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Garden Q&A: What kind of butterflies are these and what can I garden this fall?

Common Buckeye butterfly on Aster, one of their favored late-season nectar plants. (Miri Talabac/ The Baltimore Sun)

Q: A few of these brownish, bulls-eyed butterflies have appeared on my late-flowering perennials this year but I don’t remember seeing them earlier in the summer. What plants can I grow for their caterpillars? I’d love to get them to stay for future years.

A: This is a common buckeye butterfly, a late-season beauty I too have encountered most often in the fall, even though they occur in Maryland between the spring and fall frosts. I love the nuanced colors and patterns in their wings, and those large eyespots definitely stand out. It’s also interesting how much the colors and patterns on the undersides of their wings (most visible when closed) can vary.

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Surprisingly, they actually don’t overwinter here, nor do they migrate south in autumn. Instead, the populations this far north just dead-end and die out in winter and become replenished each spring as individuals south of us migrate northward each year. Well to our south and into Mexico, they are year-round residents. While you can’t maintain a local population for this reason, you can plant the nectar and host plants they prefer in the hopes of attracting regular visits.

Their caterpillars feed on a variety of native and non-native plants, including a few we consider weeds like plantain (the lawn volunteer, not the banana). They’ll also use other members of the plantain, figwort/snapdragon, and vervain/verbena families. I find the caterpillars quite beautiful, and they are a treat to find. You can look up the particular genus or species information for host plants on various web resources or in butterfly field guides.

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Q: I’m enjoying this vegetable gardening adventure I began two years ago. Does it have to stop in winter? Even if it’s too late to add anything to my beds now, I’d like to keep it in mind for next winter so I can keep the fresh food coming as long as possible.

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A: There are a few things you can overwinter, yes, though they won’t keep actively growing due to temperature and day length. (Our daylight duration is so short by then that they won’t get enough energy from photosynthesis.) Winter in the vegetable garden is mostly just about holding hardy crops over until spring, plus cover-cropping the fallow beds (ideally) or at least protecting them from erosion and weed colonization with an organic mulch.

Although borderline too late now, you can direct-sow arugula, corn salad (mâche), kale, spinach, and cold-hardy varieties of lettuce in late September or very early October. Protect leafy greens with a cold frame, row cover, or even a temporary little greenhouse (unheated). Monitor the soil so it doesn’t dry too much as they establish roots, and keep an eye out for pests that love seedlings: mainly slugs/snails and hungry mammals, since few insects will be a problem now.

As the season winds-down, the seedlings will go dormant and stagnate in size, then resume growth in spring. While you could technically harvest a bit during winter, essentially baby greens, the plants won’t replace what was removed, so there will be rapidly diminishing returns. It’s better to just give them an untouched head start on the spring growing and harvest season.

Shallots and perennial onions can be planted between late September and mid-October. As the days lengthen again in spring, the bulbs will start to enlarge. If we have a severe cold snap, though, onion bulbs might freeze unless well-insulated with a mulch of straw or leaf litter. Leeks that were established earlier in the season can be overwintered as well, similarly with some extra mulching for protection and can be harvestable into winter.

As far as other crops to actually harvest during winter, you can retain any root crops (like carrots, beets, radishes, and turnips; not potatoes or sweet potatoes) which have already reached a harvestable size by covering the bed with an insulating deep mulch. About 5 to 6 inches depth of straw or chopped leaf litter should suffice. You can then pull some of these root vegetables up as needed throughout winter.

You can search the names of these and other vegetables on our website to find more cultivation information for particular crops.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.


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