a nearby empty lot just a mile away on the border of the historic King William district.  We’re now well into Year Two of that plan.

The Cube’s front yard St. Augustine was badly burnt from months of 2011’s historic drought.   Scruggs agreed to let me have my way with part of the yard, planting it as a butterfly garden and edible landscape.

Austin to San Antonio translplants

Austin to San Antonio transplants: rue, milkweed, bulbine and some favorite lantanas.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because I become irrationally attached to certain plants, I choose to recycle them, digging them up from one yard and moving them to another.   The prior year, upon moving from our large family home in Alamo Heights to Austin, I took along several beloved favorites from my well-established butterfly garden–a large rue bush, several milkweeds, reliable red and mealy blue sages, and a couple of bulbines.  These same plants, and a few new ones, made the 75-mile trek to Austin and were now returning with me.

In December, we  prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.   Six-10 layers of newsprint or cardboard covered by three-four inches of mulch and  steady South Texas sunshine will typically kill grass and weeds in just a few weeks, creating a decent environment for transplants, which we installed right away.   Then, we waited.

February

One of the mainstays of my urban butterfly gardens has been various types of daisies, all members of the Helianthus family.  I love dramatic sunflowers in early spring and have a fondness for Cowpen Daisy, because it blooms from March to November and takes our Texas heat so well with little water.

Last year I planted daisy, sunflower and milkweed seeds indoors in  February.   The milkweed would be used for “caterpillar food,” when Monarchs started arriving in March.

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

By the time of our last official estimated freeze date, March 15, Mammoth Sunflower and  Cowpen Daisies started indoors were transplanted to the front yard.   Our transplanted milkweeds were already hosting dozens of migrating Monarchs, who graced us with eggs which we gladly brought inside for fostering.

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy

Cowpen Daisy became the foundation of the Lavaca butterfly garden.  Transplanted up front in March, 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hungry critters devoured sprouts of Tropical mlikweed we had planted in pots specifically for their consumption.

We also installed a few tomato, okra and pepper plants, and of course parsley, rue, and fennel, which double as Swallowtail host plant as well as culinary herbs.

April

Our first happy sunflower bloomers showed themselves in late April.  Unfortunately,

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

garden vandals saw fit to decapitate our sunny soldiers, leaving their seed heads drooping in the breeze.  In one case, a 12-foot tall sunflower was beheaded by a teen walking past.  A worker installing a fence for a neighbor called her out.   The girl dropped the sunflower head and another passing teen lay it on our front porch.  Such are the travails of the unfenced urban garden on a well-trafficked sidewalk.

May

May brought the first tomatoes and a couple of okra.   Cowpen Daisies flushed their yellow blossoms, drawing Bordered Patch butterflies, which use them as a host plant.

By now, Swallowtail butterflies regularly visited the garden, nectaring on the prolific daisies and leaving their lovely, round eggs on our fennel and my well-traveled rue.

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue.   They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue. They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

June

The sunflowers were losing their charm as the weight of their heavy heads caused them to slouch forward in sad fashion.   Sparrows and cardinals started perching on their stiff stems, pecking the protein-rich seeds.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, a.k.a. Jimsonweed, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Tomato and Jimsonweed plants became common hosts for Tomato and Tobacco hornworms, which later morph into the beautiful Sphinx moth.    Loathed by gardeners, I find these caterpillars charming with their eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed.   PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Because they are moths, the caterpillars drop to the ground, cover themselves with earth to later rise as a large, hovering night-flyer.

 July

Fourth of July brings peak summer–long, hot days.   Daisies, milkweed, Jimsonweed and sages are taking the heat well.  Sunflower seeds are ready for collection from their tired, dried heads–here’s how to harvest them.

July:  Time to harvest sunflower seeds.  Just scrape them from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

We also had our first brood of Bordered Patch butterfly caterpillars on our Cowpen Daisies.   The fuzzy black critters decimated a few leaves, but the birds soon came and made quick snacks of most of them.

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly on Cowpen Daisy.   July 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

August

We start to see Queens in late summer.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars, and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal, flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on  Tropical milkweed..  Male Queens adore Gregg’s Purple Mistfower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you have flowers blooming during the most brutal summer days, you’re likely to see the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.  Males have a penchant for Gregg’s purple mist flower.   Apparently they extract minerals necessary for their virility from the native perennial.

September

Late August and early September signal the start of the Monarch migration in our part of the world.  We usually buy our tags from Monarch Watch in August and tag the first Monarchs over Labor Day weekend.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Labor Day Monarch tagging, 2012:  Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch has run the citizen scientist tagging program for more than 20 years.  Hundreds of thousands of butterflies have been tagged in the two decades by nature lovers like you and me.   The data collected by those citizen scientists has helped piece together the many mysteries of the Monarch migration.

We’ve tagged about 2,000 over the years and had 26 recoveries from the forest floor in Michoacan.  Here’s how to tag Monarch butterflies, if you’re interested.

October

April and October are always some of the best months in the garden in South Texas.  If you’re lucky and plan ahead, you can still be pulling okra off your plants, get a second round of tomatoes and harvest some peppers.

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012.  Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012. Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps now you can see why I love the Cowpen Daisy so much.   The plant just keeps on giving blooms.  The more you cut it back, the more it puts out.  You can shape it into a hedge, let it grow tall and gangly, or chop it short and bushy.  And of course the butterflies love it.

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies as a nectar source. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed in October, 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Butterflies and other pollinators are ubiquitous this time of year because the weather is so perfect for blooms.   

November

November is a great time to collect seeds for next year’s butterfly garden.  It’s prime time for planting many native wildflowers, too.
Some dislike the brown woody look of native annuals that must be  allowed to “go to seed” in order to produce blooms next year.   But for me, the seeds add to the charm of these reliable plants.
Lavaca garden, November 2012

Lavaca Butterfly garden, November 2012. Some Cowpen Daisies are spent–good time to gather seeds for next year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin. November 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

And while you’re gathering those seeds, the butterflies just keep on coming.  Our typical first freeze in San Antonio is supposed to be in mid-late November, but climate change has made that so unpredictable that we, like the birds, butterflies, bats and bees, should seize every sunny, warm day and make the most of it.

December

The last month of the year is a good time to make use of those seeds you’ve collected.  Brush them off the sidewalk, put them in a brown paper bag and share them with friends.

Seeds for next year

Seeds for next year, gathered from Lavaca garden, December 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 We also like to make seedballs for ranch wildscaping and guerilla gardening projects. The recipe is easy, inexpensive, and makes for a great group activity.
Rollyo seedballs--why wouldn't you?

Rollyo seedballs–why wouldn’t you?   Makes a fun group activity.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Looking back over the year, can you believe how much life–and fun–can be culled from a small butterfly garden?   A modest patch of earth populated with appropriate, native and well-adapted plants beats a vast green lawn anytime.

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Got Milkweed? Updated Plant Guide for Central and South Texas

Our first Milkweed Guide posted back in the fall of 2010 and has continued to be one of our most-read blogposts.   With spring here and butterfly gardeners chomping at the bit to create host and nectar habitat for Monarchs and other butterflies, it’s a good time to talk milkweed choices and availability.

Slide1

Much has changed since that 2010 post.  A three-year, drought-induced emphasis on native, drought-hearty plants has created a greater demand for native milkweeds. That said, supply continues to be lacking.

Monarch Watch recently launched its Milkweed Market on its homepage, a virtual marketplace of native milkweed seed.    When you click on the vendors, though, most species are not available.

Monarch Watch, The Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization, and the Native Plant Society have all engaged in milkweed restoration initiatives.    This is good news, but it will take time to develop the market commercially.

Those of us who have attempted cultivation of native milkweeds from seed in our home gardens have often met frustration and failure.   The very traits that make native plants so hardy also often make them extremely particular about their soil, drainage, moisture and available light.  As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed Co. in Junction, Texas told me:  “These milkweeds have a mind of their own.”

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Plugs for native milkweeds are practically impossible to find in nurseries and because of their extremely long tap roots, transplanting them successfully often fails.   Texas longterm drought has sparked a broader interest in native plants, so the availability of milkweeds and other “from here” pollinator plants will continue to grow.

For now, though, planting from seed is the most viable option.  If you can collect your own seed in the wild, go for it.  Native milkweed seed is expensive–as it should be.  When you realize what it takes to produce the seed, you won’t begrudge its price tag.  Read that saga here.

Since the time to take cuttings and collect seed will soon be upon us, we offer guidance below, based on personal experience.  Other appropriate milkweeds are suggested in this article by the Native Plant Society.  Keep an eye out for your local botanical garden or native seed society’s pop-up plant sales to score some proven homegrown natives.

Texas Butterfly Ranch Suggested Milkweed Species for our Area

Antelope HornAsclepias asperula  

The most common native milkweed in these parts has fuzzy leaves and an odd greenish-white bloom and can stand two-feet tall.  During dry spring seasons, the hearty perennial is sometimes the ONLY plant blooming.  Last year in Central Texas when we had an exceptionally wet winter, the Antelope Horns were not as pervasive as you would think.   Too much moisture and too much competition from less hardy plants kept these guys laying low. 

Antelope horns

Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011,    photo by Monika Maeckle

Antelope horns is especially appropriate for wildscapes, ranches, and large plantings.  It can best be propagated by seed, which is available commercially from native seed suppliers.  

Be mindful that stratification is recommended for successful germination.   According to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Antelope horns can also be propagated from root cuttings taken in the spring.  If you have it growing in nearby fields, ranches or wildscapes, you might give this a try.  If you choose to plant seeds you’ve gathered yourself, collect those in June.  

Typically 30 – 45 days of stratification will be required before installing in moist soil.  See our post on how to get Antelope Horns milkweed to germinate, courtesy of Native American Seed Company in Junction, Texas.

 Green MilkweedAsclepias viridis 

This common native milkweed in our area is sometimes called Green Antelope Horn Milkweed or Green Mlikweed and is the most common milkweed in the state of Texas.   The Edwards Plateau is the western reach of its range, which starts in East Texas.

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

I have a single one of these plants growing under a porch at the ranch.   The solitary bloomer never receives supplementary water and barely enjoys rain, given its location tucked under a breezeway.

Yet every year it pushes out a batch of blooms and seedpods, peeking from under the  deck, reaching for the sun.   Those of us who raise Monarch caterpillars like the fact that Green milkweed has larger leaves than other available milkweed, which makes feeding voracious caterpillars a bit easier.

Green milkweed can range from one-three feet in height and is best propagated by seed which is commercially available.  Like Antelope Horns, it sports showy whiteish-green globes of flowers that attract Monarchs as a host, and huge bees and other butterflies for its nectar.

Swamp MilkweedAsclepias incarnata

Another excellent native milkweed for our area is Swamp Milkweed, a lovely pink bloomer that sports lush pink flowers in August and blooms through September.

Swamp milkweed grows along rivers and streams and is an excellent choice for riverbanks in the Hill Country or perhaps in an area where you have air conditioning condensate draining.  Spiders LOVE this plant.  I have witnessed “death in the afternoon” more often than I care to remember: Monarch butterflies snagged by orb weaver spiders as they perch on Swamp Milkweed leaves, in search of an easy feast.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, photo by Monika Maeckle

For years we’ve had this milkweed growing along the banks and on the Chigger Islands of our Llano River ranch, but recent, prolonged drought has taken a severe toll, lowering our water table so much that much Swamp milkweed has died.

 Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

This bushy orange bloomer is often confused for Tropical Milkweed (see below) and is frequently mislabeled at nurseries.  One of the best ways to tell if a milkweed in question is tuberosa is to break off a leaf and see if  milky latex pours out.  If it doesn’t, then it’s Butterfly Weed.

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, is a great nectar plant for Monarchs and other butterflies. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Detractors of Butterfly Weed point out that it doesn’t contain the toxic cardenolides that protect Monarchs from predators, thus should be avoided.   The toxins, contained in the latex of  most milkweed species, give the Monarch its bright warning colors and bad taste that deters predators.

The 18-inch-tall perennial serves as a fantastic nectar plant.  Its abundant orange blooms attract all kinds of butterflies.   If you’re trying to stick with natives, choose this one to grace your butterfly garden.

Butterfly weed can sometimes be found locally at nurseries. The plant is propagated easily from seeds and cuttings and blooms through the Fall, when nectar sources are wanting.

Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

Tropical milkweed is not native, but it is widely available at garden centers in one-gallon pots and it also germinates easily from seed and cuttings. As much as I support native plants, this is my favorite Monarch host plant.  It’s easy to grow, not a water hog, propagates easily from seeds and cuttings, blooms prolifically and draws Monarchs like a magnet.  Commercial butterfly breeders and even organizations like Monarch Watch rely on Tropical milkweed to raise butterflies in captivity.

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies.  Photo by Moniak Maeckle

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The plant can be controversial for native plant purists and some scientists.   Theories abound on the appropriateness–or not–of Tropical milkweed in Central and South Texas.

The plant originated in Central America and has gradually moved north.   Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, points out that Tropical milkweed is the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

In my completely unscientific kitchen experiments, I’ve noticed that Monarch caterpillars PREFER Tropical milkweed. When offered a choice of Tropical milkweed, Swamp Milkweed or Antelope horns, Monarch caterpillars inevitably choose Tropical milkweed.

Studies show that the toxins in Tropical Milkweed inoculate Monarch moms and their young. While it can be challenging to find Tropical milkweed in the Fall when Monarchs are moving through Texas, it’s easy to cut back your spring plants to encourage new growth for migrating visitors.   My butterfly breeder friend Connie Hodson, of Flutterby Gardens in Manatee, Florida, says you can cut any six-inch stalk of Tropical milkweed in a potting soil and vermiculite mix, and have new plants in no time.    You can also order seeds or harvest them yourself from fellow gardeners.

NOTE:  If you choose to plant Tropical milkweed, best practice suggests slashing it to the ground in late fall or early winter.   It will push out new shoots as the weather warms. This  will discourage overwintering of organisms possibly harmful to Monarchs.

Matelea reticulata  Pearl Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine, lovely addition to the garden!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While Milkweed vine is in the Asclepias family, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Monarchs and Queens use this vine as a host plant. It grows in the wild in the Texas Hill Country.

Anyone have experience with Milkweed vine as a host?

I include it today because it is an absolutely delightful plant with its heart-shaped leaves, perfect green symmetrical flowers, and a lovely, intriguing pearl-like dot in the middle. Someone needs to make earrings out of these flowers.

In the Fall, Milkweed vine produces huge seed pods, about three times the size of Tropical milkweed.  The plant climbs and curls for six – 12 feet and is sometimes called Green milkweed vine, Net vein milkvine, and Netted milkvine.

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How to Get Texas Native Milkweed Seeds to Germinate

Our friends at Native American Seed have been working for years on the best way to get persnickety Texas native milkweed seeds to germinate.   “Native milkweeds simply don’t do well in containers,” said George Cates, seed wrangler at the seed farm and land restoration company in the Hill Country town of Junction.  “They require a very specific set of conditions and have an extremely long tap-root, making containerization untenable.”

Want native Texas milkweed?  Start with seeds.  Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

Want native Texas milkweed? Start with seeds.

So what’s the solution to getting native milkweeds into our landscape?  Start with seeds.

The process has been perfected by Cates, who has germinated thousands of seeds in the last year for Native American Seed‘s customers and the Xerces Society.    Read a report about the project and the status of native Texas milkweed seed production here.   Here’s Cate’s process:

Milkweed Stratification Procedures, Courtesy Native American Seed

NOTE:  Cates insists that sterile rubber (latex) gloves be worn at all times and that containers and implements be sterile.   Otherwise, mold can grow in the vermiculite and damage the seeds.

1. Mix seeds with pre-chilled distilled water and let soak for 24 hours in the fridge.

2.  After 24 hours, pour seeds into strainer and rinse with distilled water.

3. Moisten vermiculite with distilled water, the exact quantity required varies with different media, moist but not dripping is best.

4.  Mix rinsed seeds into vermiculite using your hands, and wear sterile gloves.

5.  Seal container and store in fridge for 30-45 days at 35-45 degrees.  Remove and plant immediately if you see mold.

6.  Plant entire mixture or sift seeds out and plant in prepared seed bed when soil temps are warm (70 degrees+).

7.  Water often until germination occurs.

 

Antelope horns milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant, in bloom.  Photos by Native American Seed

Antelope horns milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant. Photos by Native American Seed

Soaking and washing the seeds removes natural chemicals that inhibit germination.  When the seeds are moved from the cold darkness of the refrigerator to the bright light and warmth of the sun, they are “shocked” into sprouting.  “The stratification process is meant to mimic nature,” he said, adding that the plants likely developed this dormancy strategy as an answer to drought conditions.

Good luck with your milkweed seeds and let us know how it goes!

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Apocalypse Not Now: How to Make Seedballs and Celebrate the 2012 Winter Solstice

“How do you think the apocalypse will happen? Do you predict a nuclear war? Or an alien invasion, extreme fire, WW3, global warming, flooding, etc.”

–from a recent web chat quoted in the Wall Street Journal on the supposed ending of the planet this Friday

Many of us will still be sleeping Friday morning when the sun moves directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at precisely 5:12 AM in San Antonio.  We’ll experience the official start of winter.  It will be the longest night and shortest day of the year, and 2% of Americans will expect it to be their last.   The end of the world.

Earth

Will the world end Friday? Nope.  Photo via NASA

Millions of survivalists, doomsday believers and new age spiritualists are buying into the false notion that the world ends this Friday.   A false reading of the Mayan calendar largely accounts for the madness.   The calendar ends a cycle this year, but will flip to a new cycle, “like an odometer,” according to a video released by NASA.

Scientists have contested the silly notion with facts, data and mathematical formulas, but  like the prevailing disregard of science on the subject of climate change,  millions of people are convinced that this Friday, December 21, the 2012 Winter Solstice, will be our last.  Sellers of survival gear, “doomsday pods” and apocalypse kits are whistling          cha-ching all the way to the bank.

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seedballs! Skip the Apocalypse talk and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seedballs.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

We choose to celebrate the arrival of winter with an annual rite of making seedballs.   Some folks bake Christmas cookies.  Others craft tamales.   We like to mix soil, clay, water and seed with a generous dash of chile pepper to make seedballs, a facilitator of wildflowers, the nectar sources and hosts for next year’s butterflies.

What are seedballs?

Introduced in the 70s, seedballs are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed together into tidy germination bombs that are said to have an 80% higher success rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil.  Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind and a dash of chile pepper makes the seeds less tasty to insects and birds.

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Generally, seedballs don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.  Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape situation like a ranch or roadside.  Wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Skip the Apocalypse party and have a seedball gathering instead.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Seedball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seedball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages a concoction that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and

What do you need to make seedballs?  Seeds, soil, clay and water

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water–and chile powder.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

sand.  I’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, one-two parts red potter’s clay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and one part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact.  Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll a spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick.  If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait.  The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper.  The pepper discourages insects, birds and other critters from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a better chance at germinating and becoming wildflowers for pollinators.

Seedball properly planted

Seedball properly tossed.  Throw them wherey they won’t compete with grass. Make sure it has contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.

When you toss them, make sure they land where they can make contact with soil, as in the photo above.    If the seedballs have to compete directly with grass, leaves or forbs, germination rates of the seeds decrease.

Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Seedball

Seedball improperly tossed. Make sure it makes contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

  • 3 parts local soil or potting soil
  • 1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
  • 1 part native wildflower seeds
  • Water, as needed.
  • Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
  • Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
 
 ****
 
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.
 
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In the Butterfly Garden: Time to Harvest Sunflower Seeds, Here’s How to Do it

Those fabulous sunflowers you planted in the spring are likely hanging their heads by now.  The Asteracae family, which boasts more than 1,600 genera and 23,000 different species, lets you know when seeds are ready by dropping its head and turning brown on its backside. I prefer the nonnative Mammoth Sunflower for my butterfly garden.

Monarch butterfly on Mammoth Sunflower

Mammoth Sunflower seed head provides dozens of nectaring possibilities for a Monarch butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

What’s so great about these easy-to-grow stunners is their amazing generosity.  Depending on the species you choose,  one tiny seed begets hundreds of tiny florets on the head, or capitulum, of the plant.  Yes, that’s correct.  EACH of those fluffy yellow growths that appear on the flower above are individual flowers.

For butterflies, this represents a nectar cafeteria.  They can land in one spot and conveniently slurp on serial nectar straws without even changing position.  But wait, this flower just keeps on giving.  Each flower later turns into a seed that birds and people seek and crave.

Sunflower head

Mammoth Sunflower head florets turn into seeds. Birds–and people–love them as snacks. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

I like to start Mammoth Sunflower seeds inside in January and transplant them to the butterfly garden in March.  By May, the stalky giants can reach 12 feet tall, their broad, foot-wide faces perching in the front yard like soldiers offering a welcome salute.  They lose their perky dispositions in June, as their heads drop and seeds form in place of the flowers.  All this for a $1.29 a pack and a regular drink of water.

Dried sunflower head ready for harvest.

Dried sunflower head ready for harvest. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

If their massive heads, ample flowers and prodigious seeds don’t convince you of their worth, how about heliotropism?  Sunflowers exhibit the endearing botanical trait of tracking the sun.  Their happy flowers faces literally turn toward the sun as it moves across the sky.  They drop their heads at the end of the day as the sun sets, and aptly, at the end of their life.

Scrape sunflower seeds from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

Once the flowers go to seed, you can leave them in place on the hung heads and birds will perch on the stalks and help themselves.  As the seeds dry, they disburse to the ground, where fowl, squirrels and other critter friends gather them for a handy protein pop.  One tablespoon of sunflower seeds has 4.5 grams of protein.

It’s also fun to harvest the seeds yourself for your own trail mix, to fill your bird feeder, or to plant next year.   Seven Mammoth Sunflowers I planted in my front yard this spring yielded 1.25 pounds of seed.

Common sunflowers on the San Antonio Mission Reach were prolific this year. Photo by Robert Rivard

The Mammoth Sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, but Texas has its own wonderful natives.  The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annus, may be the most common and provides prime habitat for dove and quail.   Their gangly growth habit often doesn’t fit into our home garden landscape plans, but the San Antonio Mission Reach has given the hardy, brown-centered bloomer a worthy showcase this year with well-timed rains.  Birds and butterflies have noticed and abound.   Also present: Maximilian Sunflower, Helianthus maximilianis, which has a more vertical growth habit and yellow centers.

Here’s how to harvest sunflower seeds:

1.  Wait for the heads to drop, all the sunflower petals have fallen off,  and the backside of the sunflower has turned yellow or even brown.

2. Cut about a foot of stalk off the top.

3. Scrape the seeds out with a spoon or butter knife, as shown in the video above, OR if you’re more patient,

Put a net or brown paper bag over the flower head and wait for the seeds to drop on their own.

4.  Air dry for future use.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Timely Rains, Pent-up Seed Bank, and Little Competition Raise Hopes for a Banner 2012 Wildflower Season

Major rain fell on San Antonio, Austin and in the Hill Country this week, raising levels at streams, aquifers and rivers in Central and South Texas and hopes for a 2012 wildflower bounty this spring.

Austin Bergstrom Airforce base saw a record 5.66 inches.  In San Antono we logged almost three inches–2.94 to be exact.  Out on the Llano River in Kimble County, about an inch-and-a-half doused the landscape.

Will steady rains in Central Texas convert to banner wildflowers in 2012?

Steady rains set stage for a banner wildflower season in 2012

Wildflower and butterfly fans are keeping track.  The historic Texas drought continues, yet steady, periodic rains this winter have the capacity to convert a pent-up seedbank–the soil where seeds drop and await optimal conditions for germination–to a spectacular  wildflower show this spring.

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

The drought’s kill-off of grass, trees and forbs also make for less competition for hearty native bloomers.   Early risers like bluebonnets, pink evening primrose, and Cowpen Daisy already dress the landscape with rosettes and eager seedlings.

Will 2012 offer a bounty of blooms and butterflies?

Bluebonnet

Bluebonnet: will we see a lot of them this year? Photo: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu

“So far, so good,” said Dr. Mark Simmons, an ecologist and Director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  “Wildflowers need a pulse of rain every four-six weeks.   We’re on track.”

Dr. Simmons counsels cautious optimism. The caveat: invasive species also lurk and will aggressively compete for available soil, nutrients, sun and water.

Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the Wildflower Center’s Director of Horticulture, also offers encouraging words. “We’re looking to a pretty good spring….alot of germination out there, lots of good well-spaced rains,” she said. “Where cedar elms were growing before, the seed banks underneath have an opportunity.”

Three-plus inches of rain in San Antonio:January showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

A recent 3-inch rain in San Antonio: winter showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

The drought also stunted many wildflowers and inhibited their seed production last year, David Rodriguez, Bexar County Agent of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service points out.   “Wild populations are going to take a while, but seeded populations started in September-October are looking really really nice,” he said.

The National Weather  Climate Prediction Center is predicting “persistent” drought at least through April 30.  Given the inaccuracy of longterm weather forecasting, we’re keeping a hopeful watch.

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Happy Winter Solstice! Celebrate with Seedballs, a Recipe, and Step-by-Step Directions on How to Make them

As many Texans climb into bed tomorrow night and the sun moves directly over the Tropic of Capricorn at precisely 11:30 PM Central Standard Time, we’ll turn the corner on the shortest day and longest night of 2011.  It’s the Winter Solstice.  From here until mid June, the days will get longer.

Let there be seed balls for the Solstice! Chile pepper discourages insects and birds.                                                                –Seedball slideshow photos by Hugh Daschbach and Monika Maeckle

Spring marches our way–something to celebrate.  Some folks will bake Christmas cookies.  Others will craft tamales.   And some of us will combine soil, clay, water and seed–with a generous dash of chile pepper–to make seedballs.

What are seedballs?

Introduced in the 70s, seedballs are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed together into tidy germination bombs that are said to have an 80% higher success rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil.  Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind or consumed by insects or birds.   Generally, seedballs don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.  Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape situation like a ranch or roadside.  Wait for the rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Seedball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seedball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages a concotion that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and sand.  I’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, 1-2- parts red potter’sclay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and 1 part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact.  Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick.

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper.  The pepper discourages insects and birds from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a higher chance at germinating.  If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait.  The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.  Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

3 parts local soil or potting soil
1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
1 part native wildflower seeds
Water, as needed.
Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
 
 ****
 
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.
 
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A Year in the Life of A Butterfly Garden: From Turf to a Butterfly Host and Nectar Garden, with Edible Landscape In Between

OK, no excuses people.  Time to get outside and get the butterfly garden going.  It’s not hard.  Doesn’t take all that much time.  And every day it inspires.  For proof, check out the slideshow below.

Turf to bed conversion: What are you waiting for?

Turf to bed conversion: why wait?

The photos below reflect 12 months in the life of a butterfly garden.  On November 17, 2010, I converted the Bermuda grass infested front yard of  my Austin apartment into a productive, fun and fascinating butterfly garden and edible landscape.  A year later, I’m leaving it behind and moving back to San Antonio to begin another yard transformation.

For help getting started, check out Part I and Part II of our Turf to Bed Conversion Series.  All the drought-damaged lawns around Austin and San Antonio beg to be converted from turf to beds.

Previous Image
Next Image

Fair warning: a butterfly garden has the occasional dose of drama.  Consider the case of my Heirloom Tomato Thief.

In June, someone stole the perfectly robust, ripe heirloom tomatoes I had incorporated into my butterfly landscape.   I only had two tomato plants, so this was especially aggravating.  Each day I passed  these plants en route to work via the walkway from my apartment to the car, and was clocking their optimal harvest time.

Just as they reached their prime, a thief snatched the purply red tomatoes from their destiny as a Caprese salad.  Then someone chopped down my remaining six-foot tall sunflower a day later.  These garden violations drove me to borrow a digital game camera and bungee-cord it to a tree, where it snapped photos every five minutes for two days.  The backside of the alleged tomato robber was captured by “the Gardencam”–but she wasn’t.  Take a look.  Nothing conclusive, but I felt a bit better and the thievery stopped.

Butterfly gardens can make productive use of even a small plot.  In my limited space, I raised dozens of caterpillars and butterflies, grew handfuls of fruits and vegetables, and burned calories, worked on my tan, and made new friends as neighbors walked by commenting and asking questions.

What’s stopping you?  Your butterfly garden is waiting.  Make it happen.  Let us know if you have questions, and good luck!

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In the Butterfly Garden, Part II: Transplants and Seedlings to Make a Vibrant Butterfly Garden in Downtown San Antonio

Last week we encouraged you to head into the garden to smother your dead turf with layers of newspaper and mounds of mulch.  This week the turf-to-bed conversion continues.

After giving your new beds  time to settle (with welcome help from recent Central and South Texas showers), you can start plugging in transplants and later, begin seedlings for the spring.

Coming soon: Butterfly Garden at "the Cube" in San Antonio, TX 78210

Coming soon: Butterfly Garden at "the Cube" in San Antonio, TX 78210

I like to recycle plants from one garden to another.  As I mentioned in Part I, last year I moved to Austin from San Antonio and took several plants from my Alamo Heights butterfly garden with me. A large rue bush, several milkweeds, a couple of bulbines–these plants made the 75-mile trek to Austin.

Now I find myself returning to the Alamo City.  I’ll take a few favorite plants back–some of the original San Antonians, as well as Austin finds.   Our new living quarters will be a green built downtown “Cube” (Leed-certification pending) conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.   The front yard plot has a grey water system that recycles shower, bath and dishwater for landscape irrigation.  That has been an interesting learning experience (more on that another time).

Last week I prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.  Now I’ll install a few plants.

Future butterfly garden. Hilary Scruggs "Cube" has a grey water sprinkler system

Future butterfly garden. Hilary Scruggs' "Cube" has a grey water sprinkler system

Here’s what I’m digging up and moving from my Austin bed:

Several milkweeds–brought from my Alamo Heights garden
Rue–the same one I moved from Alamo Heights
Bulbines–moved two from Alamo Heights
Lantana–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
Indigo spires–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
Red sage–bought in Austin, will move them to SA
 

Fresh transplants will be added shortly, such as:

Italian Parsley–buy at local nursery
Dill–buy at local nursery
Fennel–buy at local nursery
 

Milkweeds, of course, are the Monarch butterfly and Queen host plant and will ensure plenty of caterpillars.  In late March, the Monarchs leave their overwintering roosts in Mexico, laying the first eggs of the migratory season in Texas.  Milkweeds transplanted now will die back with freezes, but bounce back in the spring.  Many species of butterflies enjoy nectaring on Milkweed.

San Antonio milkweed, born in Alamo Heights, will return home after a stint in Austin

Tropical milkweed, born in Alamo Heights, will return to San Antonio after a stint in Austin

This well-traveled Rue bush will return to San Antonio next week

This well-traveled rue bush will return to San Antonio next week

My well-traveled rue bush is a sturdy, heat tolerant perennial that plays host to the Eastern and Giant Swallowtail butterflies and blooms yellow in the heat of summer.  As soon as the weather begins to warm, the black and blue butterflies deposit their golden yellow eggs on rue, Italian parsley, dill, and their apparent favorite–fennel.  For some reason they don’t care for the curly parsley and I don’t either.  The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

Swallowtail on Fennel

Plant fennel now so you can have Swallowtail caterpillars in your butterfly garden this Spring

Another plus to using these herbs as a foundation for your butterfly garden: you can eat them, harvesting leaves and seeds for cooking.  Fennel bulbs can be braised and used raw in salads.  As temperatures rise in June, the herbs will bloom and go to seed, useful for next year or as an addition to dips, yogurt or sprinkled on toast or pizza.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.   After plugging in the transplants by simply cutting a hole in your mulch-covered newspaper, you can  propagate more butterfly plants by starting them inside with this year’s seeds. Cowpen Daisy, milkweed, Frostweed, sunflowers, and Jimsonweed can all be perpetuated by a shallow planting in plastic seedling trays with potting soil.   Get the plants started  indoors, water regularly, and they’ll be ready to transplant in the ground after danger of frost is past (usually March 15).

Cowpen Daisy seedlings in January 2011

Cowpen Daisy seedlings in January 2011

This year I might try pellitory or nettles, which host the Red Admiral butterfly.  Passionflower, host to Zebra Longwings and Gulf Fritillaries, also makes my wish list. Friends at the Austin Butterfly Forum rave about the woody Flaming Acanthus, the host plant to the Crimson Patch butterfly.  That would be a new species for me, and apparently hummingbirds love it.

Until then, my winter garden will remain sparse, as the solarization process breaks down the turf, creating fertile soil.  Likely I will supplement with winter lettuces–arugula, frisee, chard and kale–probably in a container.  Then, later in the spring, we’ll add tomatoes, okra, and peppers or eggplant.   Mixing edibles into the butterfly garden makes for a continuum of interest and activities.  If you’re not enjoying the butterflies or collecting caterpillars, you’ll be harvesting fresh produce.

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