Each morning the garden calls me to see what’s new. It’s always something . .
One of the things I value most about gardens are that they are ever changing, allowing us all the chance to learn, evolve in our preferences, make mistakes and enjoy a ring-side seat to nature. This courtyard has had so many evolutions over the years. At one time the fountain was flowing and it was filled with fish. And then the fish grew so that they were discovered and eaten by the local cats and raccoons. Next we grew water lettuce in each of the bowls and the frogs love that!
For the past few years, I’ve removed the water lettuce from the top two bowls to fill them with water for our bird friends. The frogs still inhabit the bottom bowl and they very efficiently eat any mosquito larvae. Water lettuce is classified as an invasive, but I appreciate it in this application because it’s contained and I love the velvety leaves. My journey as a gardener has been one of discovery through experience and education. The unique plants I collected many years ago have given way to a more urgent need to grow natives in an effort to help restore the environment and provide habitat for wildlife.
This trellis in the same courtyard has hosted maypop, corky stem passionvine, coral honeysuckle and now has been taken over by the blue pea vine. I miss all the zebra longwings and the gulf frittilaries that laid their eggs on both of the passionvines, but blue pea vine attracts birds, bees and skippers and the flowers are quite lovely.
I started planting corky stem passionvines along both perimeter fence lines for the zebras and gulfs a few years ago, hoping that planting among established vines and trees would give the caterpillars a better chance at survival, since they are more hidden than on this trellis. To some degree it has succeeded, but it’s much harder to watch the growth of the caterpillars and their emergence from their chrysalis.
One of my passions for many years has been growing orchids. In South Florida we are fortunate to enjoy such a long growing season. We are accustomed to seeing flowers bloom throughout the year. This is very rarely the case with orchids, except for a couple easy to grow varieties, here an oncidium – possibly Oncidium Ensatum, but I’m not positive. Although most orchids are epiphytic, this species can also ground in the ground.
This is the other constantly blooming orchid, a Brassavola Nodosa, commonly called Lady of the Night for the delicious scent it releases at sunset to attract the moth that pollinates it.
My orchid house provides habitat for lots of wildlife. I wish I had a photo of the hummingbirds that stake out their territory each day during the winter, but they are way too fast for my camera! Quite often the birds delight in chewing off the orchid roots because it seems to make the perfect nesting material. And this little frog is one of the many calling the orchid house home.
Dendrobium Lindleyi is one of my favorite orchids. It blooms like this once a year for about a month.
Below is an orchid commonly called a cowhorn, Cyrtopodium punctatum. It is native to Florida and some of Latin America, but endangered here now. It’s quite easy to grow once you have the pseudobulb and blooms once a year for about a month in the spring. Bees love it!
Vanilla orchids grow easily in South Florida. The flowers appear for just a few hours one day only. Unfortunately we do not have the bee here that pollinates the orchid, so growers are self-pollinating. We had so many vanilla flowers last year that I tried to self-pollinate, with very little success. There was only one vanilla bean at the end of the season! One more reason to concentrate efforts on growing native plants!
Giant swallowtails are frequent visitors to our key lime tree and wild lime trees. Unfortunately, the birds are not often fooled by the “bird poop” caterpillar defense. Hopefully the female lays enough eggs to increase the odds for this beautiful butterfly.
These soft cane dendrobiums are happily growing on a frangipani tree. They have the most delicious scent each morning. Unfortunately, they also appeal to the iguanas, who think they make a perfect breakfast!
Coonties grow easily in this section of the garden, attracting the gorgeous little atalas. I love this ancient cycad for its hardiness and ability to survive in almost any condition.
I’ve been growing zinnias for a while now, just for the monarchs. They especially love the orange flowers. As our climate continues to change more each year, all of nature needs our help and protection. Anything we can do to utilize more native plants, especially those that feed pollinators and birds or provide habit for wildlife is valuable. And the benefit for us is a journey rich in appreciation for what surrounds us.
This is the second 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.
Florida has a unique climate and there is so much to learn, believe me, it begs to be acknowledged. Not just in fauna and flora but in land and the Natives that steward it, the Tequestas, Seminole, Calusas, Miamis and Miccosukee. It also begs to be inclusive with all the people that came after and it needs to be accessible to all to appreciate. I want to acknowledge first and foremost, that this piece of land was the land of the Tequesta tribe, and the story of our garden in a way is to pay respects to them and mitigate the effects of poorly used land at all scales.
There is a funny thing to believing in sustainability that seeps through every part of your life, from food to materials you wear on your body, to what’s inside and outside of your home. I was very aware of this for years, before and after having kids, and living in small apartments. I was conscious about waste and had a growing green thumb. I started with my tiny compost bins and tiny balcony veggie garden with tomatoes, roses, peppers and herbs. And then it finally happened, we bought our home in Little Haiti with our first kid. After a couple of years living in this house I decided that decorative grass in my front yard was the most pointless perk of owning a home. The time I spent cutting grass on the weekends is wasted because no one, and nothing in this outdoor environment benefited from it. Absolutely no bees, no butterflies or birds could possibly benefit from this- and I gained nothing but a heck of a lot of grass allergies.
My front lawn started with a consultation from a man in native gardening that didn’t have much time to explain all my questions about what he was bringing to my yard. Looking back it couldn’t have been a better scenario because it caused me to do the research myself and learn on my own. My desire to learn about plants was amplified from container balcony plants to something short of a tiny forest. So here it began and the grass had to go. I had no patience in dealing with the removal or sheeting of the front yard so we agreed to smother it with about 6”-8” of height of mulch. There were no plants to remove except for a non-native clusia that similarly to grass, contributed absolutely nothing to its surroundings. So without much to consider, the entire front yard was covered (about 1600 sqft) with mulch. The kind of mulch we used was not the commercial one though, this one had not been sprayed with chemicals like most bags you’d find in Home Depot and the like. We got it from a local arborist that had enough chipped wood from his jobs and the consultant had it delivered to us. Now I learned that the arborists do it for free.
Then the planting started, we got the recommended plants from the consultant in addition to some that I had found in native nurseries like Silent Nursery and Veber’s Jungle Garden. Midsize plants were put in their respective places considering height vs. position of the sun to create more shade in some places than others. Areas of desired privacy were also considered and the denser plants were placed there. There’s so much I can say in detail about each of these plants if you ask me in person I can yap about it endlessly. I will mention however, our starring plant: powderpuff, or sunshine mimosa, a creeper that was meant to cover a good 80% of the yard replacing grass, staying low, resistant to pedestrians and most importantly, never needing to be cut. It grew marvelously in direct sun and once established it grows incessantly. The overall growth of the garden until this day has taken 2 years and for some people it seems like an unbearable sight and wait time. There was only mulch and tiny plants for the majority of the first year but the second year was incredibly rewarding, everything took off and bloomed. It was recommended to us to get even bigger plants at the beginning to skip the wait time barren visual, but this incremented our budget to 5x the cost. I didn’t mind the time it took to grow because I got to know every single plant in its small stage to full growth. Plus the garden was meant to go against all conventional, out of the box and cookie-cutter aspects of what a lawn is these days. Extra time to grow didn’t hurt anything.
The goal of the garden was to make it as self sustainable and purposeful for the local fauna. There was to be no cutting, no irrigation, no fertilizing and no manicuring or leaf blowing of any kind. And so, it has lived to that purpose until this day! Perhaps the only thing we maintain is adding truck loads of mulch (which we get for free) every 3 to 6 months. We joined the program of Connect to Protect and hold 5 native plants from them as well as 6 Florida-friendly trees from the 1Million Trees Project in order to increase canopy in areas like where we live. An additional aspect to the front garden was always a given to us, making it a wonderful space for our kids to explore. It did not become so necessary like it did in 2020’s pandemic. With so much time staying in, we explored every nook and cranny of this yard. There were so many new bugs, more visiting birds, new growth and more flowers in plants, interesting textures and we started to explore our options beyond having a pollinator-friendly garden.
I recently got certified in Permaculture with Earth Activist Training and I learned so much about soil, plant biodiversity, water harvesting, environmental impacts, social justice and more. All of which I wanted to apply to my already existing self-sustainable garden. Could I include food? The kids loved the small vegetable garden bed in the backyard but what if we could have more and include more different vegetables and even share? With more time outside I poked for spaces and found areas where a little key lime little could grow, some tomatoes could hangout near the firecracker bush and different kale varieties could snuggle in between the milkweed. And it worked! We got excited and decided to make an additional space for the kids to plant some herbs. Behold, the most permaculture thing anyone can do; an herb spiral. Here we have an eternal and massive sissoo spinach bush growing, rosemary, cilantro, parsley and different basil varieties. A few other things we incremented was the amount of rain barrels around the perimeter of the house. In one single day of steady heavy showers we collect about 250 gallons (more if we had more barrels!) of non-chlorinated water that our raised vegetable beds love. We also collect bags of leaves that people put out on their curbside to add to our compost or backyard and we also practice “chop-and drop” when a plant (specially palm trees) drop leaves or become hazardous and needs a chop, we simply cut and leave the cuttings or leaves on the ground or under a tree. “Produce No Waste” as Permaculture principle No.6 reminds us.
With this knowledge in my belt I have slowly begun to help our neighbors with mulch and sharing of plant cuttings from our garden. I have hosted online talks about composting with worms, finding pollinator friendly plants and offered drop-off compost options for the community near and far. Very recently I have started a forest school coop with a few moms and their kids in order to share the space and bounty. With lots of plans crushed during this pandemic I am focusing on learning more in detail about our local ecosystems and like I mentioned at the beginning with the land acknowledgement, there is so much we ought to learn and preserve. Even if it’s water! Because this land was never really ours, it is not ours to keep but we can make it right and better for our children. It has been nothing short of a heaven for our family to experience, learn and grow with our garden and I highly recommend anyone desiring to break out of the conventional lawn mold to do it!
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.
The Rebel Botanist Gang (a/k/a the RBG), under the auspices of Bound by Beauty, is developing a program called Swale Safaris to engage and teach young adults, children, and adults about the beauty and importance of the Nature that is right under our noses, i.e. the “wild plants” we view as weeds in our lawns and swales. Most of us are unaware of the fact that these plants play an important role in our ecosystem: many of them provide nectar for butterflies and other important pollinators; and some are host plants for butterflies, meaning pregnant females lay their eggs on the leaves for their caterpillars to eat. And many of them were around long before we wandered onto the scene. Our first participants were a group of students from the Doctors Charter Key Club and Miami Arts Charter school. These young people will earn community service hours by becoming team leaders who can guide others on Swale Safaris.
The first thing we handed the students were magnifying glasses to remind them of the importance of examining closely the natural world that surrounds us, and upon which we depend for our own survival. We put the magnifying glasses to good use during a tour of the wildlife garden, prior to heading out on safari.
After we finished the garden tour, we ventured out into the swale, armed with knowledge and magnifying glasses!
By opening our eyes and minds to the wonderful roles these plants have in nature, we hope to open our hearts to the fact that we need to coexist with them rather than drenching our swales with herbicides. After all, when the swale is mowed, you can hardly tell the difference between sod and wild plants. Why don’t you head out into your own swale to see what you can find?
Would you like to transform your garden into a place of beauty where migrating birds find sanctuary and sustenance and butterflies and bees find their fill of nectar, but you don’t know where to start? We’ve got you covered: read on to learn about some of our favorite native plants that will make birds, butterflies, bees — and you — happy. There is a whole world of native plants to discover, but there is nothing wrong starting out with baby steps and planting one or two to start with. You can read more about these plants by clicking on their names. And you can find many more recommended plants by reading our other posts, which are listed below.
The native Blue porterweed(Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) is a perennial classic that is drought-tolerant and thrives in full sun to partial shade. The small delicate blue/purple flowers are the perfect calling card for Gulf fritillary, Julia, Monarch, and Sulphur butterflies. This plant does well in pots or planted in the ground, and will grow to about 2 ½ to 3’ tall. The possibilities of use in a landscape are endless. They can be used as a mid-size mixed low hedge, along a walkway, grouped as ground cover shrubs, or even an accent to a garden entrance or a mailbox post.
Pineland or Little strongback/strongbark (Bourreria cassinifolia) is a wonderful small tree growing to about 7 feet tall and 4-5 feet wide, with gracefully cascading branches covered with delicate leaves that allow the sun to shine under the plant, making it a perfect choice for the center of a grouping as well as a stand-alone tree. All year round, the Little strongback’s sweet little white flowers offer nectar to a variety of butterflies and bees, and orange berries that provide food for birds, making it a perfect plant for wildlife. It is endangered in the wild which makes us want to protect it in our gardens.
Known as Button sage or Wild sage (Lantana Involucrata), this shrub typically grows to about 5 feet tall and about as wide (although in the right conditions it can grow as tall as 8 feet). It gets its name from the lovely smell of the leaves, and the beautiful little white or pale pink multi-clustered flowers that look like old-fashioned buttons. The flowers attract butterflies like the Atala and the Zebra, and bees as well. If that isn’t enough to convince you to plant one in your garden, how about the fact that its beautiful purple berries attract all manner of birds, including Mockingbirds and migrating warblers. This is another winner for wildlife.
Pineland croton (Croton linearis) is a smallish shrub growing to about 5 feet high and 6 feet wide, if left unpruned. Its little white flowers look insignificant to the human eye, but you should see the video we have of Atala butterflies brawling over the nectar, which bees love as well. Its leaves are long and graceful and a lovely sage green. This plant is also the host plant to two critically imperiled pine rockland species of butterflies, which is a good enough reason to plant it in your garden as a symbol of hope for all endangered creatures. This shrub tends to fall forward while growing but can easily be propped up with a small stake or that frame for a campaign poster that you’ve been keeping around, hoping to find the perfect way to upcycle it.
Phyla nodiflora is so amazing that it has four common names: fogfruit or frogfruit or turkey tangle or creeping Charlie. It is a wonderful little versatile plant that grows to about 3 inches in the sun (taller in the shade) and spreads through runners, so it also makes a wonderful ground cover in low traffic areas. The pretty little flowers are white and purple, bloom all year round, and attract all sorts of pollinators, including native bees (native bees do not look like honeybees and are typically smaller or larger) and small butterfly species. In addition to being a wonderful nectar plant, it is a host plant for four — yes four! — species of butterflies, who lay their eggs on the leaves for their caterpillars to eat.
Privet Senna (Senna ligustrina), also known as privet wild sensitive plant, privet senna is a perennial shrub with stunning, showy butter yellow blooms. Sulphur butterflies, including the stunning orange barred sulphur (Phoebis philea), lay their eggs on this plant so their caterpillars can eat the leaves. Solitary native bees also love the beautiful blooms and help pollinate the plant, and we love any plant that feeds native bees. This plant loves full sun, however it is a short day plant, so a sunny spot that gets shade during part of the day is just perfect! It is a fast grower and will be reach 4-8 feet in height and approx 4 feet wide within 1-2 seasons. It graciously produces seed pods with seeds that germinate easily so it is a wonderful choice for propagation and sharing with friends and neighbors.
Teabush, aka Woolly Teabush/Woolly Pyramid Flower/ or Broomwood (Melochia Tomentosa) is a tall flowering shrub that enjoys full sun. It can grow to a height of 12-14 feet and 4-6 feet wide but can be maintained at a smaller profile with regular pruning if so desired. This shrub has lovely abundant small purple flowers that lean toward a light magenta. It’s leaves are a soft greyish green. The Teabush is a bee magnet and is also frequented by a variety of butterflies who sip its nectar. Ladybugs and dragonflies also visit this garden beauty.