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Gardening: Summer Tour, by Marcus Brandon Gray, Part 1

Garden/Habitat Tour

Over the summer I’ve been spending time in various gardens while traveling. It gives me an opportunity to see what people are doing and speak with them about NABA’s Garden Certification program. On these trips we discuss the goals of the property, cruise the plants currently on the site and go over potential native options based on the region. One critical aspect of butterfly gardening is providing a combination of caterpillar food and nectar source plants. The idea is to provide blooms throughout the season with different varieties coming into maturity as the warmer months progress. Since I enjoy various outdoor activities, it gives me a chance to visit places where I can see butterflies using their natural habitats so I discuss a trip to public land as well.


My Vegetable Garden

I grow vegetables in a low intensity way. Once plants become established, I tend not to weed very much. I don’t spray. I don’t dust anything. If it makes it, it’s fine. More plants survive than some would think. I won’t say I just plant and come back later to see what’s left but by some people’s standards that’s fairly close. Interplanting is fun and I’m a fan of “the three sisters” and other combinations meant to reduce weed problems, disease spread, pest proliferation and provide other mutually-beneficial services like nitrogen fixation and other soil building activities. Perhaps it’s my background as a Wildlife Biologist that accounts for my hands-off attitude or maybe it’s traditional knowledge passed down from the older generation that understood nature’s rhythms and how to best eek a living out of the frontier. Hard to say, maybe I’m just lazy because I loathe mowing too. As the Executive Director of the North American Butterfly Association, not to mention the father of 3 children under the age of 5 years old, you can imagine multiple reasons why I don’t spray insecticides all over our food. I want our children to be exposed to gardening and nature with as few carcinogens as possible.

A vegetable garden certainly attracts bees and butterflies. My Great Grandmother in Missouri always had a row of Zinnias at the end of her garden. Her daughter, my Grandmother, was a farmer’s wife and loved to garden with native wildflowers and their cultivars. Great Grandpa was religious about maintaining bluebird boxes on his farm with one box on every other fence post. My Aunt is a Master Gardener and most of my extended family is involved in conventional agriculture. My Grandparents on both sides made their living off the land but the operations were (still are, honestly) less intensive than you might think. They planted cover crops, put in other conservation plantings to build soil health and prevent erosion. They were among the first to employ no-till planting and left fields fallow for a period to recover. Our family’s cattle spend 99.9% of their lives on grass but were never marketed as “grass fed.” It’s interesting how the old ways are now in vogue!

I grew up gardening with my parents. Dad loves tomatoes. Most people I know adore tomatoes. I have never really liked tomatoes but I plant them anyway. Tomatoes are the host plant for the infamous hornworm. I wanted to share a photo of a hornworm from my garden. I like them because they put a dent in my tomato production and they become the really cool Sphinx Moth!


Hilltop Berry Farm & Winery

Hilltop ( is owned and operated by Kim and Greg Pugh who have perfected the art of making mead. Since they produce fruit crops for direct sale and for use in value-added farm products, the Pugh’s are concerned about all pollinators. The farm currently has 9 honey bee hives and is surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains in Nelson County, Virginia. The Pugh’s have only recently begun keeping cattle but have produced blackberries, blueberries, elderberries and orchard fruit for years without using pesticides. If anything, light grazing will improve pastures and you all know how much butterflies like dung! The Rockfish River bottom below the farm provides great low meadow and riparian habitat with a rich plant community. The ridges are dominated by tulip popular, oaks and hickories. Forestry is a major source of income in the region so the vegetative structure is diverse.

Tourism is increasing all the time due to the character the mountain towns possess. Most of the farms in the region are relatively small and irregularly shaped due to the topography. The lack of uniformity equates to odd areas which can provide natural host and flowering plants across the landscape. Kim would like to increase planting specifically designed to attract and increase the populations of butterflies. Greg and I had a lengthy discussion about mowing schedule.



We spent some time talking about all the flowering plants they currently have with their operation but went on to list native plant options well-suited for western Virginia. Just a few include: Turtlehead and Joe Pye Weed for wetter sites, collecting local milkweed pods when they are ready, Coreopsis, Purple Cone Flower (Echinacea), Black-eyed Susan, goldenrod and others. Of course, I had to try the blackberries which were delicious! The Pugh’s are exploring a special edition product with a unique label designed to donate a portion of the proceeds to NABA. This is very exciting so stay tuned on that front!