The Transformation of a Garden and a Gardener: the Story of Bound by Beauty

By Mary Benton, Co-Founder of Bound by Beauty

This is the first in a series of Wildlife Garden of the Month posts.  We want to highlight the many ways in which you can transform your garden into a biodiverse sanctuary for humans and wildlife and inspire you to take action.

 

It all began when I encountered a jade jewel with a gold crown in my garden. It stopped me in my tracks, literally took my breath away, and filled me with awe and wonder. What was this magical thing?  Little did I know that I had just put a foot on a very slippery slope that has led to the complete transformation of both my garden and me and to the creation of Bound by Beauty.

We had recently put down roots for the first time in several decades of moving all around the world.  The garden I inherited was filled with what I would come to learn were travelers palms and invasive ferns.  Problem was, I had no idea what to replace them with.  I was paralyzed with indecision, and completely clueless as to what plants do well in South Florida’s challenging environment, or even what kind of garden I wanted.

And then disaster struck, as the majority of our 90-year-old cast iron waste pipes collapsed and had to be replaced, so the money we had set aside for landscaping went down the drain.

But those months of dithering and indecision and lack of progress paid off when my very patient landscaper brought me some milkweed, unbidden but very welcome with its cheerful yellow flowers.  I was delighted when caterpillars appeared seemingly out of nowhere and started devouring the leaves.  But I was completely unprepared for the magic that the process of metamorphosis would bring.  The breathtaking encounter with the chrysalis convinced me then and there to turn my garden over to butterflies.  That turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

It was as if I had found a gate into a magical realm, where beauty reigned and joy and awe and wonder prevailed.  I never knew a garden had the power to evoke such emotions.

I started with more milkweed planted next to our deck, along with a non-native firebush and some pentas — both widely available and wonderful nectar plants.  These plants attracted so many Monarchs that I could hardly keep up with demand. 

Buying Giant milkweed slowed the hungry caterpillars down a bit and took the pressure off of my other milkweed.

 

 

When I pruned back my firebush at one point I found 47 chrysalises, which I carefully hung with dental floss on a nearby garden statue. This arresting sight gave me an idea.  My father was coming to visit, and he was too unsteady to navigate my garden.  I wanted to bring the magic of metamorphosis to the deck, where he could safely sit and watch and be spellbound.  And indeed he was!

 

I had bought a cedar bird cage when living in Peru, not with the idea of caging a bird but because I thought it was beautiful. I set it out on our deck under a little awning and surrounded it with milkweed. When the caterpillars had eaten their fill and were ready to pupate, most of them climbed up the bird cage to continue the process of metamorphosis.  The idea of a Monarch tower would become an important part of Bound by Beauty.

As time passed and my Monarchs flourished, I began creating new planting beds in locations where I could sit in comfort and watch the butterfly action.  

 

This was the second bed I created. It has since tripled in size as I gradually added more and more plants.  At this time, I was planting mostly non-natives.  The native Wild lime, which hosts the Giant swallowtail caterpillars, has grown enormous and has attracted many beautiful bird species that add to the magic as well.

 

I added another bed with Jatropha and Sweet almond verbena.  The grass-like plant is African iris.

I realized as I added bed after bed, with grass pathways in between, that the pathways were like rivers winding through my garden, and the planting beds were like little islands.  This gave my garden a lovely meandering feel.  I ended up replacing some of the grass paths with mulched paths as there was too much foot traffic for the grass to survive.  The paths mulched with leaves gives the feeling of wandering through a forest which I love.  I added seating on some of the islands so I could observe my garden from various perspectives.

 

It is a good idea to add seating in shady spots so you can enjoy your garden in comfort, even during the heat of a South Florida summer. This shade is courtesy of my Wild lime, which started out as a tiny tree and has now taken over this entire corner of my garden (the perennial problem for newbie gardeners!). I love it for the wildlife it attracts.  Note the water feature and bird feeder, both of which attract lots of beautiful migratory and overwintering birds, as well as dragonflies and frogs. Given the extreme difficulty of their migratory journeys, it fills me with joy when I see a bird refreshing herself in the bird fountain, or filling her belly with seed or berries that I provided.

 

Over time, as I read more and learned more, I gradually began to plant mostly native plants for butterflies and other pollinators. Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home is a great place to begin if you want to learn more about the vital connection between native plants and native insects.  And his book Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in your Yard makes it clear how each and every one of us can play a role in saving nature if we own even a little bit of land.  

Red tropical sage is a wonderful native wildflower that can grow in sun or shade, and feeds butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Gaillardia, in the foreground, is a great plant for native bees which are so important in our ecosystem.

 

Beautiful and useful in so many ways, and to think that some people consider this to be a lawn weed and douse it in herbicide to eradicate it. Fogfruit provides nectar to native bees and other pollinators and is the host plant for four different butterfly species. It also does well as a ground cover in either sun or shade.
This pretty little planting is mostly Seashore ageratum, an endangered plant, and Beach verbena. There is also some Brazilian button flower, a non-native and aggressive plant sold to me as a native thistle by Urban Habitat, so let the buyer beware!
Shiny leaf wild coffee attracts Zebra butterflies and birds when it is in bloom. It is a great plant for partial shade.
The Wild coffee fruit is devoured by migratory birds.  I gradually became more and more interested in including plants that feed birds, and the magic in my garden increased exponentially.

One of my favorite plants of all is passion vine, as it feeds the caterpillars of three beautiful butterfly species, the most interesting being the Zebra.

 

I was very proud of my magnificent passion vine that covered an awning frame that had the remnants of a shredded fabric awning left by the previous owner.  This passion vine awning survived a hit from Irma, which a fabric awning might not have.  You can see in the foreground my vegetable garden, which our village made us remove as it was in the — gasp! — side yard, despite the fact that was the only area in my garden with sufficient sun in the winter, which is our growing season.  I turned lemons into lemonade by replacing the vegetable garden with a flower meadow, although I left the parsley for the Black swallowtail caterpillars.

  The passion vine brought in clouds of Zebras, a mesmerizing sight.  In fact, one of those clouds of Zebras is responsible in part for the creation of Bound by Beauty.    

 

What in the world, you might reasonably ask? I had no idea what I was seeing when I encountered this in my garden one day.  After looking at it carefully, I saw that it is a Zebra chrysalis in the middle, with two butterflies hanging upside down from it on either side.  Some quick googling revealed that the female is in the center, and the butterflies on either side are males, their abdomens locked and loaded and ready to mate with the female as soon as she descends from the chrysalis.  When you see a cloud of Zebras, you are likely seeing male Zebras all fluttering around together searching for females.

 

Here you can see the newly emerged female on the left, her wings still small and furled, her abdomen still filled with fluid. Mating takes time, as does allowing the wings to lengthen and harden enough to fly.  From nature’s perspective, this makes a lot of sense.  It also ensures that the males with the best sense of smell will pass that on to their offspring.  A good sense of smell is particularly important when a female is laying her eggs, to ensure she lays them on the right plant.

 

Female Zebras lay their eggs in clusters. It looks like several females laid eggs on the same frond. A number of the eggs will be eaten by ants or lizards before the caterpillars have a chance to hatch, but enough will hatch to keep the circle of life going.

 

 

Zebra caterpillars can make short work of a passion vine.  Which leads me to….

 

 

Yes, this is the same magnificent vine pictured above, the leaves having been devoured by legions of very hungry caterpillars.

An unsightly mess to be sure, but filled with transformative magic as the denuded vine was covered in chrysalises.  One morning, I saw that a young woman in a car on the swale seemed to be having some trouble.  I went up to the car and saw that she was weeping.  I gently tapped on the window which she rolled down.  I asked if there were anything I could do to help her.  After a pause, she asked, “will you give me a hug?”  I said of course, and hugged her when she got out of the car.  I explained that my garden was right next to her car, and invited her to come in where I could give her some water and we could talk.  She could hardly walk because she was crying so hard, explaining that she’d been on her way to “do something dark” after experiencing a body-blow betrayal from her boyfriend, but she had to stop the car when she could no longer see the road.  I sat her down in one of the two chairs under that caterpillar-eaten awning, and told her to look up.  I was watching her face when she looked up and saw a cloud of 20-30 Zebra butterflies fluttering overhead.  Her expression went from grief stricken to awestruck in the blink of an eye.  It was a remarkable paradigm shift in emotions. 

What else can you think of that can transform grief to awe in an instant?  It was witnessing this paradigm shift, along with other remarkable paradigm shifts in visitors to my garden who witnessed the process of metamorphosis, or the sight of clouds of butterflies.  I realized that the need for a paradigm shift in thinking about climate change and sea level rise could perhaps be accomplished, at least in part, by the transformative power of butterflies and the process of metamorphosis, and thus did Bound by Beauty come into being.

I began this journey with zero knowledge.  Despite having lived three years in Costa Rica with all of its amazing butterflies, it had never occurred to me to plant for butterflies until that fateful day when my landscaper showed up with milkweed.  I have learned a tremendous amount in the seven years since then, mostly through trial and error, and through extensive reading and talking with those with more experience.  Many of my plants have come from seeds, seedlings, and cuttings from friends’ gardens, creating wonderful and meaningful connections between gardens and gardeners.  And, even though I have lived all over the world and have had unforgettable experiences, I can truly say that this wildlife journey is the adventure of a lifetime.

If you have a little bit of land, please join those of us at Bound by Beauty by turning it over to native plants that attract wildlife.  You will create a sanctuary filled with beauty and awe and magic and wonder, and you will inspire your neighbors to follow suit.  Imagine what we can do when we join hands with our neighbors and connect our gardens to save the precious natural world upon which we all depend.  You will be filled with joy on a daily basis. 

 

Connect, Educate, Transform, Replicate

 

 

 

 

 


4 thoughts on “The Transformation of a Garden and a Gardener: the Story of Bound by Beauty

  1. Karen McLaughlin Reply

    What a beautiful oasis you have created Mary! Thank you for sharing the story of your gatden ( and personal) metamorphosis. Thanks to a visit to your enchanting garden about 3 years ago I was inspired to start a native and butterfly garden of my own. Little did I know what a source of serenity and joy it would provide during these pandemic months! I love the work of Bound by Beauty and how its inspiring and transforming our community,9one yard at a time πŸ¦‹πŸ¦‹πŸ¦‹

    1. Mary Benton Reply

      I am so glad my garden inspired you to create a much needed sanctuary for you and for wildlife. It is such a win win accomplishment!

  2. Susan Howell Reply

    Mary, you are my neighbor, my friend, and my wildlife gardening inspiration. Over three years ago, I began transforming my front and back yards into biodiverse wildlife sanctuaries- using mostly native Florida plants and of course zero chemicals. The joy and wonder brought to my life by the garden and all the beautiful pollinators that live in it and visit it is incredible. It is one of the best choices I ever made to plant this garden. Together, garden by garden we can nurture nature and help transform our communities and our world.

    1. Mary Benton Reply

      Who knew it is so easy to create joy? And the blessings of working together to expand beautiful nature are endless.

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