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good caterpillar, bad caterpillar?

Being new to gardening, I don’t know what to think when I see a plant covered with strange creatures. Will they kill my plant? I have a passionflower vine I planted against a gate a couple months ago. Today I stepped out back to water around and I walked over to check on the direction the vine is growing–only to notice the leaves covered with many caterpillars–kind of slimy shiny orange and black things. I am not sure if I should kill or pluck, as I can see they have eaten quite a bit of the plant.

A little googling around and I find out it is the Gulf Fritillary caterpillar, who lives, sleeps and cocoons on its favorite habitat the passionflower. Pretty soon I will have a host of butterflies… and blooms, too.

bringing home the plant

For years, I used to think I killed plants. I thought there were green thumbs and then there were black thumbs, or something like that. The few attempts in my life to take care of just one tiny house plant always ended in dead plants. So since I saw myself this way, every time I bought a plant I expected it to die eventually–which probably wasn’t good for me or the plants.

For a season, I attempted to have fica plants in my house. I didn’t know what ficas were, except they were inexpensive and leafy and a big enough plant to make things look instantly green inside the house. I must have bought about 4 over a period of a few years. As soon as I brought them home, they would proceed to lose all their leaves and look like a pathetic dead Christmas tree. I would try watering a lot, changing windows, moving it around. I didn’t know what I was doing but usually after about 2/3 of leaves being gone I would give up and let it die.

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We have a front yard that is mostly covered with a grass called St. Augustine. It seems to have been cared for very well–it looks nice, grows nice, except for a few bare spots here and there, especially in places where we stomp on all the time.

In our last house, most of our yard got a little green in early spring until about mid-summer, when the crushing heat of Texas wilted and killed all growing things. Now mostly the reason for this, I’ve realized in retrospect, is that what I considered a yard, a lawn, was mostly weeds, nice green thingys that pop up conveniently after rains but die when things compete with them, like a big blaring sun and 100 degrees of endless drought.

Anyway, I came to our new house determined to keep the green going but had to rethink a few things in the process. We have this nice green lawn in front, which was obviously put there with care… but our back yard is another matter–it was not unlike our other place… lots of green when we moved in in spring but by summer become one huge plot of dirt, made even more tramped on by our constantly pacing border collie.

So I was rethinking–what is the deal with lawns anyway. Now, I am the beginner gardener. I had no idea 6 months ago what grasses were… but the minute I started researching lawns I got mostly stuff like this–

1. your neighbor’s yard is gorgeous, don’t you want one?

2. don’t you want to be the envy of your neighborhood with a great lawn?

3. do you want a healthy looking lawn like the one you saw down the street?

Try me, look up lawn care on google and you will get so many articles that start out, “how to have a lawn like the Jones’ lawn” in one form or another. Now I am primarily an artist… and motivations like this just bother me. That lawn philosophy and care is peppered with a motivation to have a better lawn than your neighbor–or worse, to have a lawn just like your neighbors. It seems like to me both the interior and the exterior of your living space should be an expression of YOU. It may be completely out there, or it might look something like someone else, but it should really be something that you dreamed, that comes from your pleasure and personality.

So I say all that to say, it is very important and deep in Americans’ psyche to have a green space that you play on, sit on, or just look at, that sprawls out from your house. Nice lawns are genuinely pretty and inviting. However, as I have researched, they do consume a lot of time, energy, and money… and sometimes chemicals.

So one of the first things I decided to do was gradually transform the backyard into something that wasn’t just all this green carpet that i thought it should be. As far as the front yard, I’m I’m treating it organically. This means organic compost and fertilizer. It is work to do this by myself but hopefully it will stay healthy until I get another vision for it.

Now for the backyard, I have started a number of beds… but also I planted some native buffalograss seed. My own aesthetic tends toward the wild and prairie like. And thankfully I live in a region where this type of aesthetic not only works but is native to it. Buffalograss grew in the Great Plains all the way down through Texas and there have been many types that have been developed that grow nice lawns but also can withstand drought (good for me, so I don’t have to persistently water).

To give myself a break, I am planting small parts at a time. I took one area, hoe-d up weeds and spread/mixed in about two inches of garden soil, which has compost mixed in it. We have very hard and heavy clay soil here which things do grow in but after an even a slight drought the little teeny sprouts of grass go bye bye and I am left with the big brown patch again. So I am babying this one small patch until I can see what happens–how much the grass fills in, how it looks.

This seems like a good way of going about things because rather than try to do a big spot, spend a lot of energy and either 1. don’t like it, or 2. have some of it fail will really feel like I wasted time. So best to learn in small parts. Hopefully I will get some pictures up here.