Friday 5: Starting an Insect Garden

I adore gardens and plants!  That doesn’t mean that I’m a competent gardener because that’s not the case at all.  Still, every now and again I will very successfully grow something, just enough that I’m not completely discouraged and really enjoy mucking about in the dirt planting and harvesting.  I’ve been especially taken by the native plant garden at work.  It’s a demonstration garden and I want to implement several new ideas I’ve learned from my coworkers and the garden they’ve built in my yard.  I finally have a yard that’s big enough to plant both a good-sized vegetable garden (this always comes before flowers for me!) and several ornamental flowering plants and I’ve been happily plotting and planning so I’m ready to go in the spring.  I’ve got my native plants picked out already, based mostly on their height and their (wait for it…) attractiveness to insects.  I want to have the same pretty bees, butterflies, flies, and beetles visiting my yard that I see at work!  Here are the plants I’ve chosen to start with.

Tickseed, Coreopsis major

tickseed lowers with butterfly

Tickseed, Coreopsis major, with sleepy orange butterfly nectaring

This is a very common native plant at work as it’s found out in the prairie and it is planted in both the roof garden and the native plant demonstration garden.  It’s a beautiful yellow color and doesn’t get very tall.  Plus, butterflies and other nectar feeders, like the sleepy orange butterfly you see in the image, love it!  I got some of these from work when our garden volunteers thinned the plants for the fall, so they’re already in the ground next to my house.  They’ll bloom in May or so and remain in flower for a few months if all goes well.  Exciting!

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

cardinal flower

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

I got some of these plants from work too and I love them!  Mine were recently planted, so I won’t get flowers until late next summer, but the plants are a gorgeous, vibrant green that are quite pretty even without flowers.  These are, as you might imagine from the color and shape, hummingbird flowers and I’m excited by the possibility of their bringing ruby-throated hummingbirds into my yard.  They’re also attractive to several bee species.  They require moist soils, but I happen to have the perfect place right in my backyard!  The drain from my air conditioner releases a small stream of water into a low point in my yard, so I planted my cardinal flowers there.  I suspect they’ll have a fighting chance of surviving as I won’t have to remember to water them and my new flowers will be a nice little side effect of cooling my house in the summer.

Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis

buttonbush flower with butterfly

Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, with a zabulon skipper

I was shocked to see how many different species came to the flowers of this shrub last summer!  Butterflies, bees, flies, beetles…  Seems that if there was a pollinator out and about, it would eventually find its way to the buttonbush.  It’s a beautiful tall plant with fantastic flowers, so I’m hoping I can find a good place in my yard to grow one.  It does well in moist soils, so I might plant one near my cardinal flowers.

Frost Aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum

Frost aster

Frost aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum

Frost asters are often considered weeds and they can become weedy.  However, if you don’t let them spread all over everywhere they are lovely fall-blooming plants!  Plus, fall insects LOVE these.  Frost asters are all over the prairie at work and when they bloomed there were so many they looked like snow!  I saw dozens of different pollinator species lurking among the flowers and you could hear hundreds and hundreds of bees and flies happily buzzing away out there.  The migrating monarchs loved them too!  I don’t see any real downside to planting some of these in my yard, so long as I keep and eye on them and start pulling up the recruits.  They’re nice little bushy plants, the flowers are adorable, and I can get them from work for free.  What’s not to love?

Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

common milkweed with bumblebee

Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, with an unidentified bumblebee

This is far and away the least handsome of the plants I’ve chosen, but after spending a summer looking for monarch larvae for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, I’m very excited about the idea of having some of these in my yard.  I’ve already collected seeds, so I just need to choose a place in my backyard to grow them in the spring.  These will go in the backyard for sure, so the neighbors can’t see them.  The plants are nice enough while they’re green and lush and the flowers are rather pretty, but then all the leaves fall off and leave the ugly pods out in the open.  Then the pod and the stem both turn brown and crispy and stay that way for a very long time.  They really are ugly plants and I can only imagine the nasty notes we’d get from our homeowners association if I planted these in front of the house.  But, there’s nothing stopping me from planting some in the backyard!   Calling all monarchs: I’ll have dinner waiting for you in a few months!

There are a few other plants I’m considering as well, including aromatic aster (gorgeous purple flowers in the fall) and purple coneflower, that are insect magnets in North Carolina.  I think there just might be enough water to grow some pitcher plants in that wet area of the yard too!  It’s really exciting to think of all the possibilities and learn about all these unfamiliar plants, so I hope I can get a great garden going come spring.  If I do, expect a lot of photos of my bugs!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth
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22 thoughts on “Friday 5: Starting an Insect Garden

    • I plant mostly vegetables, but apart from some flower bulbs I was sent as a housewarming gift, the flowers will all be pollinator friendly for sure! And I agree – planting things that are good for bees and other pollinators doesn’t diminish your choices much. I’m focusing on native plants because they’re meant to grow in my climate and belong here, but there are still a ton of great options!

  1. Do you think it’s possible to do something like this in Westchester. This summer, most of our insects were mosquitoes. In fact, I saw an Asian tiger mosquito that landed on my arm to put the bite on me.

    • I’m sure it is! I would contact your local Master Gardeners program and see if they have any suggestions for plants that work well in your area. Or, if you have a botanical garden in your area, they’ve likely got a pollinator garden somewhere on the grounds that you can use for ideas. Their botanists are likely to have a lot of great information too!

    • I grew up in Colorado and took my first entomology class there, so I’ve collected milkweed beetles off Colorado milkweeds! Fun! I have not seen a milkweed beetle yet in North Carolina, but I have seen quite an array of other species using the leaves and the flowers. What a great plant!

      • It looks like you should have some Tetraopes species out there, although it’s still not clear to me how picky they really are about host plants on the species level (I’ve seen individuals far from their supposed hosts and habitats a few times).

        I’m weird and I like the dead pods, too. I think they’re kind of dramatic and cool-looking. (But in general I prefer wild plants, no matter how scrubby they get in winter, to tidy cultivated plants. Probably because they remind me of going hiking!)

        • The dead pods are awfully cool! I don’t mean to sound like the plants are completely awful because I do love them – I just know they’re not the standard “pretty” garden plants that most people like growing in their gardens. My HOA would throw the most amazing hissy fit if they noticed I had these growing in my yard, hence they will be planted in the back where the fence will hide them from the neighbors. Our HOA kinda sucks. They take our money and yell at everyone about stupid things, like going two days too long between lawn mowings. Tempting to plant the milkweed out front just to annoy them… :)

          And if we’ve got Tetraopes, I’m bound to see them eventually. There are SO many milkweed plants in the prairie at work – several different species!

  2. Excellent choices for pollinators. We are letting our hayfield revert back to its natural state and in five years, the transition has been remarkable. Each year we see new wildflowers that we haven’t seen here before. Very rewarding.

  3. Now I envy you because you really have more choices in your yard than I on my 10 acres of completely natural Sonoran desert. We have buttonbush, wild cotton, wolf berry, your Lobelia and several milkweeds in the canyons as you know, but our own backyard creosote – saguaro-palo verde bajadas are not only too dry, there is also something (nitrogen and magnesium for example) missing from the soil. Watering is wasteful and leaches out even more nutrients…but desert broom, brittle bush and desert honeysuckle do grow, and the latter is still blooming and attracts scores of hummers. I’m still collecting every shred of organic material to enrich the soil…

    • When I had my garden in AZ, I had to both boost the nutrients in the soil by mixing in a ton of potting soil every year and watering the heck out of it. I was growing veggies only, so I didn’t feel TOO bad about using the water (and I installed a drip system, so it was efficient watering to boot), but it was quite a bit of work getting things to grow. You know, people here complain about the hard soils and scoff a bit when I start talking about caliche and how impossible it was to dig there. They haven’t experienced desert soils and I think that was worse. Yeah, the soil is hard here. But it holds WATER too! You can grow moss in your backyard without watering! I didn’t water my grass once the whole summer and the lawn STILL looks fine (as good as it can at least – the previous occupants didn’t leave the lawn in good shape and the fire ants have totally killed some patches). Can you imagine going through a whole summer in Tucson without watering your lawn and still having live grass at the end of the season?!

      Still, I miss the trees there! And all the cacti! I love having the big deciduous trees here, but there’s something really special about palo verdes and the tress here are nothing like them. And nothing beats a saguaro in your backyard! If there was any possibility of keeping a saguaro alive in my yard, I would absolutely jump on the chance to grow one. Alas, it is just slightly too cold.

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