2015 The Year of the Monarch

Each year since 2007 we have watched patiently for the return of the monarch butterfly to our little half acre. That was the year Nan was walking along the fence on the south side of our yard and spotted a monarch caterpillar acting strangely. As she stopped to observe this behavior the caterpillar became a chrysalis right before her eyes. This set off a chain reaction of excited study and observation that led to the planting of various species of milkweed in our garden and the yearly collecting of monarch caterpillars to protect them from their predators and ultimately release them back into our garden. It's our own little effort to counter some of the impact of the eradication of milkweed from midwest agricultural land through the use of Roundup and the drive for efficiency that virtually eliminates fencerows and other 'non-productive' land where milkweed used to grow.

The monarch migration from Mexico that begins each spring and leap-frogs north by generation doesn't generally bring many monarchs to our garden early in the season. Though we have seen our first monarch the past two years around Father's Day, they don't stay long as they move on across Lake Erie and up into Canada. In fact, we generally don't see more than a few monarchs until August when they come, lay their eggs on our milkweed, and prepare to begin the great migration south. So, along with the milkweed, we plant asters and goldenrod that will be in bloom late in the summer and on into the early autumn to provide a nectar source for our little friends. And we wait for them to come.

Sometimes we will have quite a few, as in 2011 when we released almost 140 butterflies. Sometimes, as in 2013, we will see only a handful. But this year has been the best so far.

We took our first monarch caterpillar inside this year on August 1. Since then there have been monarchs mating and laying eggs on our milkweed everyday. I look out the window beyond my computer as I work and see several monarchs drifting from plant to plant all day long. It has been a magnificent year! (Though la bit difficult to focus on my work!)

Since we brought our first little guy in less than three weeks ago, we have had to work hard to keep up with the feeding as this year’s brood has threatened to eat us out of house and home. As of today (August 18) we have brought in 158 I caterpillars and quite a few eggs that have not yet hatched. (We generally try not to bring in leaves with eggs on them as we haven't had a good track record nursing them to become caterpillars, but this year they are so prevalent that it is hard to pick a leaf and not get an egg!)

It remains to be seen just how many we will have before they start south, but there are clearly dozens of eggs on the plants in our garden now that in the days to come will become caterpillars. Also, in the next several days we will release dozens of monarchs into our garden as we currently have several screens of chrysalises and many other caterpillars who are "J'd up" preparing to become a chrysalis in the next several hours. It is already a great year for the monarch in Cincinnati ... at least in our garden. And if we don't run out of milkweed, we will contribute a record number (for us) back to the great migration.

Book Review: Noah's Garden

Sara Stein and her husband moved into a property that most realtors would describe as “having enormous potential for improvement” and proceeded to “improve” it, clearing brush, mowing, and doing the things that most of us do when we garden. After a few years they noticed that the quail and pheasants were gone. So was most of the other wildlife. And in time they realized that they were the cause of these disappearances. They had taken away the homes and protective cover of the small creatures.

Noah’s Garden is the narrative of the author’s work to restore her 5 acre lot in upstate New York to something resembling native vegetation. It turns out that restoring a habitat involves a lot more than just planting some native species and calling it good. Habitats are interactive systems, and having the right native species for the area in the right numbers and the right combinations are all important.

In this small book Sara Stein tells how to preserve enough of nature to keep some of its wonders alive. Noah’s Garden is not a scolding rebuke against “foreign” plants in the landscape, nor against any particular type of landscaping at all; though she does enlighten the reader with an insightful critique of why the typical suburban “blandscape” is so hostile to wildlife, pointing out that sprawling suburban landscapes have been enormously destructive to native habitats as they are displaced by the monocultures of lawn and easy care shrubs and trees.

The good news in Stein’s book is that she believes that the suburbs and native habitats can co-exist; and lays out some plans for them to do so.

This book may well change the view from your patio. Stein writes convincingly of the necessity of good stewardship of the land stolen from prairies and forests to make our back yards. She documents her own journey from being a conventional American gardener to a naturalist, ecologist and native-habitat restorer. Along the way there are lessons to learn. Here’s one of them:

How much water does it take to quench a butterfly’s thirst? Give a dove a bath? Provide a laying place for toads? No more than a puddle.” But where are the puddles? Where are the dirt roads that you splashed in during your youth? Probably paved over with excellent drainage. The sad truth is that we’ve improved away our toads, doves and butterflies. (And when is the last time you worried about running barefoot in the backyard because of all the honey bees on the clover?)

Restoring natural habitat requires that we learn from nature. The value of this book is that the author provides some of that education with a good bit of humor and a bunch personal experience. Read the book and, when you are finished, dig in to Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home for even more ideas on how to make your quarter acre of our planet a better place for all God’s creatures.

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Both of the last two years my wife, Nan, has written in the Hamilton County Master Gardener newsletter ComPOST about the experiences we have had in our little half acre working to attract and preserve the monarch butterfly population. This year it is my turn to reflect a bit on what kind of year 2012 was for our little friends.

Monarch on Tall Verbena

Monarch on Tall Verbena

Let’s start with the BAD. Why not? I don’t need to tell you that the summer was hot and dry – too hot and dry in many areas for good monarch reproduction. Chip Taylor of the Monarch Watch organization says, “It is now clear that fall population will be on the low side. We have received many comments on the poor quality of the milkweed available to monarchs for the last generation. The low number of nectar sources that will be available to monarchs moving through the lower Midwest in September is a concern. Some fall flowers have already bloomed, some have died and many of the others are stunted and just barely alive. There will be nectar but it will be harder for the monarchs to find.”

Actually, our personal experience was that we didn’t just have fewer monarch butterflies, we had virtually no monarchs in our yard this summer. We saw one or two early but word on the street seemed to be that it was so warm so early that they just went on north. Some areas in Canada reported record numbers early in the year. But, whatever the reason, despite growing several kinds of milkweed, we had no butterflies until a handful stopped in our yard on their way south in September. That is a far cry from the 150 or so monarchs we released as they eclosed from their crysalis’s in the summer of 2010. Others in the midwest had similar experiences. One garden blogger that I read recently wrote about the lack of butterflies this summer in his yard. You can find a link to that post here.

So, let’s move on to the GOOD. Even though we are very interested in helping the monarch population survive, we enjoy all kinds of butterflies and have planted the host plants for many of the native butterflies of our region. So, even though we have not had monarchs this summer, we have had a good variety of others and it has given us a new appreciation for the beauty and variety of these little creatures. As all gardeners know, creating diversity is a good thing!

But what about the UGLY?

Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar on Wafer Ash

Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar on Wafer Ash

One day at the end of August I realized that there were Giant Swallowtails laying eggs on our Wafer Ash in our backyard. And soon enough, we spotted first eggs, then tiny caterpillars; barely visible and looking like little smears of bird poop! We brought these little guys inside and fed them both Wafer Ash leaves as well as leaves from a Rue plant we have in our yard (also a host plant for the Giant Swallowtail). These caterpillars as they have grown have had the same effect on Nan and I as the first Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars we ever saw in our yard … you just can’t help but break out into a big grin when you look at them. They are gloriously and wonderfully made! And they become the largest butterfly native to our area.

So, even though the summer seemed to be a bust early on. We have had a lot of GOOD along with a joyful bit of UGLY at the end.