Saturday, May 16, 2015

The amazingly drought tolerant monarch waystation

Yes, you read that right: drought-tolerant monarch waystation. Unless I'm adding a new plant I never water my waystation. In fact, our outdoor water spicket has been broken for two years. I have rain barrels but I only use that sacred water for my veggies, my milkweed seedlings, and when I'm establishing a new plant in the garden.

Last summer Ipswich, MA had a water ban for months and it seems like we're headed that way again this summer. I've been obsessively watching the radar and every blob of precipitation seems to fizzle out before it hits the north shore of Boston. I'm already preparing for a dry summer but I'm not worried. Pretty much every single one of the 80 native plant varieties in my yard is drought tolerant. Yes, almost every single one! 

To the right are the gardens in front of my house at the end of July. Even the red cardinal flower in front of the trellis doesn't need water, although it's generally considered a wetland plant.

Swamp milkweed and butterfly weed in full flower, July 2014.
it wasn't watered once all spring or summer. 

Native plants that have evolved here in New England are highly adapted to the crazy weather swings we have. Even the swamp milkweed in my way station (left) that grows naturally along our stretch of the river can go from being flooded in the spring to bone-dry come September.

If you're planning on putting in a garden this summer, please consider native plants. Most local nurseries carry them now, and the more you ask the more they will stock them. And don't forget the milkweed for the monarchs! See photos below for my favorite drought tolerant native perennials and visit here for a more complete planting list for New England.

My monarch waystation in high summer, blooming
strong and never watered. 

My monarch waystation in September, two months into a
water ban and still blooming. 

"Ice ballet" swamp milkweed

Garden phlox

Joe-pye weed

Butterfly weed

Cardinal flower
Black-eyed susans

White chocolate snakeroot, three months into a water ban
and in full flower early last October. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Northeast Native Milkweeds: Five beautiful ways to sustain the monarch butterfly

Milkweeds in my monarch way station #5687
I see so many people wanting to plant a pollinator garden but in most cases they leave out the milkweed. Maybe it's the "weed" part of the name? I've also heard landscapers say that it's hard to grow, or you can't transplant it because of the delicate tap root.

I do not know why milkweed gets left out when gardeners readily buy non-native butterfly bushes, which can't sustain any native butterfly larvae. So here are five milkweeds that are beautiful, native to the northeast, easy to grow and both swamp and butterfly weed are readily available at most local nurseries here north of Boston. And remember: milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars can eat. You have no more excuses. Go out and plant one of these natives this spring:

BUTTERFLY WEED: Asclepias tuberosa

"Hello Yellow" butterfly weed
This has a bright orange flower, grows to about 2 feet tall, prefers part to full sun, flowers until late September in my garden and is drought tolerant. I've never had monarchs lay eggs on it in my garden, they always go for the taller swamp milkweed. But near the Ipswich MA Public Library there's a beautiful pollinator garden with only butterfly weed representing the milkweeds and I've found eggs and caterpillars on it.  Butterfly weed also doesn't mind bad soil, I plant it along my road where the road salt and dogs don't seem to bother it like my other perennials.

Butterfly weed

SWAMP MILKWEED: Asclepias incarnata

Ice ballet swamp milkweed

The native form of this plant has a pink flower, but there is a cultivar called Ice Ballet that is white. I have both in my garden and have found monarch eggs on both colors. Swamp milkweed gets about 36" to 48" tall, prefers part to full sun and can tolerate standing water. Yet, the name is a bit of a misnomer, once established it's actually completely drought tolerant as well.

Swamp milkweed

WHORLED MILKWEED: Asclepias verticillata

Whorled milkweed

This is a white milkweed, grows to about 24" tall, prefers part to full sun and I have it for the first time this spring in my garden. It's not as easily found in nurseries. I started mine from seeds but they are doing well and I'm looking forward to adding these to my monarch way station.

POKE MILKWEED: Asclepias exaltata

Poke milkweed

I am very excited about this native milkweed! It's a tall white milkweed often found growing at the edges of woodlands so is shade tolerant. Many gardeners tell me they can't grow milkweed because they have no sun. Well now you can. I have never seen this at a nursery so I ordered 3,000 seeds and they're sprouting now. My plan is to establish this in my backyard where it's all shade and invasive garlic mustard is always popping up.

COMMON MILKWEED: Asclepias syriaca 

I don't recommend this for a small garden, it will not behave and will send its rhizomes everywhere. But if you have a big space or a meadow plant it!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Monarch butterfly and native milkweed late winter update: spring is coming and milkweed is sprouting!

It's been a long winter. Ipswich, Massachusetts, has received over 100 inches of snow. As you can see my monarch way station #5687 is buried. Two days ago the sign finally emerged from the glacier that is my front yard. The snow cover is now only about three feet deep, down from four to five feet in most places and drifts and snow banks formerly up to ten feet tall.

Despite the snow, it has also been a good winter. News from Mexico tells us that the monarch population has had a small rebound. Small. Don't get too excited. The total 2014/2015 overwintering population covered a mere 1.13 hectares, up from an all-time low last winter of 0.67. Not quite doubled, but it's a start. 

And more good monarch news: The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a broad monarch conservation plan including a combined $3.2 million of USFWS funds and public and private donors to support habitat creation and education.  (The USFWS 'Save the Monarch' page even has a link to this blog under 'Regional Stories: from a local homeowner" !)

Successful monarch conservation still comes down to one thing: plant milkweed, it is the only food monarch caterpillars can eat. And my greenhouse is cranking it out! Butterfly weed has been up since late January, it's already three inches tall.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa

I've got a second batch of butterfly weed coming up this week:

Three day old butterfly weed (Aslepias tuberosa)
The common (A. syriaca) and whorled (A. verticillata) milkweed seeds planted in flats last year were dug out of their four foot deep protective snow blanket ten days ago and started sprouting yesterday. And I just obtained seeds for poke milkweed (A. exaltata), a shade-loving milkweed also native to Massachusetts. So no more "I don't have any sun" as an excuse to not grow milkweed!

If you've ever wondered if snow really does protect your perennials check this out: I dug a dozen potted mature swamp milkweed plants out from under four feet of snow and tiny new shoots had already formed:
Potted swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) has already woken up under the snow. 
If you're planning on growing milkweed from seeds and didn't manage to spread them in your garden last fall the best way to get them to sprout is place them in damp sand or vermiculite in your fridge for two to three months. Then soak them in warm water for at least 24 hours. This duplicates the cold and damp winter they would experience in nature and the subsequent warm spring. 

Happy milkweed planting everyone! Look for me at local farmers markets on the North Shore this spring and summer. I announce where I'll be each week on my website. I'll try to have plenty of all five native milkweeds I'm growing available. Monarch mass exodus from Mexico will happen any day, let's get more milkweed planted for when they arrive here in late June and hopefully we can double the monarch population again next year!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Growing up Growing Monarchs - a family guide

There have been fewer things so magical in my recent life as a mom than having raised monarch caterpillars with my two girls. Over the last three summers we have released at least fifty and every time one emerges from its chrysalis it's just as exciting as the very first time.

We've even been known to eat breakfast with a critter cage full of chrysalises as a centerpiece knowing one could come out at any time.

It's easy to raise monarchs with your family, put this step-by-step tutorial in your back pocket for next summer since all the monarchs now are speeding their way to Mexico to spend the winter:

1) Find an egg or caterpillar. Easiest way to do this is find a patch of milkweed, or even better, create a monarch way station in your yard and hopefully the monarch females will come to you!
Checking milkweed for eggs at Sally Pond in Ipswich, MA

2) Look on the underside of the milkweed leaves for the tiny creamy white/yellowish eggs, monarch mommas usually choose the newest leaves at the top. The eggs are about twice the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

3) Clip the top part of the plant containing the egg, or caterpillar, bring it home and stick it in a cup of water. I find a hummus container or take-out soup container works well. I cut a small hole in the container lid so the plant stands up and the caterpillar can't fall in the water. Then place the whole cup and plant in a large jar, small aquarium or plastic bin with a top so the caterpillars don't wander all over your house when they're looking for a spot to make their chrysalis.

4) The egg will hatch in 3-4 days and then you have a beautiful caterpillar that will grow at an incredible rate. If human newborns grew as fast, and big, as monarch caterpillars they would be the size of a school bus in 14 days! Your kids will marvel over the amount of caterpillar poo (called frass) one caterpillar can make!
A 12-day-old caterpillar

5) Keep your monarch caterpillar supplied with fresh milkweed for around 14 days and you will be rewarded with a beautiful chrysalis. The caterpillar then dissolves within its new house and reforms as a butterfly in about another 14 days.

Monarch chrysalises

6) If you're lucky you'll get to see your butterfly emerge. Let its wings dry for a few hours or even a whole day before you release it.  It won't need nectar right away. We even tag our fall emerging monarchs with a tiny sticker that contains an ID number and email address. Anyone that finds it along its migration south to Mexico can report the butterfly to the Monarch Watch tagging program. Even my 4 and 6-year-olds can put the tags on! (right)

Raising monarch butterflies is definitely something every kid should experience in their childhood. And with the population being down 90% every female adult butterfly released is another one that can lay up to 300 eggs to help bring this species back from the brink. So plant some milkweed early next spring, look for some eggs and have fun!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fall Plantings for Pollinators

A newly tagged monarch on Mexican sunflower
Creating a beautiful and functioning pollinator garden means having blooms from the earliest bluestars in late April all the way to the last flowering sedum that survives the first frosts. Good nectar sources are especially important during September and October for the millions of fall migrating monarchs that have to travel up to 2,500 miles to their winter grounds in the mountains of central Mexico. 

Monarch nectaring on butterflyweed

This generation of monarchs won't reproduce until next spring, so they don't necessarily need milkweeds for their offspring. Although, butterflyweed (my favorite milkweed -to the right) is still blooming in my garden and feeds many pollinators from monarchs to fritillaries to honeybees. 

My monarch waysation on September 14th.

I've tagged and let go more than a dozen monarchs amongst my flowers in the last few weeks. The tag numbers can be reported to Monarch Watch if they're recovered anywhere along the butterfly's migration. 

The newly released monarchs still have more than a dozen kinds of flowers to nectar on from the perennial black eyed susans, joe pye weed, sedum, garden phlox, ox-eye sunflowers and echinacea to the stunning annual mexican sunflower and red lantanas.  The best part about all these plants is once they're established they're drought tolerant. I haven't watered my monarch waystation all summer!

White chocolate snakeroot about to flower in mid-September
While some of my perennials are starting to fade, the white chocolate snakeroot is about to explode in a riot of delicate white flowers. Until that moment, this beautiful plant adds a stunning dark green and purple foliage to the garden. And then its tiny white flowers last until November, past when most other plants have gone to seed and the goldfinches descend for the feast. 

Garden phlox
Even if you just add a $1.98 pot of mums to a window box that little nectar source will go a long way to a bee, butterfly or hummingbird that wakes up on a 40 degree morning. A walk through any nursery will show you what's still blooming and many of those nurseries also have great end-of-year sales. I picked up this garden phlox (left) last year half off and it's going strong right now! So add some blooms to your fall garden. Your neighborhood pollinators will thank you. 

Black eyed susans amongst white snakeroot starting to flower

Tagged monarchs on black eyed susans

Eastern tiger swallowtail on joe pye weed


Friday, July 11, 2014

Project "Neighborhood Milkweed"

A month ago I ordered a flat of 32 swamp milkweed plugs from the Monarch Watch Milkweed Market. They were supposed to be 3" tall. When I opened the box they were nearly a foot tall! I had planned on growing them up and using them for clients next year but these were just begging to go in someone's garden right away.

I thought about my neighborhood and how so many people already had lovely gardens, they were just lacking milkweed. I typed up a letter explaining I had these 32 plants, that monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed, why the species is declining and that everyone can help by adding this beautiful plant to their gardens. And the best part? They could take one for free. How extraordinary would it be if the whole neighborhood were a giant Monarch Waystation?

Before my kids and I even got back from delivering the 49 letters a plant was already taken. By the end of the week 20% of the neighborhood had milkweed in their yards. By this writing 20 houses, or 41% of the neighborhood now has milkweed!

I still have a few plants and I'm really hoping I can convince more neighbors to take them. I'm not worried about finding the milkweeds homes, I actually have a waiting list of friends all around Essex County who want a plant!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Monarch Waystation Plant List

A Monarch Waystation needs at least one species of milkweed to sustain monarch caterpillars as well as nectar sources to sustain the adults as they migrate. Native plants are best as they're almost always drought tolerant and also provide habitat for other butterfly species to propagate. Most insects will only use certain native host plants on which to lay their eggs.

Why you won't see butterfly bush on this list: Nurseries love to push the non-native butterfly bush to clients wanting a "butterfly garden". While I do have one in my yard (it was here when we bought the house) I would not purchase another one. No insect can actually use butterfly bush to reproduce. They will attract butterflies to your yard, but there are many even more beautiful native options becoming readily available at nurseries.

The following is a short list of easy-to-grow native options for your monarch garden or certified monarch waystation. They are all available at most local nurseries. The milkweeds and New Jersey Tea can be trickier to find, contact me for help if you can't locate any.

THE NATIVE MILKWEEDS: Necessary for monarch reproduction. Milkweeds are the only plants monarch caterpillars can eat.
Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
24" to 48"
Moist to wet, even flooding, but tolerates drought once established.
Partial shade to sun.
Cultivars also available with a white flower. 
To prevent this from sprouting up all over your yard just remove seed pods before they open up (or save the seeds and make more!)

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa
12" to 36"
Thrives in dry, sandy, even gravelly soil. Great for planting along a road, doesn't mind bad soil.
Full sun, will tolerate a few hours of shade.

NATIVE NECTAR SOURCES: These flowers sustain the monarchs on both their spring and fall migrations. Plant a variety to ensure something is always flowering.

Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum
36" to 96" tall. Can be trimmed back to keep shorter and will still re-flower. Flowers all summer.
Moist to wet, but drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Spreads by rhizomes, can be easily divided and shared with others. Neighbors are always asking me for clumps.

White Chocolate Snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum
24" to 36"
Striking dark foliage with clusters of small white flowers in late summer into autumn, providing nectar during the monarch's fall migration.
Moist, but tolerates drought when well established.
Sun to partial shade.

 Blanket flower, Gaillardia sp.
Up to 24"
Blooms July through fall.
Drought tolerant once established.
Full sun, will tolerate a few hours of shade.
Summer Phlox, Phlox paniculata
36" to 60" tall
Moist soil, drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Flowers mid summer.
This newly emerged monarch female spent an hour on my phlox this past summer before it took off north.
Tickseed, Coreopsis lanceolata
 18" to 30" tall.
Moist to dry, drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Flowers early to mid summer.
Will produce more blooms if deadheaded regularly.

 Ox-eye Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides
36" to 60" tall.
Moist to dry, drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Flowers mid-summer.

 Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
18" to 24"
Well drained soil, drought tolerant.
Full sun.
Blooms late spring to mid summer.
 New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus
A dense shrub up to 3 feet high and wide.
Does well in poor, dry soil, good for planting along a road side.
Flowers in June and July
Blazing Star, Liatris spicata
24" to 48"
Moist to wet, drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial sun.
Flowers mid summer.
Also attracts hummingbirds.

Sweet Pepper Bush (Summersweet), 
Clethra alnifolia
Up to 8 feet tall and wide. Dwarf cultivars are available called "Hummingbird Summersweet" and are up to 4 feet tall and wide.
Moist to wet acidic soil, tolerates flooding. Slightly drought tolerant once established. 
Partial shade to sun.
Flowers July and August.
Also attracts hummingbirds and is a great alternative to butterfly bush.

NATIVES FOR ATTRACTING HUMMINGBIRDS: add some of these and hummingbirds won't be able to resist your monarch waystation.

Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis
24" to 48"
Moist to wet, even flooded, but drought tolerant once established.
Sun to partial shade.
Tall stalk of crimson flowers in mid to late summer. Irresistible to hummingbirds.
Self seeds, you will find tiny ones popping up all over the place. They are easy to dig up and relocate as the parent plants don't often last more than a year or two.

Beesbalm (Oswego Tea), Monarda didyma
16" to 30"
Moist to dry.
Full sun, will tolerate a few hours of shade.
Flowers in summer, irresistible to hummingbirds.
Spreads by rhizomes, easy to divide and use to fill in areas of your garden or share. I am always digging this up and giving it away!

Recommended Plants for New England Monarch Gardens:

Milkweeds - the only plant monarch caterpillars eat:
Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata
Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa
Whorled Milkweed, Asclepias verticillata
Tropical milkweed (annual), Asclepias curassavica
Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca (not recommended for small gardens)

Native Perennial Nectar Sources:
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium
Bluestar, Amsonia tabernaemontana
Tickseed, Coreopsis lanceolata
Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea
Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium maculatum
White Chocolate Snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum
Blanket flower, Gaillardia sp
Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale
Ox-eye Sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides
Blazing Star, Liatris spicata
Beesbalm (Oswego Tea), Monarda didyma
Summer Phlox, Phlox paniculata
Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia sp.
Eastern foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia

Native nectar shrubs and host shrubs for other butterflies:
New Jersey Tea, Ceanothus americanus
Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis
Sweet Pepper Bush (Summersweet), Clethra alnifolia
Redtwig Dogwood, Cornus sericea
Itea virginiana, Virginia sweetspire
Spicebush, Lindera benzoin
White meadowsweet, Spirea alba
Steeplebush, Spirea tomentosa
American cranberry bush, Viburnum trilobum

Annuals to attract butterflies and hummingbirds:
Mexican sunflower

(Ascelpias incarnata)
(Ascelpias incarnata)