Friday, October 8, 2010

A New Wildlife Garden: Chapter Andrew Geist (August 2010)

It's done, it's in the ground! All the studying, planning, choosing and wondering "is this right?" "is this best? is behind us. What a journey and what an education for a new native plant-butterfly-bird gardener!

About eight months ago, during Miami's "winter" in January, I decided I wanted a butterfly garden in the back yard. To make a long story short, this idea transformed into wanting a very special butterfly and bird garden that would use all available sections of my 1/3 acre yard (front, back and both sides).

My family and I joined Miami Blue Chapter-NABA, and shortly afterward I was invited to go on a butterfly gardens tour of four private yards offered by Miami Blue Chapter (MBC). On the garden tour I was able to see how others had laid things out and what plants were doing well in what environments, how attractive they were to butterflies and birds, how big they got, how much maintenance they needed. I also met others with gardening interests and experience.

I also went on the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s Butterfly Garden tour with Linda Evans, which I highly recommend. This walk is offered every Sunday at the garden, with Linda leading it every other Sunday. Linda, who is Vice-President of Miami Blue Chapter and a recent “Volunteer of the Year” at Fairchild, has a wealth of knowledge on butterfly plants.

I have never met a book I didn't like, and so I purchased a library of books on the subject. My favorite resources turned out to be:
Florida Butterfly Gardening: Marc and Maria Minno;
Florida Keys Wildflowers: Roger Hammer;
Everglades Wildflowers: Roger Hammer;
Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants: Marc Minno, Jerry Butler, Donald Hall;
Butterflies through Binoculars: FLORIDA: Jeffrey Glassberg, Marc Minno, John Calhoun;
Native Trees and Shrubs of the Florida Keys: Paul Scurlock;
A Gardeners Guide to Florida's Native Plants: Rufino Osorio;
Native Florida Plants: Robert Haehle, Joan Brookwell;
The Shrubs and Woody Vines of Florida: Gil Nelson;
Butterfly Gardening with Florida's Native Plants: Craig Huegel;
Your Florida Guide to Butterfly Gardening: Jaret Daniels;
Attracting Birds to Your Garden (article): Roger Hammer;
Miami Blue Chapter's ONLINE list: Butterfly Host Plants for Southeast Florida (

I need to get a good book on Florida moths (any suggestions from anyone?). I see a lot of moths that look like baby hummingbirds and I am told they are “hummingbird moths” in the genus Hemaris of the sphinx moth or hawkmoth group and that are beneficial pollinators.

Reference materials in hand, I spent a long time drawing out the layout and researching plants waiting for our unusually cold winter to end. Initially I received a lot of help from Roger Hammer, calling him often and having several meetings with him mostly going over plant species. I feel very fortunate to have received help from Roger. During this time, my garden "philosophy" emerged.

One of my earliest goals was to have a garden as pretty and manicured as possible, but still attractive to as many birds and butterflies as possible. I also wanted to emphasize native plant species (currently over 80% of over 100 different trees/plant species in the yard are natives). A recent goal of mine is to have at least one host plant species for any butterfly with any reasonable chance of flying into the yard (currently I have over 60 different host plant species). Moreover, I confess to liking the idea of collecting as complete a native plant list in my yard as possible, given my soil conditions (I live in southwest Miami-Dade county in what probably was once rockland hammock).

Early in the process I decided to remove nearly all trees or plants in the yard that were not either bird or butterfly attracting species, or at least native species. Lucky for me my good friend, Scott Muggleston, owner of Scott's Tree Care, along with his crew, helped me with this very labor intensive task. This meant I was left with only my mature live oaks (one of the best bird attracting trees in south Florida and a host plant to the Horace's Duskywing), 1 pomegranate tree (hummingbirds really hit the flowers), 5 mango trees and 1 banana plant (for us to feed on!), and 1 ligustrum tree with white flowers that seem to attract nectaring butterflies.

In my selections, I also went by the plant zone (10b) and tried to stay away from wetlands plants not likely to thrive in my well-drained situation. A resource I learned about only recently would have been helpful in the beginning, and will be in the future: You can go on the website of the Institute for Regional Conservation (, find the "Natives for Your Neighborhood" page, enter your zip code, and learn what plants historically grew in, and are recommended for, the area.

Scott was also in charge of purchasing many of the plants/trees, trimming my remaining trees, planting, mulching, setting up bird nesting houses and bird feeders. After outlining the beds, Scott and his crew removed the grass and planted about a week later, mulching with Florimulch from Bernie's Rock And Garden, about 4" thick. The most common error in creating a butterfly garden, I had been warned, is spacing plants too close. I tried not to make this mistake, and I would advise spacing plants even further than the recommended distance. THEY GROW!!

Now, about 6 months in the ground, I have not yet spent much time trying to identify the different butterflies and moths in my yard. I am still trying to perfect my yard, which keeps me occupied with plants in my free time. Soon I will be able concentrate more on the butterflies, moths and birds. Of course I know the common easy to identify ones. I am hoping the more things start filling out, the more different species I will start seeing.

Our garden has been the best experience for myself, my wife Maria, and my two sons Nicholas (6), and Benjamin(4), to turn a sterile yard into one that is already teaming with life. Not to mention all the great people I have met throughout this process. I really feel like I'm watching a nature show when I look out my window on a sunny day lately. As I look out, I am already learning that a wildlife garden is a work in process, and I have more plans...but that will be another chapter of the story.