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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.