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Save the Monarch Butterfly!

Doing Your Part to Save Nature

by Sandy Swegel

The big nature news this week was an article in the New York Times that 2013 is the first year anyone remembers that the monarchs didn’t appear in the central forests of Mexico for the Day of the Dead. It’s part of the cultural tradition there that the annual migration of monarchs to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico represents the souls of the dead.  Last year scientists were worried when only 60 million monarchs came back to Mexico, but this year a paltry 3 million struggled in weeks late.

A primary cause of the monarch’s disappearance is the destruction of milkweed in the Midwest, the monarch’s only food. Native habitat in which milkweed thrives has been destroyed as prairie turns to endless mono-crops of Roundup-drenched fields of corn.  There are other factors such as massive deforestation in Mexico and the transition of prairie land to suburbia. But no milkweed means the monarch starves.

It’s interesting that the New York Times has been a big supporter of the monarch.  This was the third article in the last year in which they have featured the decline of the monarch. They have seen the writing on the wall.

What can you do?  Keep up the usual things you do opposing GMO crops that rely on Roundup to wipe out all native “weeds.”  There’s political action work to reduce the corn subsidies that make Roundup profitable.  But as a gardener, you can plant some milkweed and other native plants that will feed the many native pollinators in dramatic decline.  The monarch might be the prettiest most dramatic victim of our prairie destruction, but there are many others.  Gardeners understand the delicate web of life that depends on native habitat.  Tell your friends.

New York Times on the Monarch: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/sunday-review/the-year-the-monarch-didnt-appear.html?_r=0http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/opinion/sunday/monarchs-fight-for-their-lives.htmlhttp://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/science/earth/monarch-migration-plunges-to-lowest-level-in-decades.html

Photo Credit:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/science/12butterfly.html?pagewanted=all

Primping for Winter Interest

How to Prepare the Garden For Winter

by Sandy Swegel

As Fall proceeds at full speed, our tasks in the garden take a new direction as we start primping for winter interest.  There’s no longer time for flowers to set new buds to bloom before frost.  There won’t be any tomatoes that aren’t already on the vine.  A killing frost will come soon and kill off many of the annual flowers. So it’s time to start getting the garden ready to look good this winter.  Now instead of thinking about colorful flower displays, we turn our thoughts to structure and texture in the garden.  We want to leave tall flower seedheads to dramatically collect snow in winter as well as feed the birds.  There’s no more deadheading roses – now you want to see the rose hips mature and redden as the air gets cooler. Tall ornamental grasses will sway dramatically in winter winds.

In short, here are the things you don’t need to do anymore this year.

Stop deadheading flowers.

You want to see stately stems of echinacea and rudbeckia in the winter garden. Blooms of butterfly bush frozen in place will give a hint of color into the winter.  Small plants you thought were finished like scabiosa or dianthus will throw out a few final blooms that provide some late bee nectar.

Let dying foliage stay in place.

Earlier in the season, I’d pull off dead leaves from daylilies, so things would look their best.  Now, brown and golden foliage against green leaves is part of the vibrancy of Fall.

Let vines wander where they may.

I spend a good part of the summer garden season trying to prevent aggressive Virginia Creeper from pulling down branches of the wild plum and apple trees. Now the crisp red color of the Virginia Creeper delights me and I love seeing its leaves vining all throughout the garden.  Even the weedy self-sowing morning glories have beautiful golden tones as they twine up and down flower stalks.

Let your flowers reseed. 

The easiest way to garden is to let your flowers reseed themselves.  Bachelor Buttons and Mexican Hat and California Poppies are all dispersing their seeds to soak in the winter moisture and cold so they can burst forth again next Spring.  Some seeds I’ll collect for starting in pots next Spring, but it’s nicest when they just seed themselves in place.

Let the annual weeds be.

It’s always time to keep after perennial weeds like thistles and dandelions, but annual weeds that crop up now won’t usually have time to make flowers much less set seed before killing frost.  It’s usually safe to just leave them alone.

Let your vegetable garden reseed itself.

I’ve left the leek flower stalks in place.  Big seed heads of dill and parsley and anise are allowed to stand in the vegetable garden.  Even the lettuce and spinach and chard that bolted in summer heat now remain and drop their seeds to return next Spring.  I usually absentmindedly forget some of the garlic and potatoes….that will all return next year to be vigorous new plants.  Arugula has already multiplied itself a thousandfold in my lettuce bed.

The one task still to do?  WATER if needed.  The dry low humidity days of Fall can desiccate the garden.  If you don’t have rain, be sure to do some supplemental watering so that your perennial plants go into Winter well-watered.  Desiccation from dry air and winds is responsible for more winterkill than mere dry soil.  So give everything a good drink now before all the leaves fall.  You may have to water again in November and throughout the winter if it’s dry, but a well-watered Fall garden has an excellent chance of surviving even brutal winter conditions.

A Pest you Can’t Help but Love

Love For the Hornworm

by Sandy Swegel

Yesterday was a bright sunny day and pollinators were out gorging on the nectar of asters. It’s been a good year for asters, those vigorous re-seeders.  Besides honey bees and some native bees, there were at least seven hummingbird sphinx moths in a small garden area. Their very long proboscis lets them eat from many kinds of flowers and carry pollen about.  I was watching them while scooping up ten inches of topsoil that flood waters had moved about 15 feet away from the raised tomato bed.  So I was scooping the soil up and putting it back.  Easy enough.  In one shovel there was an enormous mud-covered caterpillar squirming.  Slowly I realized that underneath all that mud there was a bright green tomato hornworm and my gut reaction was to kill it right away so I could save my tomatoes.

Fortunately I also immediately thought about the hummingbird moths I had just been admiring. My brain cells reminded me the hummingbird moth and the tomato hornworm are one and the same creature.  How can I both love and hate one creature?  I also found myself filled with compassion for the hornworm because we had earlier pulled and thrown away all tomato plants. Between the ecoli the flood waters carried, the fungus growing on the leaves from too much water, and the forecast of 34 degrees tonight, there was no good reason to keep tomato plants.  So no more food for the hornworm.  Poor hornworm….flood and famine.  He was really big and fat so I hoped he had enough calories to pupate and I threw him on the pile of mud and dead tomato debris that was going to the landfill and wished him well.

Next year I just have to remind myself to plant enough tomatoes so one or two hornworms can grow up into the beautiful hummingbird sphinx moths that pollinate my flowers.

Photo Credit http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-07/lifestyle/41153436_1_light-tomato-darkhttp://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/

2 Easy Ways to Have More Flowers Next Year!

Wildflower Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

Your task this week is to go stand in the part of your garden that has wildflower-y plants.  You’ll notice two things. The first thing is that there are lots of spent flowers and seed heads that need to be deadheaded. Everything from rudbeckia to dill to penstemon has mature seed heads. You can always collect these seeds and put them in little envelopes to save for spring or you can take my lazy way out and Snip off the seed head and Fling it in the general direction you’d like it to grow next year.  Flowering plants always seem to migrate to the edge of the garden bed and need some encouragement to move to the middle and back of the bed.  Keep flinging seeds knowing that some of them will germinate right in the place they fall…so Fling merrily.

Your second assignment is to find a spring or early summer bloomer and stand in front of it.  A Columbine or Penstemon, Agastache and Echinacea are good possibilities.  Often right at the feet of these now finished beauties are dozens of little plants or even seedlings that have germinated in the past month and are growing next year’s plants.  I take my hori-hori knife and gently dig or carve out (we have lots of clay soil) a nice plug of soil that keeps the baby plants roots intact and plant it where I’d like more plants.  If the plant is young and you didn’t disturb the roots much, there won’t be transplant shock…just a new perennial that will bloom next year.

Whether you are flinging seeds or digging up plant plugs, you’ve saved yourself a lot of time and fussing with seed starting trays under lights and you’ve tricked Mother Nature into letting those perennials bloom giving you more flowers next year.  New plants easy, quick and free.  That’s my kind of gardening.

Bumblebees Love Purple

The Bees Favorite Flower

by Sandy Swegel

I visited one of my favorite suburban lawn alternative gardens yesterday.  It’s a true pollinator’s heaven of nectar and pollen, right on a neighborhood street. Full of perennial gaillardia and rudbeckia, and reseeding annual larkspur, cleome, and sunflower, the garden uses about the same amount of water as your average lawn.

Bees were everywhere.  Neighbors stop by in wonder at what can be done with a front yard instead of plain old grass.  In the median strips in front of the flowers, kales and lettuces produced greens for the neighboring. This time of year, gaillardia and rudbeckia are dominant with their yellows, oranges and reds.  But something different this year was a plethora of purple larkspur.  Curious, I  asked community urban farmers Scott and Wendy about the variation.  They and the landowner are all careful gardeners, unlikely to throw in something different without a reason.  Scott explained matter-of-factly, “Well it’s for the bumblebees. They prefer purple.”  I was skeptical since I see bumblebees all day on different colored flowers.  He assured me they had watched the field for the last couple of years. The bumblebees always went for purple flowers.  And walking on the path, huge fat bumblebees were on the purple larkspur, gorging away.

I couldn’t resist a little more research and sure enough, studies in Germany showed that baby bumblebees love purple flowers. Purple flowers are thought to contain more nectar than other colors and that baby bumblebees who chose purple flowers had a better chance of survival…they then passed the purple preference onto their offspring.

I’m not sure what most piqued my curiosity this day…I loved learning that bumblebees like purple flowers best.  But I think I was more intrigued by Wendy and Scott just noticing all season that the bumblebees liked one particular color.  In the end, though, I’m most impressed with the bumblebees who somehow got the humans to plant their favorite food.  Very clever bees.

More info: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/02/21/bees-can-sense-the-electric-fields-of-flowers/

Black Swallowtails

Protect Your Dill and Parsley

by Sandy Swegel

I’m very proud of my mama.  At 80+ and on oxygen 24 hours a day, she’s still making valiant efforts to keep her brain functioning.  She led a busy life, but now that’s she’s older and can’t get around easily without oxygen tanks, she is learning to observe what is in front of her.  Today she called me very proudly and announced that she had found five huge caterpillars on her dill plant in her tiny courtyard garden down in New Orleans.  She was never a gardener but at this point in life she loves watching butterflies through the window and had watched over the last few weeks wondering why the butterflies were all over the dill plant.  She called because she wanted to know what would happen next and what she should do or not do.

I pretty much said do nothing except maybe to make sure the cat kept the birds from eating those fat plump caterpillars.  And then I googled and found these great pictures of what’s going to happen.  She’s going to have to look around because the butterflies might make their home on some sticks or weeds or even under a tiny fountain.  She’s promised to take pictures…but photographer Bob Moul made a great website about what you should look for if black swallowtails are all over your dill, parsley or fennel. http://www.pbase.com/rcm1840/lifecycleofblsw  It only takes a few weeks from huge caterpillar to new butterfly!

Usually, it’s the very young and the old who have the wisdom to notice nature’s miracles like butterflies…but I’m going to check the dill and parsley too. If you don’t have time to stalk your dill plants, here’s an awesome time-lapse video of caterpillar to butterfly!  The first part of the video is all about frenzied eating.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrowLvvmmds

Going the Extra Mile for Pollinators

Saving the Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You know the basics for saving bees and other pollinators:

- Create a native plant wildflower habitat that provides season-long sources of pollen and nectar.

 – Provide a water source if a natural one is not available.

 – Stop your own use of pesticides that affect bees.

Just doing those three things will do a lot to invite pollinators to your yard and give them safe harbor.

This week, I’ll be posting about people and organizations who do even more…who go the extra mile for pollinators, sometimes with the simplest measures.

Winter Feeding Pollen Patties My neighbor Kathy has kept bees and for many years on a large suburban lot and like many beekeepers has endured the increased death of hives in recent years.  Going into this winter, she was very pessimistic about one of her hives that had almost no honey stores.  Since she had lost healthy hives in the past, she wasn’t too hopeful about a weak hive.  However, she found a new product for feeding bees in winter….rather than just putting out sugar water, she fed her bees Winter Pollen Patties. She used a product by Dadent and simply put the flat sheets of pollen substitute right on top of the bees.  When this Spring turned into a disaster for pollinators (multiple late freezes meant no spring blossoms on trees, a significant source of food for bees and other pollinators), Kathy continues to put the pollen patties in her hives.  Both hives are thriving the best she has seen in years.  And both hives are making babies.

It wasn’t a lot of work to go the extra mile of feeding bees in winter.  You have to learn to think about beekeeping from a bee’s perspective:  What does the bee need to eat?  The protein of pollen, not just sugar.  Just like humans can’t survive on soda.

Once you get your pollinator habitat growing, start thinking about what the next extra mile is you can do for pollinators in your garden.  Perhaps it’s nesting sites for wild bees. Perhaps it’s educating a neighbor about pesticides.  Let’s share our knowledge about what are the extra things that make a difference.

For more info on scientific methods for feeding bees in winter, check out “Scientific Beekeeping” http://scientificbeekeeping.com/fat-bees-part-2/

For a video on how to feed pollen patties:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cBZCL33fNHY

Honey Bees vs Native Bees

The Importance of Both Bees

by Becky Hansen

Bees are one of our agricultural industry’s most important resources and indeed one of our planet’s most important resources and the survival of the human race is in the hands of the pollinators. The pollinator issue is a hot topic these days, but, there is more to pollinating a crop than meets the eye.  There is great complexity in the relationship between the bees and the plants in an agricultural setting.  The needs of the plant species and the pollinators must match up pretty closely.  When it is all working together everybody benefits!  The farmer has successful crop yields and the bees are happy, healthy and well fed.  The flower structures, pollination method, pollen size and shape, nectar content are just some of the plant qualifications that a bee species looks for when ‘shopping’ for food and nectar.

Some bees such as the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) are polylectic which means that they will be able to find good food sources from many different plant species.  That is why a wildflower mix of several species is really great for the Honey Bee, as the time when nectar and pollen sources are available is lengthened.  Other bees are oligolectic, like the Alfalfa Leafcutter Bee (Megachile rotundata), that is very picky about the plant species that it chooses for its nourishment.  In fact, these bees primarily like alfalfa.  The Honey Bee has specialized pockets on its hind legs where it stores the pollen which it then takes back to the nest for food storage.  The Leafcutter Bee has special hairs on its front where it collects the pollen that is used and stored in the nest where the eggs are laid.  The honey bee is a social bee in that it lives in colonies with males and females with differentiated duties.  This allows for the nests to be collected and moved to various crop locations.  The leafcutter bee is a solitary bee in that, after mating, all females, individually, collect pollen and nectar and build their own nest for eggs and protection. But because they prefer to build their nests in close proximity to other leafcutter bees, they can be lured to man-made nests and can also be transported to other crop locations.

Both of these bee species are so different from each other but both are commercially used to pollinate different crops for just that reason.  They don’t compete with each other for the resources available. Take a bit of time to learn more about the pollinators in your pollinator gardens and look at the flowers that they most frequently go to for food.  Find out their ‘favorites’ so you can plant more of those.  All l those hardworking critters are “‘busy as bees” helping to ‘save the human race’ by making food and agriculture products for you and me.

Watch a movie on setting up a new Honey Beehive: http://youtu.be/tqjP3-6prwM Great learning video about the lifecycle of bees: http://youtu.be/sSk_ev1eZec Watch a Leafcutter Bee making a brood cell: http://youtu.be/EjsZ419lmMY

Making a Leafcutting bee house: http://youtu.be/chCu-pQxpB0

leafcutter bee photo: http://www.ars.usda.gov/images/docs/14415_14609/ALCB1.gif

How to get your Neighbors and Friends Interested in Pollinators

Saving the Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You have finally come to understand how important pollinators are and why we need to protect them.  One of the challenges we who value pollinators face is how to get your neighbors and friends interested in pollinators too.  Unfortunately, we’ll start to ramble about how bad chemicals are or how GMO crops harm the environment and if we pay attention we’ll notice our listeners’ eyes are glazing over and they’re looking for a quick exit.  Even with other people interested in the same topics, it’s not long till people get that bored “You’re preaching to the choir” look. When you’re passionate you want other people to be passionate too, and maybe take to the streets in pursuit of your cause…but that rarely happens.

So what can you do to educate others about protecting pollinators?

I’ve learned a lot from watching Niki, a member of our garden group, over the years.  Over time she had inspired many people to put in pollinator habitats or at least to stop pouring chemicals on their lawns.  And she did it without preaching.  So taking inspiration from her over the years, here’s an action list on how to gently inspire others to protect pollinators and the environment.

Make a demo garden in your front yard.

It was a slow start for Niki.  She lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and her decision to turn her front yard from perfect green grass to a xeric native habitat caused some upset in the ‘hood. At first, people thought she was bringing property values down with all those weeds.  But she kept the garden tidy and explained every plant she grew to anyone who stopped by.  She invited the kids over to watch butterflies.  She explained to people who asked why she was doing what she did.  Her friendly attitude and a “come pick out of my garden anytime” attitude built relationships.  Neighbors on their mowers noticed they were out doing yard work every weekend and she wasn’t.  Then she started to tell people how much money she was saving by not watering the lawn and using chemicals.  That changed a few people’s minds. She added in the info that you could protect your trees without the expensive sprays the tree companies wanted to do. Soon the whole neighborhood was just a little more pollinator friendly.

Teach the kids

Kids have open minds.  Have an inviting garden with butterflies everywhere, and kids will stop to look around.  They’ll ask questions and they’ll tell their families about the cool stuff they learned today.

Give away free stuff.

It’s pretty easy to collect seed from native plants or to put seed you have in little envelopes to give away.  People in the neighborhood learned they could get free seeds for lots of low-water flowering plants if they stopped at Niki’s.  They also learned they could get free plants.  She started seeds in her living room or dug up self-seeding plants and put them in tiny pots and gave them to anyone who would learn how to take care of them. Soon, that’s native food sources up and down the block.

Offer Free Public Classes

Soon the neighbors had all the free seeds and plants they could use.  So the next step was to offer free classes to the public. Our library offers meeting rooms for public groups for free so soon Niki was offering 2-hour Saturday classes on “Chemical-free gardening” or “Make your own natural cleaning products.” Another 2-hour Saturday project was the free Seed Swap in January which invited everyone to bring their extra seeds and swap with one another.  Gardeners meeting other gardeners is often all it takes.  Lots of people came to classes because they wanted to save money or have a safer environment for their kids.  They all left with that info and with an understanding of why chemicals can really hurt bees and other pollinators and how there’s an easier way to do things.  Not preachy…but well-researched information.  A heartfelt story about the impact of pesticides in Kansas on monarch butterflies all over the world helps people want to do the right thing.

Be generous with your time to talk to others

Soon gardeners and community members learned Niki and now her gardening circle friends would come to talk to their neighborhood association or school about native bees and butterflies.  Or they’d look at your suffering tomato plant and suggest a natural home-made remedy.  Everyone got on an email group together and ended up teaching each other about natural gardening and making homes for pollinators. Local media people saw the library classes and now had someone to call when they needed a radio show or newspaper article.

Make Your Own Mud Puddle

Do It For The Pollinators

I’m always in search of how to do things more easily and efficiently in the garden. Once again today I was at the garden center eavesdropping and heard a typical customer question: ”What should I plant to get pollinators to my yard?” The answer the garden center owner gave surprised me.  I was expecting a list of bright colorful flowers that were good sources of nectar and some host-specific plants for butterflies. Instead, I heard the best and simplest answer to this common question: “There are lots of good plants to use,  but the most important thing you can do is provide a good source of water.” He then elaborated that it couldn’t just be a birdbath or water fountain…it needed to be shallow and ideally have the minerals pollinators crave.

So the quick and easy way to get LOTS of pollinators to your yard is to make your own mud puddles.  Or if you’re a bit tidier, a water sand bath.

Any way to get small puddles of water will work. You’ve seen this when flying insects gather around a dripping spigot, or when there’s a ledge in your water feature that water flows slowly over. In nature, pollinators gather along the edges of streams and lakes.

To mimic nature, take a plant saucer and fill it half with sand and fill with water to just over the sand.  The sand is the source of minerals and gives an easy surface to rest upon.  Bees especially will drown in deeper water.  To make it extra nice, sprinkle compost over the sand to add extra nutrients.  If you’re out in the country, a nice flat cow patty will do the trick…Put it in a big round plant saucer and add water.

If you’re in a very dry climate like me, the water evaporates much too quickly in hot weather.  The customer I was eavesdropping on at the garden center had a burst of inspiration: “I’ll put one of my drip lines in it so when I water the plants, the “puddle” will get water.”

A less elegant solution is to take a one-gallon water bottle and put a pinhole in the bottom and place it on some bare soil. Fill the bottle and water will drip out slowly keeping a mud puddle going.

I’ve put out an attractive saucer with sand, and a water bottle over bare dirt to see which works better.  So far, the plain wet dirt is winning when they’ve got a choice. Now, why do I suspect they’d probably like the wet cow patty the best.