Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Turning Our Backyard into a Place to Encounter Nature

An observant child should be exposed to things worth observing.
Charlotte Mason, Home Education, Volume 1, p. 69

The parents' first priority should be putting as much of nature as possible within the child's notice.
Volume 1, p. 96

We are so fortunate to have such amazing nature trails just a ten minute drive from our home, and we have already seen and learned so much there. Yet, I want my boys to be exposed to much more: nature they can experience on a daily basis. I have come up with a basic plan to turn our small suburban backyard into a place my children can encounter, observe, inspect, study, identify and explore nature and all its wonders (or at least more wonders than we currently see anyway ;) ) ! Not a small task for a relatively tiny backyard that already contains a trampoline and swing set.

Two weekends ago we, quite by accident, started a butterfly garden. I had small contained area of our yard that was filled with ground cover before we got Wrigley, our 14 month old Golden Retriever. The ground cover died from constantly being trampled and the space had turned into a mud pit. I had the idea to start a container garden but hadn't done anything towards that end.

Then my sweet neighbor brought us a baby milkweed plant she started from seeds. We wanted to plant it and see if we attracted any monarchs. That is until I woke up last Saturday to find most of the plant (still in its original container sitting in my kitchen) already devoured by three tiny monarch caterpillars that had just hatched. The boys and I trekked off to a local nursery looking for more food for these voracious eaters.

That's when I got the idea to turn that entire area into a (tiny) butterfly garden! There is a butterfly garden at the trails I mentioned, another at the Houston Zoo and one more at the elementary school by us. We love exploring these, but I had never considered having one in my very own backyard!!! The owner at the nursery kindly showed us around and led us to several plants that would attract a variety of butterflies. All these plants have gone into four planters, two large and two small, in that once muddy mess. TaDa.....

Here are the plants we started with in case anyone else gets the itch to start their own butterfly garden! :) Btw, I just googled "How to attract butterflys to your garden" and "Houston" to come up with the list I worked from.

milk weed, Penta and Salvia (victorian blue)

dill, fennel and Sedum (summer glory)
The back of this pot is empty waiting for a passion vine
to arrive at the nursery.

yellow shrimp plant and canna
And not pictured in the final pot is more milkweed and Sedum (voodoo)

Below are our first two friends. The top caterpillar came on one of the milkweed plants I bought and the bottom one hatched in our kitchen.

And yesterday, as a birthday present to dh (Happy 38th, Sweetie!) look what a mommy Monarch left us...

More eggs. I have counted seven new eggs so far!!! And look how big and fat this little guy has gotten...

He was the smaller of the two up above!

We still have a way to go but it will be a labor of love and a work in progress in the coming weeks, months and hopefully years. I'll be sure to show more photos as our tiny garden progresses. We are making certain to obtain only milkweed that hasn't been sprayed to keep our monarch friends healthy, too. The fun thing is that, because our plants are not sprayed, we will (and already do) have aphids. We will need to get lady bugs to eat the aphids and the lizards will come out from everywhere to eat the lady bugs. How fun!

My next goal before summer gets underway is to start a compost pile. I have been looking up ideas for how to do this successfully with kids, a dog and a small backyard. By starting a compost pile we will reduce the amount of trash we are adding to the landfill and creating yet another place in our yard for more creatures to call home.

I also want to add a few bird feeders to our yard, but I want to research and be sure to only add feeders that will attract species that will not eat our butterfly friends. We have no trees in our yard so I will hang feeders off our garage.

Lastly I want to start a garden next spring. I plan to till and start preparing beds in the fall. For the past few years I have said time and again that I am dying to start a garden but I just haven't made the plunge. The one time I tried to grow tomatoes seven years ago was a disaster and still has me gun shy to try again. Still, even if we fail this first time, it will be such a learning experience for all of us!

If anyone has other ideas for how to attract more wildlife to our tiny yard, I'd love to hear it. Except putting in a pond. A two year old and a dog who loves water would not make a pond a happy thing in our yard!


PS. I am still learning this whole flower thing, especially what in the world needs to be capitalized and what doesn't. If I goofed, please email me so I can correct it! :) Thanks!


Amy said...

How exciting! I was just reading last night about plants that attract butterflies & birds, and daydreaming about turning a corner of our yard into a little flower-haven. :)
I have a link up on my blog right now to a website all about birds that might be helpful to you.
Great post...makes me want to plant some milkweed!!

Kim said...

We just restarted one garden and have one left to fill. I am trying The New Square Foot Garden which is great because you don't have to dig up your yard. It's on Amazon and the library may have it.
I've been looking everywhere for Milkweed!! I'm just around the block in MS...surely I can find it! I'll go looking again this weekend now!
I've posted a little about our garden at backtochinaformeimei.blogspot.com.
Have fun!!

Amanda said...

We made a compost pile out of wooden pallets once. Think of a square. You can usually get the pallets for free at Wally World or a grocery store.
Have a great week.

Brittney said...

What a great idea! I think we may have to try that! Hopefully the butterflies would be able to find it. So far, my poor bird feeders are still full from when we moved in last August...not a good thing for a bird lover. :o(

Anyhow...thanks for the inspiration!

Cori Lynn Berg said...

Jen, what a beautiful site! I can't wait to start following this. You're pics are gorgeous! In fact, I need to do 3 miniature caterpillar paintings - 2.5 x 3.5 inches and want to use your pics as the inspiration. I've been searching all over and these are some of the best I've found. I love the one with the caterpillar crawling upside down!

Blessings to you, Cori

Cori Lynn Berg said...

One more idea -- have you gone to Eric Carle's website? He has several great step by step slideshows of how he does his artwork. It could be a great way to integrate art into your science study.

Also, what about ladybugs -- they have a life cycle too and can be bought at garden stores very cheaply. There are lots of theme materials on this.

Anonymous said...

Oh how fun! We're hoping to put in a flower and vegetable garden a year from now (working on our deck at the present) to attract butterflies, etc. I love nature! We used to have a backyard lined with towering pines and enjoyed the blue jays, chickadees, & cardinals! We're in a newer development now and are slowly adding our touches. Our front garden and the trees in our backyard are attracting some creatures now. :0) I love an "alive" setting. :0)

Me said...

What a great idea! I am definatly going to implament somthing like this in our yard.
If you want to give tomatoes a try again (and the boys a few giggles) you can always try tomatoes in a bucket.
My mom has grown tomaotes like this and they did really well. Also my local home depot (Idaho) had a experiment station last weekend learning all about it.

Good luck with your nature endevours.

Jenny in Ca said...

I love, love, love your butterfly garden! wow, you really did a good job with small space. I am jealous that you already have monarch catepillers, I can't find milk-weed at the nurseries around me.

someone mentioned Eric Carle, I noticed a video about his artwork at the library once, you might see if your library has it.

Also, the book "Monarch Magic" is really great, has learning info and crafts, again we found it at the library, but it would be one worth owning.

School for Us said...

We live in the "greater Houston area" and have had milkweed for 3 years, I think. this year, we had about 15 separate plants - and they have all been stripped bear! I feel bad that I didn't notice in time. My milkweed are planted in the ground, but I'm thinking about buying some for containers. And, we have other containers planted with things to attract butterflies. We also have 4 bird feeders in a different part of the yard.

thebookbaglady said...

For composting, the book WORMS EAT MY GARBAGE is really fantastic. It's all about worm bin composting. We have worm bins, but don't worry about the careful collection of worm castings. I just shovel out the composted 'stuff' and leave worms behind to keep the process going. We use large, black tree pots from the nursery for our bins. I also have a large, plastic storage container with holes drilled in the sides for air.

Go for it on the veggies--we love having our own! We are into growing as much of our own as we can and then harvesting locally at the farms/orchards in our area. Our growing conditions in Western Oregon are very different than yours, so I don't have any advice other than to go for it! (Oh, and don't over water or over fertilize the tomotoes--you'll get HUGE plants and not much fruit.)

thebookbaglady said...

P.S. On the bird feeders--Our neighbor set up a bird feeder based bird yard in her backyard and we ended up with a serious mouse infestation. If the seed ends up all over the ground, you might want to shop vac it. She was elderly and the seeds were ALL OVER the ground/patio.