Costly Mistakes in the Butterfly Garden and
How to Avoid Them in Yours
While each year seems to bring a higher percentage of garden success, there are still new lessons to be learned each season.
Here are 6 of our recent butterfly garden failures, and how you can avoid them:
A few winters ago, we put out our first winter sowing containers.
I purchased a few uncommon milkweed varieties, and only had about 5 seeds of each. I put them all in winter sowing containers. This winter was the 10th coldest Minnesota winter on record…and that’s a degree of cold stratification some milkweed varieties don’t need!
The relentless winter was followed by torrential spring rains that overflowed the sowing containers. Then something green started to emerge from the saturated soil…MOLD!
After being subjected to the angry wrath of Mother Nature, most of the seeds failed to germinate…but why? What is the cold, the rain, or something else altogether?
So, last season I tried winter sowing again, and experienced more mold issues with opaque milk jugs. This time, I also tried winter sowing milkweed seeds in clear 2-liter soda bottles.
To my amazement, excess moisture and mold were not an issue using those containers…perhaps it’s because the soil receives more direct sunlight?
Growing forward, I am going to use more 2 liter bottles…using a good seed starting mix will also help regulate the moisture levels inside the containers.
I always suggest to people that they try different methods of seed germination, so they’re not putting all their milkweed seeds in one basket.
While winter sowing can be an effective way to start seeds, your results depend on something you have absolutely no control over…the weather! Start some of your seeds this way, while starting the rest with another method like fall planting or starting seeds indoors.
I cut back the woody growth from the Dutchman’s pipevine…that would be the same woody growth that new spring growth is supposed to emerge from.
The plant proceeded to die, so we turned to a nursery for a fresh start.
Unfortunately, one of our garden pests took a liking to the tender replacement, and chewed off all the new vines. Say it isn’t so, but the Dutchman’s pipe may be down for the count…again. Sorry pipevine swallowtails!
But wait…an update!
I was going to toss the new pipevine plant, but we opted to erect a protective barrier instead. It’s vining up the trellis and is proving to be a true survivor. Go Dutch!
After installing galvanized rabbit fencing along the inside perimeter of our back yard fence, we’ve been able to keep out the rabbits that were destroying our pipevine and other precious butterfly garden plants.
If I would have taken a few short minutes to research dutchman’s pipe online, I would have saved myself years of growth by realizing the new growth came back on the woody trellis vines I was removing.
Research is a key component to your garden success, and with so much information available in the digital age, you can find the answers to most all garden questions online instead of making foolish assumptions, that can literally cut your growth back by years.
I also learned that the pain of putting up one big rabbit fence is much less than the pain of watching your plants mowed down over, and over…and over again!
A final lesson from this painful chapter…make sure your trellis is secure. Ours came down in a windstorm. As luck would have it, none of the vines were broken. We secured the trellis with garden twine this fall.
This one I can live with because we have multiple tropical milkweed plants.. This regular tropical plant (Asclepias curassavica) is 4 years old. I thought each year, it would continue to grow bigger and better…not so much.
Last winter, I suspected our potted tropical was getting root bound and the leaves looked sickly as it overwintered indoors. In spring, I made vertical cuts on the rootball and planted it directly in the garden.
While it put out new foliage and flowered, it still looked sickly and all the younger plants outgrew it. I guess tropical milkweed is not like fine wine, and I have heard similar reports from other gardeners.
Now we only overwinter first year tropical milkweed plants. Since Asclepias curassavica is usually one of the easiest milkweeds to find at local nurseries or online, there are better plant options for overwintering indoors.
Even if your overwintering plant fades, you’ll have the opportunity to take stem cuttings to start brand new plants in fall, winter, or spring. This is my preferred way to propagate Asclepias curassavica.
Tropical milkweed seeds can also be started indoors two months before your avg. last frost.
Using acid-heavy pine bark mulch killed many of our annuals and also some perennials
Now we stick to tried and true cedar mulch which has always worked well for keeping plants happy. Yes, other materials can be used, but watch out for any options that can dramatically change the PH level of your soil…this can shock, and ultimately kill your plants.
Fungus and powdery mildew….what’s a gardener to do?
Spacing out your plants to provide better air circulation to prevent fungus and mildew. You can also use a hydrogen peroxide/water solution to treat powdery mildew or preventatively treat the soil:
A fantastic butterfly plant….but not for your region?! 🙃
Recently, we planted non-native Bolivian sunflower (Tithonia diversifolia) which is supposed to be a huge pollinator magnet….it grew a whopping 15 feet tall and formed MANY buds, that started to unfold….in October. 🍁 An interesting experiment for sure, but the bloom timing makes it an impossible dream for a northern garden.
In recent years we’ve also been disapointed by the late blooms of New England Aster, New York Ironweed, Pineapple salvia, and others I’ve been able to successfully block from my mind 😉
Remember to keep in mind where a report is coming from when you hear how fantastic a plant is for monarchs (or other pollinators)
Just because a plant is non-native, doesn’t mean it can’t be a valuable asset in your butterfly/pollinator garden. However, there’s less of a chance it will thrive so don’t depend on non-native plants to be the stars of your garden…native plants are the cornerstone of a successful butterfly garden.
It’s easy to make butterfly garden mistakes, especially when you’re first starting out. What ultimately determines your garden success, is how you deal with those mistakes growing forward…