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!