Garden learning curves and letting go of perfection

The birds like our back yard. They should. We provide a very dependable open buffet.


On the other hand, I haven’t been successful in creating the same open invitation to the highly endangered Monarch Butterfly. For the last two years I’ve tried to learn about native milkweed versus some varieties potentially disruptive to the monarch’s migratory path.

I didn’t want to contribute to the problem, but native milkweed has been hard for me to source, so I kept waiting.

Once again I was unable to find Asclepias californica (California milkweed), and I’ve learned that some natives are uncommon with very restricted  distribution, but I was able to find “suitable” substitutes for now, with the warning that in the fall I must severely cut them back so the Monarch will continue on her migratory path. In our hospitable climate the plant will not naturally die back and my failure to do so could harm the butterfly. I’ll keep learning and searching for natives, but I won’t forget my pruning shears.

I have been thinking about Einstein’s quote, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is a lot.”  In a way I was paralyzed by too much research.

On the other hand, some people just jump right in and don’t do any research at all. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good idea, as this quote from a confused gardener would indicate.

Posted on Dave’s Garden, a favorite site, this gardener was very concerned about her milkweed plant.

“I’ve been trying to get a specimen established in my yard for several years now, but it never seems to get much of a chance except become an elongated green stick. Every time it gets to the point where it blooms, there is a species of butterfly (or moth?) that comes and lays eggs which hatch into larvae and devour each and every leaf on the plant, drastically reducing its stamina and basically halting all growth for a period of time.

I have tried my best to remain vigilant as to when it’s flowering, because I know that for the next several days afterward I will need to watch for eggs and/or larvae/caterpillars. If I see a batch of eggs laid near the flower, I spray them with a garden-safe insect spray. But often they hatch before I’m aware. Occasionally I manage to get rid of the larvae before they’ve done too much damage, but this is only a temporary reprieve, because as soon as the plant blooms again, the cycle repeats and it’s only a matter of time before the caterpillars get all the leaves before I get all the caterpillars! I occasionally see articles about this plant in the local paper or mentioned as a nice garden plant to attract butterflies, but I don’t understand how anyone would want butterflies to come and have their larvae eat every single last leaf off the plant! Perhaps other gardeners’ plants are more healthy/developed and are more able to withstand the caterpillars–perhaps being only partially devoured.”


I hope someone was able to impress on this milkweed lover that the point of milkweed IS the caterpillars, but if not, just to be sure the Monarch has a chance, won’t you spend some time researching how you might throw in your gardening support for this beautiful, but severely threatened butterfly?

As soon as I see caterpillars, you can be sure I’ll be back bragging blogging all about my success!

Fingers crossed!


24 thoughts on “Garden learning curves and letting go of perfection

  1. Good luck with finding them caterpillars Debra 🙂 Lovely selection of birds you have there. I think your chums in the tree are Cedar Waxwings – . I’d love to have a flock of the European Waxwing visit my garden! The guy with the red forehead and breast looks like a Finch; Cassin’s perhaps? I’ll leave the doves and parrots to you – but if you spot a Passenger Pigeon be sure to notify the authorities 😉

    1. Thank you for suggesting my new little bird friends may be Cedar Waxwings. I admire your knowledge of birds, Martin! They stayed near our redwood tree for a little more than a week and then appear to have moved on, but they were delightful. I was a little frustrated to have a limited lens strength and I never did see them up close, but I was glad I noticed them at all. 🙂

  2. Good luck Debra! I am happy to sacrifice a few plants if it means an endangered species benefits… that comment you quoted is worrying isn’t it! I had a rare caterpillar in my garden last year, but the butterfly (our native Swallowtail) never did show up, so either it was ungrateful for the larva foodplant I provided or it was caught by a bird for lunch… I hope it was just ungrateful and will perhaps fly over this summer! 😉

    1. Oh dear! I didn’t think of how the caterpillars could end up as lunch! There’s a lot to be aware of in a garden, isn’t there Cathy! I am sure you have many wonderful butterfly visitors in your special garden. Hope you see your special butterfly this summer. 🙂

  3. You never know until you try … and at least you are trying to do the right thing! Speaking of buffets for animals … friends of ours have quite the nightly menagerie of mainly deer and raccoons as they do quite the feeding.

    1. I’ve seen what deer can do to a garden, Frank, and that would be quite the challenge! We have some raccoon activity when we keep the pond stocked, but after their last feeding frenzy I didn’t restock. I look forward to caterpillars, though. I will sure be disappointed if I don’t have any. 🙂

  4. I’m always amazed at the different challenges and opportunities in where we live. Here, we need to keep the milkweed in bloom as long as possible for the long journey of the Monarchs, and you need to cut them back so that they are compelled to continue their journey. Amazing, isn’t it, and imagine, Debra, the monarchs manage to get from Chicago to LA, and we haven’t managed it – yet. 🙂

    I’m so impressed with the research you have done and your dedication to “getting the job done”. Can’t wait to hear and maybe see some photos of nature in progress.
    I’ve been a visitor to Dave’s Garden, and usually end up learning something about something that I wasn’t even asking about as I wander virtually around. 🙂 I had to laugh at the misguided soul’s question. hehe That is like folks who plant peonies, then get all excited at the ants crawling on them and spray the ants, which are needed to open the flowers.

    Be patient. The butterflies will come. Love the birds. We had monk parrots, which look similar to what you show, at our other house. They were so noisy and so beautiful. We could see some nests, which are huge, here and there.

    You knew you would touch a nerve here with me. 🙂 Thanks, Debra. Love it.

    1. I just had to share the gardener’s comment, Penny. I did shake my head, but I’m sure I’ve made similar errors in judgement and in fact, only learned a very few years ago how necessary it is to have milkweed if we are to attract monarchs. I will let you know when I see our first butterflies so you can get your welcome mat ready! 🙂

  5. My neighbor from across the street is from Brooklyn. We live next to a protected game preserve but he is forever trying to get rid of chipmunks, birds, etc. Not sure why he moved to a more rural area.

    1. Your question is the right question, I think, Kate. Why live in a wildlife area if you find the wildlife annoying! I don’t understand people. A few years ago we had some peahens in the neighborhood and the way people complained you’d have thought they were coyotes! I am certain someone harassed them because they were suddenly all just gone, and I had heard the grumbling. Often I do like animals more than people. 🙂

  6. Oh dear… I hope someone straightened out the gardener who posted at Dave’s Garden. 🙂

    Good luck on attracting the Monarch. (As an aside, I saw more Monarchs last summer than I have in a while, so I’m hoping that’s a good sign for you as well.)

    1. A friend told me today that she, too, saw more Monarchs, so yes, Nancy, that is a good sign. On the same conversation thread on Dave’s Garden one woman very patiently responded with what I felt was great restraint. Her irritation was thinly veiled, but she did advise that perhaps rather than kill larvae, just don’t have milkweed in your garden. LOL! Gardeners are good people–she wasn’t too hard on her. 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing a laugh with me, Nancy. I probably shouldn’t be so amused at the woman who went to such great lengths to kill butterfly larvae–it’s really quite awful–but she was so obviously clueless and not at all uncomfortable with her comment. I do wonder if the light ever went on. 🙂 And thank you for the wonderful link to native plants and butterfly gardens. I am going to definitely use it.

  7. A gardener I’m not, but I’ve always been attracted to certain bird songs. It seems they cut through time, and that the seventh grader entering the yard and the current man in his early 60s are hearing the same music.

  8. Hi Debra! The Monarch truly is an amazing little creature. It’s a rare treat to spot one this far north, but it does happen. I just recently watched the 2014 BBC documentary, “The Incredible Story of the Monarch Butterfly: Four Wings and a Prayer”. Have you seen it? If you haven’t, you really must. It’s beautifully filmed and edited. I learned a few more things about Monarchs that I didn’t know. I wish you every success in your Monarch Butterfly project! :))

  9. I think you’re doing a wonderful thing with your attempts to create a wildlife friendly garden, Debra, and especially in helping to conserve an endangered species. That poor woman has rather a lot to learn about how to work with, rather than against nature, in a garden. Over here everyone is very concerned about the decline in the bee population and lots of gardeners are busy planting flowers that bees particularly like.

  10. How lovely to be visited by birds and I’ve never thought of my backyard as being an open buffet! I’ve heard that in the US there is such a threat to bees and the monarch butterfly. I do hope people come out of their ignorance and try to do something to save these vital species xx

  11. You have quite the variety of feathered friends Debra. My new nest has more birds literally nesting on the rooftop–such pleasant company aren’t they? I had Monarch butterflies visit my last nest, they would come around the Peruvian pepper tree.

    1. I haven’t seen any Monarchs yet, Cristina, and I am so eager to attract them. I’m hoping. But the birds are really so much fun. I am sure there was a time in my life when I thought people who sat around watching the birds must be VERY old, and have nothing else to do. LOL! I think they are wonderful company! So you’ve moved! I may have missed a post…I’ll have to see. I can’t imagine what that was like with your young family. You’ve undoubtedly been very busy, but I’m sure you’re enjoying making your nest your own. 🙂

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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