I’ve recently had the pleasure of becoming familiar with the Paul Vallee National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat and Monarch butterfly waystation gardens in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Paul’s taken gardening to a grand scale, and has created a true wildlife habitat. For those of you who would like to learn more about attracting butterflies and nature to your garden, read on, the photos are stunning, and Paul’s enthusiasm is contagious. If you’re only craving eye candy, read on anyway, you won’t be disappointed.
Paul, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
I’m 47 years old, married with kids, and have always had a love of nature and the outdoors. Growing up on a horse farm in a very small town, nature was my companion. I have always felt most at peace when I am with nature, and I have found that in this hustle and bustle world, we needs stillness to nourish our inner spirit.
I’ve always loved plants and growing things. Years ago, I saw a website from a man in Arizona who converted his backyard into a large flower garden, and thus the inspiration was borne. Up to then I had always had small garden plots wherever I lived, but this was big, really big, and I came to appreciate what size can do to really bring an “economy of scale” to a nature garden; a larger diversity of creatures.
You mentioned that your garden is a certified NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat™ and Monarch Waystation. How does one become part of one?
Details on the National Wildlife Foundation Certified Wildlife Habitat and books outlining the process can be found on their website. Their ‘backyard habitat program’, is quite simple and teaches you about the use native plants as often as possible, and supplying food, shelter, water, and a place to raise young. A habitat can be as small as a patio, or as large as your imagination will allow.
The Monarch Waystation Program allows one to be part of the migration trail to help support the monarch butterfly. Both programs taught me something as a gardener that I had not truly appreciated, the importance of focusing on native flora and fauna.
Your current garden is five years old. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted a wildlife sanctuary, or did your garden plan evolve?
The garden did evolve, but it came from the dream after I had seen the website. I got my chance when I remarried and we bought a piece of land and built a home. During the evolution, I learned to focus more and more on native plants
With five years of experience under your belt, is there anything you’d do differently next time?
Yes! In searching to create a natural look, I also made something that is very time consuming to weed. I’m thinning the garden out and use the lasagna method (shallow layers of compostable materials, cardboard, leaves, mulch, etc over newspaper) to mulch between plants to control weeds for a neater and more groomed look. With the summer heat in the south, it’s too hot to spend inordinate amounts of time weeding, and the garden usually gets the better of me…as I do have a full time job and a family as well!
Your butterfly pictures are amazing; do your butterflies come to your gardens naturally?
Just as in the Field of Dreams….”If you build it, they will come”. The key to attracting and establishing a diversity population of butterflies is to provide native plants that they lay their eggs on. Butterflies will feed on any flower, bur each species is very choosy about where they lay their eggs, many using only one plant. If you introduce the host plant, the adults somehow find it (one of nature’s amazing but necessary miracles) and will lay their eggs, subsequent generations will stay in the area as long as host plants remain available. I’ve established some populations of several species that are native to this area.
Do you have a favorite butterfly that you look forward to seeing every year?
That’s a hard one, as the large and small are beautiful to watch, and many species have their own endearing qualities. It’s such magic to watch them, each using their own strategy to avoid predation and find a mate, such as hairstreaks rubbing their wings along each other to create false eyes and antennae on their back to lure predators. I’ve seen many a hairstreak with a chunk out of its back wing where they have escaped predation with this strategy. My favorites tend to be the swallowtails, especially the zebra kite swallowtail.
For gardeners wanting to attract more butterflies to their garden, what are the biggest things to remember?
There are three key things to remember:
- NEVER use pesticides
- Identify species native to your area and then look up their host plant. There are many online resources available to help, and plant those plants. Some are weeds, some are shrubs, some are flowers, and some are trees. It is amazing to learn what species lay their eggs on what plants.
- Always have flowers blooming 3 seasons, spring, summer, and fall, (winter in southern climates) so that you can provide food.
As I tell everybody I speak to, butterfly gardening is really wildlife gardening, and following these steps brings a whole host of creatures to the garden, from dragonflies, to many predator and prey insect species. Remember, they are all part of the web of live and outside of dangerous exotics (fire ants) should not be removed. Nature is a lady of balance, and a gardener that works with her shall enjoy her bounty.
Paul, thanks for sharing!