Visitors looking over my garden in the fall, always ask what the strange-looking plant is that is forming large hairy pods. Growing in my veggie garden, because of the amount of space the plants take, my Gymnocarpus physocarpa, or “Hairy Balls” are a conversation starter. A Milkweed family member, another common name is Balloon Plant. Native to South Africa, this plant is an invasive in tropical climates, but in my zone 6-7 area, winter cold keep it in check.
Here are some facts about this amazing plant:
Fast growing annual Milkweed, hardy in zones 8-10
Can sustain lots of munching monarch caterpillars late season
Nectar source for monarch butterflies
Long stems with pods make beautiful table centerpiece
Last viable Milkweed species before fall frost
Start seeds at least 6-8 weeks inside; easy to germinate in about a week
Flowers aren’t super showy, but still attractive
Fewer pollinators use this than native Milkweed
Pinch back the plant to make it bushier and with a stronger stem
Place in the rear of a border as it can top off at 6 feet and may require staking
The pods become ripe when they turn a tan color and burst open with the fuzzy seeds
I save some seeds for planting in early spring in my greenhouse
Though some people have told me that monarch caterpillars have ignored their Hairy Balls, I found at least a dozen of them on my plants at once.
When all of my common Milkweeds are done, Hairy Balls Milkweed is going gangbusters into October and ending with our first hard frost. I have had these plants look good up to Halloween with active caterpillars.
Starting these seeds in my greenhouse in early March is essential to Hairy Balls producing the balloon shaped pods by the end of the summer. For most of the summer, these plants grow up and branch out and then August/September hits and the pods start to appear after a flush of small dangling flowers.
For my monarch populations, this Milkweed is important as it still is standing with plenty of foliage late into the summer/early fall. My other common Milkweed are totally denuded and finished when Hairy Balls hits its stride. For my post on other milkweeds, go to Got Milk….Weed? and Plant Milkweed for Monarchs.
One of the most beautiful flowers, both in flower and seed pod, as well as great importance to wildlife, has been relegated to the roadside for years and virtually ignored. Asclepias syriaca, or common milkweed, is struggling and harder to find because wild areas are disappearing and roadsides are regularly mown. “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a common saying and one that I would apply to this plant. Only when something becomes scarce do we appreciate it, and I can see that happening with milkweed. But there is a sea change coming down the pike and people are being urged to plant this “weed”.
Acknowledged as a primary source for survival of many insects, notably the Monarch, people are waking up to its integral role in supporting other wildlife. See my post Monarch Waystation on the many reasons to plant milkweed for Monarch survival.
Milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, and it is the only food source for monarch caterpillars
It grows in colonies that expand in size every year; each individual in a colony is one side shoot of a large plant and are genetically identical or a clone; one large branching underground rhizome connects the entire colony
Surprisingly, the flowers are extremely fragrant and you can smell a colony long before you see it
Although one shoot may have between 300 to 500 flowers that make up the umbels, only a few of these develop into pods
Vegetative and flower growth is rapid, but the pod development is very slow and held on the plant for many weeks
The pods are held vertically to the plant and hold many seeds; germination of these seeds is very sparse; milkweed more likely expands by underground rhizomes than from seed
The nectar is very high in sugar content, 3% sucrose, and the supply is constantly being renewed over the life of the flower; the flowers produce much more concentrated nectar than the many insects that feed on it could ever remove
Milkweed teems with insect life, providing food and micro habitat to hundreds of insect varieties
At least 10 species of insects feed exclusively on milkweeds, notably the Monarch butterfly caterpillar
The adult Monarch lays its eggs on the leaves of common milkweed, the larvae live on its leaves and milky sap, and the adult Monarchs drink from the flower nectar, although adults will drink from other flowers
The latex milky sap from the milkweed is extremely toxic to other wildlife and is concentrated in the tissues of the Monarch which protects it against predators
The adult Monarch migrates south. East of the Mississippi, they fly as far as 4,800 meters to over winter in Mexico, often to the same tree location
This relationship between the milkweed plant and the monarch butterfly makes the pairing a symbiosis, where they become one entity instead of two separate organisms. Most importantly, without the presence of the milkweed plant, monarchs would go extinct.
Other Varieties of Milkweed
Asclepias tuberosa, orange-flowered Milkweed below is probably my all time favorite for drawing insects and pollinators to the garden early in the season, around June for me in the mid-Atlantic. A long-lasting cut flower, I scatter it through my borders to brighten up early summer plantings. It comes in an all yellow version called “Hellow Yellow”.
Another milkweed which is a conversation piece oddity is Asclepias physocarpa (changed to Gymnopcarpus Physocarpus, a mouthfull!), or Hairy Balls. Forming puffy seed balls two to three inches in diameter, the orbs are covered with hairs and are quite bizarre looking. Perfect for flower arranging, the cut branches are quite expensive to buy from a florist, but easy to grow. A favored host of the Monarch butterfly, I always try to grow this plant for the odd looking pods. The caterpillars seem to prefer this variety over all others.
Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is commonly seen growing in Florida and has bright red-orange and yellow flowers and is also a great nectar source. The leaves are narrower and the plant produces many more seed pods than the common milkweed.
Monarch on Joe Pye Weed
Monarch Waystation Sign available at http://shop.monarchwatch.org/store/p/1181-Monarch-Waystation-Sign.aspx
Monarch butterfly on Zinnia
The brightly colored Monarch is toxic to predators because of a chemical that it ingests from eating milkweed
The pods of Hairy Balls are a conversation piece
Tropical Milkweed is brightly colored
Milky sap exudes down the stem
Milkweed pods are positioned vertically
Monarch caterpillar munching on a milkweed
Colony of Milkweed
Swamp Milkweed growing by pond
Tropical Milkweed has pretty yellow and orange flowers
Adding fresh Milkweed leaves to the container and cleaning up the gooey frass (poop) is a daily task that only takes a few minutes.
As the cats grow larger, shedding their skins, I transfer them to a slightly bigger container with fresh leaves. Clear salad mix receptacles that you buy at the grocery store make great containers at this stage.
Milkweed-Eat & Grow
When the cats reach about 3/4″ inch long, I put them in with the “big boys” in the tomato cage tower that is full of several types of freshly cut Milkweed branches stuck into water bottles. To keep my Milkweed from immediately wilting, I use a flower arrangers trick-flaming the cut ends so that the milky sap stops flowing. I use a small propane torch, like one that you would use for creme brulee. A match doesn’t cut it. It just isn’t hot enough to sear the ends to stop the sap which will make the branch wilt.
All it takes to keep your cats happy and healthy is a good supply of milkweed, because that is all that they eat-nothing else! Eat and grow is the primary goal for the caterpillar. The Monarch butterflies nectar on many types of flowers, but the caterpillars eat only Milkweed. There are lots of kinds of Milkweed, but it must be Asclepias, which is the Latin name for Milkweed. Go to Milkweed Guide to see great pictures and descriptions if in doubt. Growing Milkweed around the country to fuel the Monarchs is really vital to the Monarch survival and people are starting to grow it everywhere. Check out Got Milk…….Weed to read some amazing facts about this essential ingredient to raising Monarchs.
Milkweed is a source of food for many insects, most notably aphids and Milkweed bugs, which I wash off carefully before bringing inside. I don’t want anything else to be eating my collected Milkweed-just my caterpillars!
Monarchs complete almost all of their growth during the larval stage which lasts from 9 to 14 days, during which time they undergo five larval instars or skin shedding. Before molting, the cat will become very still. If you catch this right after it happens, you can see the skin and then they eat it!
I try not to handle them at all, especially during this vulnerable stage as the larva spins a silk thread to keep attached to the leaf. From hatching to pupation, monarchs increase their body mass about 2000 times!
By the time they are ready to pupate the caterpillars become these pudgy clown-like eating machines. So, move them to a large enough enclosure so that they can move to a flat surface, stick, or other hard surface to attach their chrysalis which is their last skin molting or instar. I place sticks in my cage to give the cats added surface area for the chrysalis.
Making a Caterpillar Tower
As soon as I saw this ingenious enclosure at my workshop by The Monarch Teacher Network, made out of a tomato cage, black tulle, and clothes pins, I was hooked. Taking only a few minutes to slap together and tall enough for Milkweed plants, this was a great solution to keeping the cats contained while being able to observe them. Directions are below.
Directions for Monarch Tower
Buy a tomato cage with 4 rings. I used one that measured 14″ in diameter and 27″ from the first to the last ring in length. Cut half the length off of each protruding tine and bend the legs at the base inwards.
Take your 54″ square piece of tulle and knot one end and pull that over top of your tomato cage.
Laying the cage on the side, clothes pin the tulle to the bottom ring of the cage pulling it taut. Using needle and thread, overcast stitch the tulle firmly to the bottom ring of the cage. Almost there!
Using 3 clothes pins, fasten the overlap area of the tulle on the side and place your cage on top of a pizza box base. If you aren’t a pizza lover, cut a piece of cardboard to fit the base.
Set up your cage on the base and it is ready to fill with your milkweed plant or cuttings. Tall enough for plants and lots of caterpillars, they will travel to the top when they are ready to pupate. This setup is easy to see through and clean, essential when you have lots of plump cats eating away.
I had a few cats die after turning black caused by a bacterial disease. This is upsetting but part of life. I removed these as soon as I spotted them to stop any spread of infection to others. Be sure to clean and rinse your milkweed before using and clean your cage thoroughly every day to increase your caterpillar survival rates. If you notice a caterpillar looking sick, remove it from the others immediately. Once your caterpillar gets sick, there is really nothing that can be done. You can euthanize by placing in a ziploc into the freezer. For more information on caterpillar diseases, go to 7 Common Monarch Diseases.
Next Up: The Final Journey to An Adult Monarch Butterfly
Monarchs always amazed me with their unique migration, over 3000 miles in some cases, which seems an impossible task for such a delicate creature. The only butterfly that makes a two-way trip, Monarchs are unique in the animal kingdom. Unable to survive cold winter temperatures, the Monarch has evolved to make this incredible trek to over-winter in warmer climes, such as Mexico and southern California. Using a combination of thermals and air currents, Monarchs sense when it is time to travel and know where to go even though the migrating generation has never been to the distant over-wintering sites.
Monarchs travel along one of three major routes and investigators think that a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun among others guide them. Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day and it can take up to two months to complete their journey. Traveling only by day, Monarchs roost at night high up in trees to rest before warming up in the sun to continue their journey. A distance of 265 miles in one day is the longest recorded distance of a Monarch! A great website to track the migratory happenings of Monarchs and other animals is Journey North. Citizen Scientists record their observations all over North America to show the movements of animals north in the spring and south in the fall in real-time.
Many teachers include Monarch rearing in their science curriculum in Elementary school but I missed the opportunity in school and wanted to do it myself at home to observe the incredible transformation that these creatures go through. How can such fragile creatures make a 3,000 mile journey to an unknown location and remain there for months, mate and then return to the north to start new progeny?
Monarch rearing has been on my “must try” list for several years and a two-day Monarch workshop put on by MonarchTeacherNetwork got me motivated and ready to go. Milkweed growing, enclosure instructions, Monarch activities and games, healthy practices of raising, and release ceremonies were all covered in simple, easy to follow directions with added field trips to meadows full of Milkweed and a butterfly house. After the intense two-day workshop, I felt fully prepared to set up my own Monarch raising operation at home.
After gathering some eggs from the meadow walk at Ladew I was ready to begin. Start with the eggs!
The hardest part of raising Monarchs is finding their tiny single creamy-white eggs which are smaller than pin heads. Carrying a portable hand lens on an overcast day makes it a little easier to spot the eggs in the field. If you observe Monarchs swooping in and landing on a Milkweed, there is a good chance that she just laid an egg.
Monarchs tend to lay their eggs singly on the underside of freshly grown leaves of Milkweed, hidden from predators and directly on their food supply for best survival rates.
The butterfly glues the egg on the leaf surface so that it adheres even through a rain storm, but predators find the eggs a tasty treat. The first egg for me was hard to find, but subsequent ones much easier once I knew what to look for. The likelihood of a Monarch surviving the egg and larval (caterpillar) stages is less than 10% in the wild. For great tips on finding eggs, go to How to Hunt, Gather, and Protect Monarch Eggs . This site gives great information on where, when and how to look.
After locating an egg, I note what type of Milkweed they were attached to and remove the leaf or branch and add it to my “nursery enclosure”, a small plastic container with holes poked in the top. Taking only 3 to 5 days to hatch, watch your eggs carefully as the caterpillar can emerge, eat their egg shell and will move on to fresher leaves pretty quickly. When the top of the eggs turns dark, hatching is imminent.
Adding some extra Milkweed leaves will keep the tiny caterpillars busy when they hatch. You could also place tulle or pantyhose over the top to keep any wandering minuscule caterpillars inside. Lining the container with a moistened paper towel makes cleanup of the “frass” or black gooey caterpillar poop easy and adds some moisture to their environment. Once inside the house, air conditioning tends to dry the air out for the caterpillars and a light mist from a spray bottle of water helps. I clean out the plastic container every day as the frass can bring in pathogens that can harm the caterpillars.
After the eggs hatch in about 4 days, the tiny caterpillars are no larger than 1/16 of an inch long. They are delicate and easy to overlook as you handle the Milkweed leaves, so move carefully when you are changing out old for fresh leaves.
Next: Part 2-Larval Stage and How to Make a Tomato Cage Enclosure
Rearing Monarchs at my house was one of my goals this year. But I needed a ready source of milkweed to hand as I knew they were voracious eaters of this specific plant. A meadow of grass and goldenrod surrounded my three bee hives and I decided to plant nectar plants and milkweed in the grassy area, backed up with the goldenrod which is an important source of late nectar.
Trolling the byways as I walked my dog for Monarch caterpillars on milkweed is not the same as having milkweed plants in my back yard. “Plant it and they will come” is so true-you just need the room to plant your milkweed and nectaring plants. Popping out the back door while preparing dinner to check for eggs, caterpillars, and milkweed made it much easier for me.
Late February was my starting date when I had time that was not taken up with other garden duties. First lay out your area with paint or a hose. I targeted an area about 15 feet wide by 60 feet in front of my bee hives to provide my bees with lots of floral sources and loads of milkweed for the Monarchs that I hoped would visit. Saving old newspapers all winter prepared me for the day when I started laying it down directly on top of the turf. Wet the newspaper so that it clings to the ground surface without flying away in the wind. A convenient hose to water everything down as you place the newspaper down is essential. I used at least 5 layers of newspaper to kill any underlying turf.
Go Section By Section
Using about a dozen bags of potting soil, I added a thin 1 to 2 inch layer on top of the newspaper to hold the newspaper layers firmly to the ground. Mulch is also an option. I progressed one section at a time as the newspaper could dry up and blow away if you leave it too long exposed. After leaving this sandwich sit for about 8 to 10 weeks, the turf underneath was mostly dead and the newspaper was almost rotted through so that I could plant through it. When I gathered my plants for the meadow, I planted directly through the soil and newspaper layer into the underlying soil.
Early in the spring, I gathered perennials in quarts and plugs to plant. Different varieties of of milkweed were planted among the other perennial plants to give a long season of bloom time, from early in the season to late. I planted all my milkweed transplants that were started in February into the ground at the same time. Go to Planting Milkweed to see how to start milkweed from seed. Weeds started growing, but I let them in! This wasn’t a manicured groomed perennial border and I didn’t bother the weeds that popped up.
In early May, after danger of frost was over, I broadcast mixes of different seeds that were pollinator friendly in the open spaces. Mixing together many seed packets made a diverse mix and I sprinkled these on top of the soil and firmed it down with a hoe.
Now I have a great little meadow which is a nectar source for my honey bees, as well as for other pollinators. And a great area to pick milkweed to bring in to feed my Monarch caterpillars. Watering in the spring is the only maintenance that I had to do until the plants rooted in and started growing. I left it alone after the initial planting and watering and have enjoyed the flowers that popped up all season long. To see what types of plants that pollinators seek out, check out Plant These For Bees.
It’s time to get out my crystal ball and find out whats coming up in the gardening world for 2016. Traveling to lots of nurseryman’s and flower shows, cutting edge gardens, and keeping up with my blog, gives me a good handle on what is up and coming in the gardening world. Some of these are trends have been around and are still going strong, while others are just getting a foothold, like Cauliflower!
According to the National Garden Bureau, 2016 is the year of the Carrot. I have to defer though to the rise of cauliflower, a cruciferous vitamin packed veggie, that has a unique ability to absorb flavors from other ingredients, rather like a chameleon. From cauliflower grilled steaks to peanut butter brownies, cauliflower has landed on top of the heap for a lot of people! Look at this great video on how to make the brownies.
There is actually a shortage of cauliflower due to cold in California’s Imperial Valley and the high demand for this sought after vegetable. Last time I bought it, the price was $5 per head. I have grown it several times but it is always done in by cabbage pests before I get to harvest it. Maybe I’ll give it another whirl.
2. Kale & Other Edibles-Horticulture Tied to Wellness
Just ten years ago, Kale was not on the radar of the backyard grower. There were a few varieties which people planted occasionally, but now Kale is the “in” vegetable. In fact, Kale’s growth in the seed industry is “off the charts”. Farmers can’t keep up with demand. Personally, when I go to a nursery that sells seeds, Kale is usually sold out. Full of iron, vitamin A and C, Kale is the ultimate health food. Easy to grow, even during the winter, Kale packs a powerhouse of nutrients and is also a visually beautiful vegetable. Used in containers for color and texture, kale comes out on top of all the vegetables that I grow for no bother and “forget about it”. Virtually every month of the year, I am harvesting Kale!
The ever-increasing interest and use of edibles in containers and in the garden is still up there. Think berries, fruit, and lots of kale. Okra is another super food that is coming into its own. Go to Okra-Superfood Superstar for more information on growing it.
A beautiful new Kale variety I saw at a recent horticultural trade show was Kosmic Kale, a unique variety that has a cream-edged margin. When I first spotted it, I thought it was a new perennial, not a vegetable. I will be looking for this variety in the spring. What we put into our mouth and bodies has become increasingly important to the a generation of gardeners.
3. Pollinators & Milkweed
Native pollinators as well as the honeybee are still high up on the concern list for most people, gardeners or otherwise. Monarch butterflies are topping the list with an incredible outpouring of support and interest on how to increase the numbers of these beautiful pollinators and keep them healthy. Fortunately, the efforts to help monarchs, providing more and better habitat, reducing pesticide use, and raising the public’s awareness has spilled over and helps other lesser known varieties, like many of our native bees. Monarchs and honeybees are the poster children of this movement. If you provide bett
er habitat for these canaries in the coal mines, then everyone benefits. One way to help out is to create a monarch way station to feed the monarchs on their long migration. Go to Monarch Way Station to see how to set your own up.
Ordering milkweed plugs (tiny rooted plants) has become easy by going to The Milkweed Market . Order now to provide a safe haven for monarchs! Go to Got Milk….Weed? to check out the importance of growing milkweed.
As anyone knows, when you have monarch caterpillars munching down on your milkweed, they can run out fast especially with aphids joining in, so you never have enough of the stuff!
4. Bambi Proof
With the skyrocketing growth of deer and the distress of seeing your hard-earned cash become salad, people are demanding low maintenance deer resistant plants. More and more nurseries are setting aside areas that sell deer resistant plants to satisfy this huge market segment. Sprays and other deterrents cost money and aren’t very effective. Why not plant varieties that deer hate and forget about all those sprays?
Hellebores have been the hot ticket for hybridizers and dozens of varieties have hit the shelves just in the last 5 years. Black ones are hot!
5. Houseplants- Bringing the Outdoors In
Houseplants were big in the seventies and then went out of flavor for a long time. Back in favor now but with new smaller and easy to care for varieties, air plants or tillandsias fit the bill. Anyone with an apartment or windowsill can have a thriving plant kingdom with little effort.
Green walls are popping up in homes, hotels and other indoor spaces, utilizing air plants and other houseplants. Providing a sanctuary of green living things and removing toxins from interior air pollutants, green walls are also a mood enhancer. Hotels have jumped on this bandwagon as providing an oasis away from home.
6. Vintage Gardening
Anyone on Pinterest or Etsy, knows about vintage gardening. The popularity of old tools, historic seed art, and the nostalgia of old-fashioned gardening has started an industry of eBay listings selling well-used and well made tools.
I call it flea market gardening. Is it just me, but when I shop flea markets or goodwill, am I the only one who is looking for gardening stuff? I thought not! Vintage means less than 100 years old. Antique is 100 years or more. When I visited the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle this past February, there was an entire show area devoted to vintage gardening paraphernalia and I went crazy! See Vintage Gardening for my post. Just think- Leave It To Beaver meets Martha Stewart. Re-purposing is the name of the game.
Seed packet art is really interesting and there are some funny ones as well as beautiful. Go to Seed Art to check out an interesting post on the history of this illustrative art form.
7. Re-Wilding-Integrating Tech Into Nature
Technology is often regarded as something that creates an artificial world, removing people from nature. To the contrary, however, technology is bringing humans into contact with wildlife and nature like never before. Wild turkeys, foxes, beaver, and coyotes, are very urban animals that have learned to live with man. Home gardeners and conservationists are working on creating wildlife habitats for creatures, inviting them in to restored nature in their backyard and parks. And we want to watch and photograph them. Gopro cameras are enormously popular and are used mostly in the outdoors. Attach one of these to a bird feeder or the dog to get unique natural outdoor views. Or attach it to your mountain biker or skier.
Nowadays, we carry our phones with us everywhere, even sleeping, so why not bring it into nature with a purpose? For purists who say you need to totally disconnect while in nature to enjoy, I am of two minds on this. I do love a walk with my dog with no music or any other distractions so I can enjoy a calming green experience with no distractions. But I always carry my phone with me to catch an interesting photo, like the one above of beaver activity or use it as a trail map.
If you want your kids to get out in nature, why not entice them with geo-caching? I have enjoyed this activity with my daughter where you search for a “cache” using coordinates with a GPS using your phone. Like a scavenger hunt in nature, it’s a lot of fun and gets kids engaged in the outdoors.
Broodminder is another example of technology meeting nature. I purchased a “Broodminder” which measures temperature and humidity inside my bee hives and can be downloaded using my phone. Bee hive telemetry! Important measurements that can tell you a lot about your hive without having to leave your house and opening up a hive which can be disruptive to the colony.
8. Layered Landscapes
Instead of having acres of perennials stretching as far as the eye can see, as a landscape designer, I am designing more “layered” landscapes. Including evergreens, conifers, woody shrubs, bulbs, and annuals, in a design ensures an interesting landscape to give multi-season interest. I love perennials, but I am definitely seeing more varieties of woody shrubs and conifers at the trade shows.
Layered means using a greater variety of plants, so you can have many things going on at once to enjoy in the garden. Multi-season interest is a over-used garden trope, but one that has instant recognition and conveys an idea with a purpose. Leaving dried and spent stems in the garden to enjoy in the winter is part of all season gardening. Underplanting small trees which are limbed up with bulbs, perennials, and annuals, mingling allium bulbs into plantings are all techniques that I use to get a layered effect.
9. Pet Scaping and Chemicals
The statistics are bad. Half of all pet deaths over the age of ten is due to cancer according to the National Canine Cancer Foundation. Pet owners are waking up to this and using less toxic chemicals around their loved ones. New organic pesticides are becoming available to the home owner who tends to apply more pesticides per acre than farmers! A new one called Spinosad, an organic substance found in soil from an old rum distillery (no, I am not making this up!), can be used on outdoor ornamentals, lawns, vegetables and fruit. Produced by fermentation, Spinosad kills chewing insects when they ingest the chemical within one to two days. Even better, it will not persist in the environment. Spraying in the early evening hours, means that the spray will dry and won’t harm my honeybees. Organic lawn sprays and chemicals are becoming the norm, rather than the rule.
Pet Scaping is just landscape design with your pets in mind. Where to set your designer dog house or doggie ranch and what landscape specimens to plants around the dog house for shade and beautification just like your own house. How about a trickling water fountain or sprinkler next to the dog house to play in? Or a sandbox to dig in? Or straw to roll in?
10. Gardening With Purpose
We are gardening with goals in mind. Planting a pollinator garden, growing hops for making beer, growing healthy heirloom vegetables, raising cut flowers, keeping the bees fed and happy are happening across the gardening world. Instead of just planting a beautiful ornamental garden, consumers are thinking: How can I use/preserve this? Go to Plant These For the Bees to check out the best way to plant for our important pollinators.
Residential landscapes are no longer just grass and trees spotted into the lawn. We want to enhance our everyday lifestyles by creating relaxation or meditation areas, or watch birds and butterflies. You can make this a reality by landscaping and gardening with specific goals in mind.
Because of massive habitat loss due to large-scale corn and soybean farming that has gobbled up every acre of farmland, Monarch butterflies are on the decline. Pervasive spraying with herbicides has largely eradicated the huge swaths of the common milkweed plant, which colonized margins around farm fields and roadsides that sustained Monarchs on their long migration.
What Can We Do?
This decline of Monarchs isn’t new information as it has been touted in all the news media for several years, but it seems like people are starting to pay attention and take action. Monarchs are a flagship species like the honeybee, and if we preserve existing Monarch habitats or add to them, we will be helping a lot of other organisms as well. So what can we as gardeners do who plant on small properties? Or even if a gardener has just a balcony or deck to garden on? We can plant the right plants for Monarchs and other pollinators.
Plant Milkweed Everywhere
Launched in 2005, Monarch Waystation was created by Monarch Watch and sells seed kits for starting your own Monarch Waystation or pollinator haven. If you are a school or non-profit, Monarch Watch will provide a free flat of 32 milkweed plugs as well as guidance on how to create a new habitat or enhance an existing garden. That is a great deal and schools should be snatching these up! And if you aren’t a non-profit, Monarch Watch will sell you seed kits with the proper species for your area for a nominal $16. Go to Monarch Way Station Seed Kit to order. If you are a regular home owner and gardener who wants to help provide healthy habitat for the Monarch, follow the guidelines on plantings to make your very own Monarch Waystation in your yard at the bottom of this post.
The Great Migration
Each fall, millions of Monarchs migrate from the U.S. and Canada to overwintering areas in Mexico and California, staying there until spring returns and then make their way back north. The Monarchs east of the Rockies follow a different path from the Monarchs west of the Rockies. Flying thousands of miles for these fragile creatures is hard work and they need fuel during the journey. Increasingly Monarchs aren’t finding the proper nectar plants on their arduous trek and we need to remedy this. Since the program started there are over 7,000 Monarch Waystations registered. Other organizations, such as The North American Butterfly Association which is a program specific to Monarchs, and motto is “Healing Earth One Yard at a Time”, are also in the movement.
Monarch Habitat Guidelines
By following these basic guidelines, you can set up your own Monarch Waystation and get it certified with a designated sign. The sign and certification applications are available at Monarch Way Station.
Size: At least 100 sq feet; This area can be split up into different areas
Exposure: At least 6 hours of sun a day
Drainage and Soil Type: Low clay soil with good drainage
Spacing: Plants should be close and can be touching each other to give shelter to the pollinators from predators
Milkweed Plants: Plant at least 10 individuals, representing different species that flower at different times; By planting more milkweed plants, you increase your chances of successfully attracting Monarchs
Additional Nectar Plants: Add at least four species who have different bloom times. For more information of types of plants that attract pollinators, go to Plant These for the Bees . Zinnias which are not a native is my single biggest draw for Monarchs. See my poster below for more flower options that are attractive to pollinators.
Care: Water during drought and weed regularly. Mulch with compost in the spring and cut back dead stalks. Fertilize, amend the soil, and don’t use pesticides!