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NATURE HAPPENINGS - February 2002

February - Month of the Garden Catalogs
by Damian Fagan

Mr. Fagan The warm winter sunlight slants through our south-facing window. The cat, the dog and myself jockey for position in this swath of light. Surrounding me is a litter of catalogs with pages bent, marked for further review. February is derived from a Roman festival of purification - Februa, but I advocate that we change it to something that means “Month of the Garden Catalogs.”

I truly enjoy winter. I love the cold and snow and black ice that groans like a humpback whale. I don’t mind the overcast, the darkness, the bitter north winds that sneak through numerous layers of clothing to tickle my bare skin with its icy touch. I love winter, but, and here is the caveat, for only a few months. Once February rolls around, and the seed and flower catalogs start to arrive, I too join the ranks of Moabites who are ready for winter to wrap itself up and migrate northward.

I don’t know how much time I spend on flower catalogs, but I bet it is less than the National Average of 4.5 hours per day. And that’s just for non-gardener enthusiasts. Though I search out early season snap peas and varieties of lettuce from the veggie sections, I also pour through the flower catalogs for ideas and images of what our spring garden should resemble, though it never does. But, I must confess, I don’t look to these plants for just color and height, shade or full-sun requirements. No, these plants must do double duty to make it into my garden. They have to be bug friendly.

In particular, these annuals or perennials have to attract butterflies, bees, beetles, and other winged creatures from the insect and avian world. I don’t include penstemons to just attract hummingbirds. I also want the moths and butterflies to find a pollination heaven in my yard. And I’m not just talking beautiful adults, the “winged scales” that flit and flutter through summer without a bloody care. No, I’m talking host plants for larvae - those sausage-bag caterpillars that devour plants like a teenager.

For the larvae I select Mexican and dwarf evening primrose plants which attract sphinx moths the way free beer and bratwurst attracts football fans. I add cabbage or broccoli seeds for white butterflies and their larvae, since these plants never seem to reach fruition in my garden. I scatter last year’s milkweed seeds from mummified pods that have overwintered in my shed to lure monarchs, the migration specialists, to lay their eggs on these plants.

I don’t need to add any seeds or flowers to attract Mourning Cloaks, dark butterflies that feed on the sap of trees and lay their eggs on my neighbor’s hackberry. After the eggs hatch, the tiny black caterpillars with overgrown hairs devour the tree’s leaves. Though a good strong gust of wind drops them earthward, which might be a good thing - for I collect the caterpillars and put them in a terrarium to mature - safer in there than exposed to the diets of orioles and migrating warblers. I place some limbs in with the caterpillars (along with daily doses of hackberry) for them to hang from and create their chrysalises. Later on, if the chrysalis survives, I get to release a new generation into the wild.

Of course, I pick out varieties of zinnias, cosmos, and other annuals that will attract a wealth of butterflies. From red admirals to swallowtails, painted ladies to coppers, all are welcome. They may have to share the bounty with some bumblebees and frolicking six-year-old, but the butterflies seem to manage. And when we catch sight of a swallowtail working over a head of echinacea, I know that the chances of pollination are good and that the goldfinches may find a bounty of seeds later in the season.
Even though it is “cold” by Moab standards (anything less than 70°F) at least I can spend part of my month ordering seeds and planning my summer garden. So cast your vote, and we’ll see if the legislature is up to the task of renaming the month of February. Anyone go for Gardenuary?

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