The butterfly garden was built four springs ago during our first year on the property.
Finding the garden full of butterflies and hummingbirds when we first settled in, I wanted to plant even more nectar rich flowers on the sunny west facing slope between our house and the ravine.
We constructed a raised bed, roughly 8′ deep, which stretched the full length of a fairly flat area between walkways.
By then we had discovered the voles. So we laid down landscaping fabric and filled the bed in with purchased garden soil and compost, hoping to create a bed the voles couldn’t reach.
And that first season we planted three butterfly bushes, three rose bushes, white and purple coneflowers, several different Salvias, lots of Basil, Cleome, Monarda, giant Zinnias, and probably a half dozen other things I’m not remembering.
It was gorgeous, especially in late summer and early autumn, when all of the Salvias came into bloom.
Back then, the Rose of Sharon shrubs weren’t quite so tall on the bank above the garden.
There were a few spindly little deer nibbled Rose of Sharon shrubs below the bed, too; but they were too short to make significant shade.
The bed has changed a little each season. I’ve added several new rose bushes and some Iris. Two of the Buddleia davidii died over winter.
But perhaps the most significant change has been a change in the light reaching the garden from full sun to partial shade.
And I was inspired to keep planting in tiers down the slope, setting out shrubs as they outgrew their pots, more iris, and lots of little Rosemary and Lavender plants on the sun drenched slope.
Like with any growing family, over time, things change.
The Rose of Sharon in front of the bed, given a little love in the form of careful pruning and Plant Tone have just taken off! They’ve grown from knee high to “out of reach” in just these last few years.
The little re-blooming lilacs moved from pots into the ground quickly quadrupled in size, casting their shade back onto the original raised bed.
I started work in the butterfly garden in early spring, cutting back last year’s woody growth and weeding.
Our long cold winter delayed appearance of the perennials.
But I kept puttering out there, transplanting bulbs “in the green” from pots into the ground, pruning and feeding the roses, and finally as the weather warmed, planting Basil, Zinnias, and scented geraniums.
But the butterfly garden never quite came together this summer as it has in past years.
We had a nice crop of roses in May, but the Monarda, Echinacea, and Cleome just didn’t appear as I had expected.
And while I waited for them to appear, weeds sprouted in their place.
But I was busy elsewhere and let them get away from me. Life happens, doesn’t it?
And, as you surely know, I’ve invested a lot of my “gardening hours” in other parts of the garden this season.
So last week, when I finally had a stretch of days at home, it came time to face the sad state of our once stunning butterfly garden and see what could be done to fix it.
With encouragement from the weather, we used the cool August morning to our advantage, and waded in.
I pulled out weedy growth by the handful, and my partner gathered it all and carted it off to return to the Earth in the ravine.
The main offender, Mulberry weed, or Fatoua villosa, has leaves enough like our herby perennials that it can easily hide out near other plants.
It grows thickly from seeds left the season before, and easily shades out more desirable plants returning from seed.
It was the featured weed of the month in a gardening magazine I happened to read last week. When I learned that it can shoot its little seeds up to four feet away from the mother plant, I realized it could be tolerated no longer!
The ground was soft and moist enough to allow us to pull the weeds, roots intact, with minimal effort.
I was happy to find a few of the Salvias and Monarda we’d been watch for struggling on among the weeds.
But the main problem with the bed wasn’t really the weeds…. it was the shade. Leggy growth on perennials can only be explained away in so many ways….
Although I thinned out some of the over-arching Rose of Sharon branches, that won’t be enough to restore this bed to its original sunny exposure.
It is time to acknowledge that the growing conditions here have shifted, and adjust with new plants.
The roses will stay, of course, and the herbs and Lantana planted along the very front edge will just have to manage for the remainder of this season.
We also have one good stand of Pineapple Sage on the end of the garden. But once the weeds were pulled, there was a lot of bare real estate to replant.
Visiting deer remain a complicating factor for this garden, which limits plant choices. All of the Heuchera I moved out of pots to this garden in the spring have been grazed.
The scented Pelargoniums, onion sets, Basil, and Comphrey were supposed to help keep the deer away… But the roses and missing Heuchera bear witness to the deer and their hunger.
So what nectar rich, deer resistant, shade loving plants might survive in this garden?
Most of the obvious selections, like Impatiens, Hosta, or Solomon’s Seal have already proven too tasty in summers past.
Even Coleus, which produces flowers in the sun, tempts our deer from time to time.
But hardy Begonias have survived on a shady bank, in another part of the garden, since we planted them there in 2009.
These beautiful plants bloom in the shade, attract butterflies, spread, and return year after year. Luckily, we have a large pot of them started from cuttings last summer, which survived the winter, too.
Ferns will also fill the space beautifully, hold no interest for deer, and spread a little each year.
We had a large clump of Japanese Pained Fern, Athyrium niponicum in a pot on the deck which needed dividing anyway.
So I began the rehabilitation of this once lovely garden with divisions of fern, Begonia, and two hardy ferns picked up at Lowes.
Once plants fill the space, weedy growth will not be much of a problem. And once the Begonias establish, they will bloom here reliably season after season.
A bag of compost is always a good investment when re-working a garden space, and I added it generously to this bed as I planted.
I grew this particular Begonia for more than a decade in my last garden before moving it here, and I have no idea what its cultivar name might be.
Plant Delights Nursery offers a dozen different hardy Begonias which I’m looking forward to trying here.
Begonia grandis, ‘Heron’s Pirouette’ is growing nicely in a pot on the deck. I’ll take cuttings and have more plants to add to the now shady butterfly garden by next season.
Begonia, ‘Pewterware’ should arrive in the mail later this week. A new plant in the catalog, I’m looking forward to watching it grow.
We also have Saxifraga stolonifera, or Strawberry Begonia, spreading like crazy in a large pot in the front garden. I’ll move a few of these around to the front edge of this garden for spring blooms. We saw them in full bloom at Forest Lane Botanicals this year, and they make an impressive display for a few weeks each spring. They provide a pleasing ground cover during the rest of the season.
There is space left to add a few more ferns to the garden around the Begonias.
The Patton’s have promised that a shipment of ferns will be in at the Homestead Garden Center later this week, and I’ll hope for an interesting selection.
We have plenty more Japanese Painted Ferns in pots to divide, but they are deciduous ferns. I’d like at least a few evergreen ferns to fill the bed over the winter.
One thing I’ve learned over the years: good gardeners experiment continuously.
We continue to experiment and to observe; to try new plants and methods, and to learn more than we currently know.
We change and grow with our gardens. And we find ways to transform disappointments into opportunities.
That is our philosophy in our Forest Garden, and thus far we’ve been rewarded richly for our efforts.
Words and Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014