Backyard Wonder

My Milkweed Brings All the Bugs to the Yard


Monarch Caterpillar on Milkweed

All of us pollinator people have certain signs we look for to assure us it’s finally dirt digging time. I rely on a certain tell Mother Nature has here in northern Indiana to declare the garden open for business: the swerve and buzz of flying things. Bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, bats, and birds swoop and stumble up out of their winter haunts and begin foraging and I get out seeds and shovels and get to work. All these winged wonders are necessary for us humans to have food. They pollinate everything from almonds and apples to cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, and the forage crops that feed livestock. And they’re gorgeous to watch, especially the orange and black monarch butterflies that begin arriving here in the upper Midwest right about now on their journey north from Mexico to Canada.

My gardens are chaotic and colorful, a big, swirly collage of fragrance.  I try to stick to native perennial plants mostly, but I am a sucker for hybrids with names like Bumbledrift and Truffula, and they come home with every time. In simple terms, natives species are simply plants that occur naturally in your region, as opposed to those that have been introduced from other countries. Because natives evolved here, they’ve adapted to the climate, soil and the insect population, which means they’re hardy. Native plants require no fancy soil amendments, snub their noses at pesticides, and prefer to just do their thing without a bunch of fuss, thank you very much. And this nonchalance is exactly what brings all the monarchs to the yard, my friends. Nothing like a strong, confident flower to win the adoration of no-nonsense butterfly just trying to refill on nectar and maybe lay a few hundred eggs.


Zen Garden in Spring


Because there’s a bit of down time after the last blooms of my spring trillium, bloodroot, and dutchman’s breeches before the summer flowers wake up, I put pots of annuals out for the pollinators around this time of the season. The annuals, those that grow, blossom, and die within one year are sprinters. Fast out of the gate, speeding into bloom early and really giving the butterflies and their friends a good energy boost to get them ready for the long, hot summer. For me, the summer always starts with black and blue salvia, cosmos, calendula, and zinnias. Other good, heat tolerant and long blooming champs are lantana and gaura, aka, whirling butterflies. (Yep, you need that.)

Summer Natives

The perennials are the marathoners, the long-legged, resilient pluggers that withstand storm and heat and willingly come back year after year to do it again. Some of my favorites include lavender, purple coneflower, New England aster, dense blazing star, and of course butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa) and common milkweed.  Also prominent in my gardens are Joe pye weed, monarda, mock orange, blacked-eyed Susans.

You can plant a pollinator garden with as few as five plants, just enough to give them nectar and pollen, and a place to lay eggs (monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed). Vary the colors to attract a variety of pollinators (monarchs lean toward warm colors) and get a couple different milkweed varieties. Don’t forget to add a little shallow basin for water, and a little bench nearby so you can watch all the happy pollinators at play among the flowers.

Lists of native and annual plants for pollinator gardens can be found on the Xerces website,, or this gorgeously illustrated guide,, or this fabulous ecoregion guide that includes the US and Canada,


Zen Garden in August

Writer, Master Gardener, Chaser of Wonder.
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