Butterflies welcome here

Posted: August 20, 2010

As a gardener, Frank Victor started out like the rest of us. He planted things in the wrong place, stuff died, he soldiered on.

There the comparison ends.

From the looks of his Hainesport, Burlington County, garden today, Victor, 64, has zoomed ahead of the pack. His half-acre backyard, in the Sage Run development, was deftly thought out and planted to attract wildlife - mostly butterflies, and especially monarchs.

"I'm a monarch guy," says Victor, who's been pretty much a full-time home gardener since April 17, 2009, when he was laid off from his management job at Unisys, after 40 years and five months. But who's counting?

You can argue whether monarchs are the most beautiful butterfly in North America, but surely, they are the most recognized and most fascinating.

Indeed, as we settle into a comfy seating area by Victor's frog and dragonfly pond, two monarchs suddenly appear and, in flits and starts, they dance through the hot, heavy air of a dreadful August afternoon.

We sit, as if drugged, till they zip away. Then the meticulous Victor - a Burlington County master gardener who tracks every plant in his garden, year after year, on spreadsheets - asks the questions that can't be answered:

How is it that these black and burnt-orange beauties, weighing barely half a gram, find their way every fall to the same oyamel fir trees, in the same dozen isolated spots, in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico? It's a journey of almost 3,000 miles.

And how, every spring, does a new generation of monarchs find its way back?

"How do they do that?" asks Victor, who sounds as if he's been puzzling over this for some time.

Don't think this garden is strictly for research purposes, although every plant has an ID tag and Victor monitors his monarch visitors for Monarch Watch, the nonprofit that studies them. This is unmistakably a pleasure garden.

But Victor wants other gardeners to know that a wildlife habitat is possible even on a small property, and that it can be every bit as showy as a traditional ornamental one.

That "small property" can be a deck or patio, says Rose Franklin, of Rose Franklin's Perennials in Spring Mills, Pa., which specializes in hummingbird and butterfly plants. She recommends tropical milkweed, an annual, in pots.

Butterflies like to drink from many flowers, but each species requires a specific plant for its caterpillars to eat. For monarchs, milkweed (Asclepias) does it all: It provides nourishing nectar, a place to lay eggs, and leaves to eat.

Tropical milkweed is the monarch's favorite among all others, and it blooms till frost. Other milkweeds bloom for about two weeks in summer.

"And tropical milkweed is the easiest to grow from seed," says Franklin, who suggests collecting seeds when the pods crack open at summer's end, storing them in the fridge over the winter, and popping them in a pot next spring.

And bonus! "Tropical milkweed is absolutely beautiful," Franklin says, describing clusters of tiny, star-shaped flowers in yellow, orange-red, or orange-yellow.

When Franklin started her business in central Pennsylvania eight years ago, butterfly bushes were the top seller. Milkweed has taken over and business has doubled every year.

"Everyone wants to save the monarch," she says.

Milkweed is tops, too, in Victor's garden, which mixes nectar and so-called host plants. And although some folks consider milkweed better suited to the side of a highway, where it's often found, Victor's collection - a wild and domesticated assortment of common, swamp, butterfly weed, and tropical - is a lively white, pink, yellow, and orange.

But it's not just the fun and color of a butterfly garden that make it desirable.

"Butterflies are excellent pollinators. Bees are number one. Butterflies are number two," says Michael Sikorski, coordinator of the indoor butterfly exhibit at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Ron Richael, a social worker from Pottstown, has identified 51 butterfly species in his 50-by-50-foot urban garden, where he has planted 100 milkweeds and other butterfly favorites, such as purple coneflower, verbena, tithonia, mountain mint, giant hyssop, and fleabane.

"I'm going through my second childhood," says Richael, 58, a butterfly enthusiast since he was 7. (Interestingly, Sikorski says children that age seem to know the most about, and show the greatest interest in, butterflies.)

Richael, who's trying to find a farmer willing to donate 10 to 20 acres for a butterfly preserve, says August is the best month for butterfly-watching. "Plants in the wild are starting to die out," he says, "so they should be coming to your house."

They're certainly trekking to Victor's. Last week, his garden hosted monarchs, common buckeyes, tiger swallowtails, silver-spotted skippers, and lots of hummers and other birds.

"Hi, guy!" Victor says to whatever lands on his phlox or rue, wild senna, hops, pipevine, or fennel.

He spends at least 20 hours a week weeding, pruning, mulching, watering, and deadheading. It's hard to believe that when he and his wife, Marie, an ultrasound technician, moved here in 1997, the backyard was bare.

From 2000 to 2004, they worked to create what Victor calls "our inside-out garden. We wanted you to feel like you're inside the garden looking out, not looking in," he says.

"Garden rooms" have been a trend for years now, but the concept sometimes seems more a sales pitch for outdoor furniture than a functional design. Victor's "outdoor rooms" have purpose.

He has a dining area; "the cafe and lounge"; two ponds; "salvia street," with 15 types of that butterfly favorite; the "hidden garden"; the "Northwest passage," connecting front and back yards; the gazebo, herb and vegetable gardens, and allee.

Every "room" is used, sometimes several in a day, and has seating. Picture breakfast in the cafe, dinner in the dining area, wine in the gazebo or by the frog pond, a dip in the hot tub . . .

"I didn't want one giant garden. The idea was to have small areas separated by natural materials, not blocks and walls, so you feel a part of the garden," Victor says.

The results impress Meredith Melendez, coordinator of the Burlington County master gardeners. "With all those 'rooms,' I think Frank's garden took a lot of sweat," she says.

In Victor's view, more sweat is needed to replace wildlife habitat lost through development. "A park here and a park there are isolated small parcels. More people need to just take a small corner of their property, buy a dozen plants, and make a butterfly mecca," he says.

As president of his homeowners' association, Victor often talks to neighbors, whom he encourages to try habitat gardening. They're supportive of him, too, which is good, because he's thinking the four acres of open space behind his house would look great as a milkweed meadow.

"Gardening consumes me now," Victor readily admits, and we're inclined to believe him. We counted exactly two weeds in all of those "garden rooms."

For all that, Victor seems to have time in his involuntary retirement to do more than garden. It's not about kids or grandkids; the couple's two sons are grown and both grandchildren live in Indiana.

No, in addition to all else, Victor embraces the role of homemaker.

Today, for example, he has done the breakfast dishes, laundry, and vacuuming. He has picked tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers out back, and he's getting dinner ready: grilled ahi tuna, fresh vegetable medley, romaine salad with homemade dressing.

Later, after he and Marie - "buddies" who have been married 39 years - have dined in one of their "outdoor rooms," they'll move on to another. Maybe hot tub, maybe gazebo or dragonfly pond, where Victor can savor a glass of cabernet before bedtime.

For Information

Two private butterfly gardens will be open to the public on Sept. 11. Admission is free. No reservations are needed.

Frank Victor's garden will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 5 Parry Dr., Hainesport, Burlington County. For information, e-mail Victor at frankvic@gmail.com.

Ron Richael's garden will be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 344 W. Beech St., in the Pottsgrove Manor development in Pottstown.

Richael, president of the Pennsylvania Butterfly Preserve, will be tagging monarchs for Monarch Watch, a nonprofit at the University of Kansas that traces the butterflies' migration to Mexico.

For information about the Pennsylvania Butterfly Preserve, go to the organization's website, http://www.pabutterflypreserve.org/pa; e-mail buterfly@yahoo.com; or call 610-323-3805.

For information about monarch butterflies, go to http://www.monarchwatch.org/

For information about butterfly and hummingbird plants, go to http://www.butterflybushes.com/. This is the website for Rose Franklin's Perennials, located at 107 Butterfly Lane, Spring Mills, Pa. Phone: 814-422-8968.

Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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