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Let the critters thrive

August 27, 2009
By Stephanie Bethke-DeJaegher

As parents, we try to teach our children things that we know, in hope that they will understand a little bit of the world. As in my case, I try to teach two young masters of the garden that all things that creep and crawl are not meant for immediate dispatching under their shoes.

Just as I try to teach my farming husband the benefits of keeping some milkweed plants in my garden to attract butterflies, this has also been handed down to the boys as well.

The benefits of this are that we have never seen so many monarch butterflies in our yard as what we have had this past year. We also keep extra dill (is there such a thing?) in the vegetable garden for the fat striped caterpillars that will eventually become black swallowtail butterflies.

All of this has given our family a great fall past time of capturing, feeding and raising monarch and black swallowtail butterflies in our butterfly box which was made very simply with a small cardboard box and some plastic wrap over the front for a window into the little caterpillar haven. We have learned just how much caterpillars eat-a lot. We have also learned how long it takes to go from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly.

And much to the young master's alarm, the fact that butterflies come out of their chrysalis without the ability to immediately fly. They are quite wobbly and funny looking until their wings dry and harden. They have also given me great information as they have watched their favorite butterflies flit from flower to flower, looking for nectar. They take mental notes which flowers the butterflies seem to visit the most and some they don't seem to go to at all.

The phlox in my garden tends to be the winner along with some of the petunias as well as some of the wildflowers that we have planted here and there.

Yes, it is true that you can turn your outdoor garden into your own private science lab with very little extra money stuck into it.

The boys take great pride in showing grandpa which caterpillars belong to which butterfly and also pointing out the vast numbers of boxelder bugs that are in our garden this year along with the ladybeetles.

They will be glad to tell you that boxelder bugs only eat seeds of certain trees such as ash and maples. And since we don't like having little trees growing in our garden, they are really the good guys. The boys know (as well as we 'older' gardeners do) that our houses will be filled up this fall with not only the ladybeetles but also with boxelder bugs since there seems to be a bumper crop this year. Beware!

Milkweed plants in the garden are also a great way to entertain kids who complain of boredom. How many times as a young person myself, have I opened the dry pods in late fall to set the little fuzzies inside free and watch them float away on the wind?

I have to believe that not many make it since there are so many seeds in one pod and we don't see milkweed plants as much as I did when I was younger. You can also plant other wild plants that are in the milkweed plant family such as Joe Pye Weed and Butterfly weed.

These are always full of caterpillars in our flower gardens, too.

The butterfly box is now full of these beautiful green chrysalises that have the most amazing gold stripe on them. Nature is a miracle in some of the most amazingly small ways, many of which we can easily overlook. The black swallowtail butterflies have since hatched out of their chrysalises and have been sent free. The monarch chrysalises will be done in about a week. They hang so delicately on the top of the box and every so often you can see them shake, just a bit, ensuring us that yes, there is a butterfly in progress inside.

For more information on gardening, you can reach me at 823-4632 or email me at



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