Roots and Shoots: A 3-Year-Old’s Birthday Gift — A Butterfly Garden

Mom asks guests to bring a plant as a present

By Pamela Doan

When I went to see Krystal Ford’s beautiful butterfly garden, it was full of distractions of the best kind. Her two children, Edison, 3, and Lilly, 1, were playing around us, interjecting their own interpretations, questions and comments while her flock of chickens charmingly roamed. One conversation went like this, “Why are there brown flowers here?” “Those are dead.” Meanwhile, a ghost was hovering in the area, but only Edison could see it.

For her son’s third birthday last spring, Ford, who is also co-manager of the Cold Spring Farmers’ Market, decided to take an area of the backyard that wasn’t landscaped and create a butterfly garden for him. She said, “I decided on a butterfly garden because Edison loved caterpillars, and I thought it could be fun to observe the life cycle of caterpillar into butterfly.”

When she sent out invitations to his birthday party, she requested that guests bring a plant for the garden instead of a gift. She said, “When Edison’s friends come over to play, they’ll see how their flower is doing, maybe see the butterflies. It was fun, something that he would get a lot of enjoyment out of and also something his friends could enjoy.” Although only one butterfly made a stop during my stay, others have definitely been spotted.

The garden is in full bloom now. Ford researched plants and ordered seeds and transplants from livemonarch.com, a website for a nonprofit foundation with a mission to help restore habitat for monarchs by encouraging people to sow milkweed. Monarch populations are in drastic decline due to habitat loss and other factors and are being considered for endangered species protections.

In addition to the plants that her son’s friends brought to the party, Ford planted 500 milkweed seeds and 20 milkweed transplants, including Asclepias curassavica, tropical milkweed and a nonnative variety, and Asclepias syraiaca, or common milkweed.

Edison Ford in his butterfly garden, a gift for his third birthday (Photo by P. Doan)

Edison Ford in his butterfly garden, a gift for his third birthday

While monarchs are specifically dependent on milkweed to lay eggs and then for the caterpillars to use for food, other butterflies are attracted to other plants. Ford included lilacs, Buddleja or butterfly bush, zinnias, aster and butterfly weed from seed. For Edison’s birthday, his friends brought marigolds, lavender, rudbeckia or black-eyed Susans, echinacea and veronica (speedwells). Edison helped Ford plant them all, and he helps water the plants, is learning how to tell the flowers from the weeds, and did some mulching, too.

Ford, who has lived in Garrison for six years, has some gardening experience. She apprenticed at local farm Glynwood in their vegetable growing program and also worked with a local landscaper for a summer, where she learned about flowers.

She said, “A lot of it has been learning as I go. My husband loves vegetable gardening, too, so we’ve both been doing that for a while. When you learn the names of flowers, they become so much more interesting. It isn’t a faceless flower anymore. Every day I was working in the garden I realized there was so much to learn.” She has ambitions for other landscaping projects at home and helps friends, too.

Edison’s favorite flower? He told me he likes the orange flowers and the orange butterflies. His sister Lilly knows that “we touch, but we don’t eat.”

There are some native species of milkweed that were popular at local plant sales this spring hosted by the Philipstown Garden Club and the Master Gardeners of Putnam County. Asclepias tuberosa, or butterfly weed, and Asclepias incarnate, or swamp milkweed, are both recommended varieties.

Krystal Ford with her son, Edison, and daughter, Lilly, in their butterfly garden

Krystal Ford with her son, Edison, and daughter, Lilly, in their butterfly garden

This is a situation where knowing the specific variety is important, because there are multiple varieties of milkweed. Planting a native variety means that the plant is hardy for our area, adapts to our growing conditions and fills a niche in the ecosystem that an exotic species might have invaded.

Along the southern migration for monarchs, for example, tropical milkweed harbors larvae that kills monarchs, and since the plants don’t die off in winter in that climate, monarchs have overwintered in areas further north than their usual nesting grounds and become weakened. In our climate, Ford’s milkweed won’t pose the same issues for the butterflies she hopes to attract, but it’s hard to know if it will be problematic for other reasons.

There are two useful resources to find native plants online that I have found helpful. The Native Plant Center in Westchester has recommended plant lists for our area available on its website. The website for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Wildflower.org, has a searchable database with detailed listings, as well.

Photos by P. Doan


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