Thursday, March 23, 2017

Build a Beetle Bump for Your Backyard

Attracting predatory insects into our gardens

Ground Beetles & Friends Welcome 

Reasonable Rates

Spider - Beth Reis Photography
One of the ways a city like Cleveland, Ohio, USA attract young professional is to build quality housing, one of the ways to attract ground beetles (Coleoptera) is to build Beetle Banks. That is long a furrow speckled with native wildflowers, grasses and sedges parallel to farm fields. Since, our planting space is limited we opted to create a Beetle Bump,  a smaller version of a bank.



dogbane beetle
Dogbane Beetle - ODNR Division of Wildlife
 Why, you might ask are we striving to attract ground beetles into our nursery? The answer, these fellows along with: spiders, Hover Flies, Green Lacewings, Lady Beetles and Minute Pirate Bugs pulverize gardens pest like: slugs, aphids, fly maggots, mite, slugs and snails. 
 
So how do we entice these nocturnal, Vikings to taking up residency in our gardens? Advertise!! You don't need a flashing neon billboard; subtle blooms and fragrances radiating from Ohio native plants will spark their curiosity enough for them to glide in and grab a snack. When creating your Beetle Bump consider using building material that beetles are fond of: leaves, sticks, native grasses, sledges and native plants will do the trick.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Turning Your Neighborhood into a Pumpkinhood



Pile on the Pounds! Start a Pumpkin Compost Collection in Your Neighborhood

Four young children carving pumpkins
Memories Run Deep!
  I have a confession, for the past 57 years I have an unwavering love affair with members of the Gourd Clan. Not one family member in particular rather the whole tribe: miniature fellows, tuba sized guys, cast iron griddle shaped grannies, round, oblong, bumpy, gnarly pepons! Pepon, or large melons is the Greek word for what we affectionately refer to as pumpkins. 
  




Friday, January 8, 2016

Weeds of Fortune

Native Ironweed and Downy Sunflower Baldwinsville, NY
Native New York Ironweed & Downy Sunflower

Pulling Together to Eradicate Phragmites


 Our farming forefathers identified most native wildflowers as weeds because they interfered with good pasture growth. [Consider Ironweed, Butterfly weed, Joe-Pye weed and Milkweed] Further, when cows ate certain native flowers the milk would taste bitter rendering them unusable. 

 Today, folks understand that native wild flowers are critical part of our environment. They are a food source for birds, native pollinators, butterflies and some mammals. In addition, some plants serve as a unique host for the propagation of certain butterflies and other pollinators. For example, the Monarch butterfly will only lay its eggs on one of the many varieties of milkweeds. 


Friday, September 25, 2015

Make Space for What's to Come

By Kristy Belaney

It has been far too long since I have written on this blog. Life has been, well, life. It is amazing to me how much I continue to learn, to grow, to change. Everything we come to know evolves continuously and no matter how hard we try to hold on to certain moments, it is simply not humanly possible. When we are finally able to accept that, what follows is the closest thing to peace we can have on this earth.

As gardeners, we are blessed to be in the presence of life's greatest teacher- nature. So much can be taken from our backyard paradises and applied directly to our daily lives. There is a season for all, one no more or less important than the other. Yet on the days when our gardens are full of color, buzzing with life and promise, we cherish those moments and our smiles shine the brightest. And on the days where black and white is all you can see and the stalks are stripped bare and silence surrounds you, we feel sad for the end. What we really need to focus on is how letting go, whether it be something as simple as the flowers in a garden, a feeling, a place in time, a person...
is the only sure way we can make space for what is to come.


My native garden from NOG turned 1 year old in July. The amount of life I have witnessed utilizing this tiny patch of earth has astounded and inspired me. Pollinators of all kinds, frogs, toads, birds, an entire ecosystem in the middle of the city. From my own milkweed plants and milkweed slated to be cleared and destroyed at our local beach, I collected and raised 41 beautiful Monarch butterflies this summer. I cannot express how grateful I am to watch the miraculous cycle of life these precious butterflies undergo and ultimately being the one who sets them free. They inspire me in so many ways. Letting them go is never easy but I know it is the only way to make space for more to come. 

Breathe. Smile. Enjoy each moment. Embrace the change. Everything is as it should be. 
 I wrote the poem below for my flying flowers, the inspiration behind this blog post and so much more in my life.


Inspired not without a flame
days creeping by too slow too tame
then below the ground a sleeping root did spring
shooting up from the brown a green and welcoming thing
leaves that unfurled and loosened each day
a stem reaching higher to the breeze that sways
some distance beyond a flower that flew
a weary orange flicker in a vast mighty blue
destiny awaiting a legacy to be filled
memory set in the future driven only by will
at last comes to rest upon a familiar unknown
the reasons now clear for the miles its flown
a journey now over one last breath draws in
passing the light for a new flame to begin
with this travelers demise hope has washed ashore
I hear it calling, drawing me, purpose once more
A fragrance so sweet only angels could wear
it sings it dances it's heavy in the air
led to a place earth split open a crack
life abuzz all around I turn the leaves back
a small ivory dot hidden on soft leaves a splendor
I tear it from the stalk milk bleeding the tender
from within this tiny sphere change is taking place
in a few days something different a completely new face
and days after that more changes to come
I watch and I learn my world comes undone
each time a new flame bursts forth from the jade
I relish and cherish the miracle made
that orange and black flicker my heart it does keep
a flying flower aglow with winds gentle sweep ~ KLB


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Nature's Luck on St. Patrick's Day

By Kristy Belaney

I often use the hashtag #getoutside when I tweet nature related posts on Twitter. It is a simple enough concept but one that is regrettably undervalued and underutilized. Studies have proven the benefits of immersing oneself in nature, ranging from the physical aspect that hiking, cycling and gardening etc. provide to the emotional clarity, serenity and peace one can achieve from being outdoors.

Feeling particularly melancholy this St. Patrick's Day,  I decided to take a dose of my own medicine. Peeling myself off the warm couch took some effort and on the way to grab my coat a whole rush of excuses not to leave the house came flooding into my brain. Its only 34F out I thought. There is laundry that needs folding. You could be starting dinner. Thankfully I was able to brush off these pesky little notions and make my way out to the porch as I had intended. Within seconds of stepping outside, the cold air had found its way through the fabric of my coat and I almost turned back to the house. But something inside me was aching for a sign of spring and I felt compelled to find a glimmer of hope that would solidify this brutal Ohio winter was indeed coming to a close. And then without even leaving my own backyard, I received my sign.


Giant Leopard Moth Caterpillar
There on the still frozen ground, lay a fuzzy black caterpillar barely moving but very much alive. Immediately enthralled by this creature, I started taking pictures and totally forgot about the temperature or that I had been sad just moments before. 

A quick Google image search and I discovered I was in the presence of a Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar. These nocturnal, widely distributed moths are non poisonous in their caterpillar stage and feed mostly on broad-leaved plants such as violets, dandelions and plantains. They are named after the beautiful spotted coloration that covers its impressive 3 inch wingspan, making this adult moth not only gorgeous but impressively sized as well. After emerging from its cocoon, the Leopard moth does not eat and only lives long enough to mate and lay eggs rarely flying before dusk. I read on to learn the caterpillar I had found was fully grown and should have been hibernating under leaves, tree bark or other debris at this time in the season. Perhaps a bird had dislodged him from his hiding place in interest of a meal or maybe he had ventured out needing an extra boost of nutrition before winter came to a close. Whatever the reason for his appearance, I felt blessed to have found this gift from nature. 

As I sat in the sun watching the birds breaking open sunflower seeds, I began to notice other tiny gifts, more subtle signs that spring was near. The dull winter plumage of the goldfinches beginning to yellow, little green shoots of wildflowers and tulips poking up through a carpet of decaying leaves and the tiny buds forming on the ends of the maple branches all made a world of difference to me. Simple, free and pure but a powerful therapy I cherish. I am so glad I took my own advice and got outside today. After just a brief period spent exploring, listening and appreciating nature I felt renewed, refreshed and ready to smile again. Which for me, made for one very lucky St. Patrick's Day.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Wildlife Habitat Winter Version

What does a Winter Suburban Wildlife Sanctuary look like? 

 

Squirrel  on branch in winter   Perhaps you are familiar with our neighbors to the north, Ken and Paula Korber's blog post on attracting wildlife into their suburban yard. Keep in mind their property is not north as in Ontario, Canada north rather a suburb north of Columbia Station and west of Cleveland, Ohio. Their blog post have covered several seasons including: Summer Sunflowers & Goldfinches, Just for fun, Hummingbird Haven, Backyard Habitat and Why Plant a Butterfly Garden? 

I am certain that you will enjoy a quick and thankfully warm glimpse into their incredible Winter Wildlife Sanctuary!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Uncle Allies's Raspberry Preserve

raspberry plants
Fall 2014 - Last few berries
Growing native perennials to improve raspberry production

  I never intended our raspberry plants to ramble from one end of the garden to the next, eventually consuming a 10ft x 30ft area. I was merely interested in a few plants to provide and cover nourishment for birds like: chickadees, robins, blue jays who are brave enough to winter over in Ohio (USA). I blame my husband’s Uncle Allie for this expansive garden.

   Where was I going to put his green gifts? Space is a premium, as our backyard is less than a ½ acre. I will plant them later, I commented. “Oh no we need to get them in right now,” Uncle Allie chirped excitedly. His Irish heritage was brightly shinning; "why put off until tomorrow what you can do today," he reminded me.
 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

As Summer Fades, It's Okay to Fall Behind in the Garden

By Kristy Belaney


Fall in Northeast Ohio can be pretty spectacular. The sun is usually shining, the air is crisp and light free from the cloak of humidity and the leaves put on a breathtaking show of color for all to admire. Because of this, fall is a popular time with gardeners as they take to their landscapes for one last hoorah before the snow falls.

The mild weather is perfect for planting new trees, shrubs and perennials. The combination of extra rainfall along with the warm soil allows new plantings to develop strong root systems which will give their above ground growth a head start in the spring. Fall is also a great time to divide any existing perennials you may have such as ornamental grasses, iris, daylilies, and coneflowers. 


Fall gardening does have some merit. But before you go cutting down every spent blossom, here are some things to consider. Besides planting and dividing, little else needs done.

The Ghosts of Flowers are Beautiful in Their Own Right 

New York Ironweed
If you are one of those gardeners who sees this period of transition from summer into fall as a sad one, take heart. Fading flowers and seed heads can add an entirely new dimension to your landscape. The shapes and textures of them can be downright striking in their own right and the warmer tones of the browns and golds they share compliment the earthy colors of the season.

Zinnia 
Cup Plant


Untouched Plants Provide Food and Shelter


Plants such as Purple Coneflowers and Black Eyed Susans should always be left alone in the fall with their stems in tact. These plants and many others provide food for birds and wildlife throughout the winter when sources are scarce. Many insects, including lady beetles, spiders and a few butterflies take shelter in leaf litter and other organic debris in the fall. Other moths and butterflies are in their pupa stage during this time of the season and unnecessary raking and pruning could destroy their cocoons. Ants go deeper into their nests and close up the exit holes with soil. Some solitary bees use brush piles to hibernate in and frogs and toads will seek out logs and dead ground cover to over winter. These amazing creatures do not have the luxury of turning up a thermostat when it gets chilly as we do, so don't take away their humble shelters!

Purple Coneflower

Standing Perennials act as Insulator Conductors


And it isn't just the bugs that will benefit from this relaxed approach. As snow collects around the standing perennials, the insulation factor will kick in and protect the plants root system, giving it a better chance of survival. This ensures a vibrant garden for you in the springtime, which is something to look forward to.

Relax


As this post comes to a close and I glance outside at the first falling snow, I realize it may have come a bit too late for some. If you already swept your fall garden clean this year, put yourself at ease. Next year you can just sit back, wrapped up in your favorite sweater with a cup of hot chocolate or apple cider, gazing at the changing leaves and not feel one bit bad for falling behind in the garden.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Helping Our Flying Flowers, a Mission for Monarchs - Part Two


By Kristy Belaney

 My milkweed plants, once covered with healthy, green leaves were now all but barren stems. The caterpillars, with the exception of "Houdini", (the fifth caterpillar who I could not find on the milkweed plants when I began collecting) had consumed their fill in preparation for their final and most awesome transformation before becoming adult butterflies. 

When the largest of the five had chewed one milkweed stem down to just a tiny nub sticking out of the dirt, it wandered off and began looking for a quiet and safe place to close one chapter of its life.
  





My milkweed plants went from this


Caterpillars on the Move


Milkweed plant after being chewed by Monarch caterpillar
to this, in a matter of days
Before a monarch caterpillar forms into a chrysalis, they will seek out a sheltered area much like they do before molting. In the wild, they have been known to wander 8 to 10 feet away from their host plant.

 When I first became aware of this information I immediately began to wonder how many caterpillars get stepped on, or run over by cars and lawnmowers in their pursuit to find the perfect spot. This is yet another benefit to raising them indoors!


                                                                Constructing a Silk Button


Numerous Monarch caterpillars munching on milkweed
Hungry, hungry caterpillars

  Once they are satisfied with their location, the caterpillar begins to construct what is known as a silk button. This "button" is made up of many thin strands of silk which they weave. Its purpose is to act as an anchor for the caterpillar to safely hang from while it is in its chrysalis stage for the next 10-14 days.

  After the button has been spun, the caterpillar will attach itself upside down to this silk pad and hang in a "J" formation. This shape allows for the control of fluids, which is needed to release the caterpillar from its old skin for the final time and form into the chrysalis.




"J" shape

The Amazing Transformation!


  The actual process of caterpillar to chrysalis is an amazing and bizarre thing. Scientifically it can be explained, but I am not a scientist. All I can say is to witness this transformation with your own eyes is a life changing event. If you are lucky enough to have caught this miracle yourself, you will understand what I mean by this.


This chubby one is a day from transforming
  I tried very hard to be present to see at least one caterpillar transform, but with life happening all around me and no pause button to press, it was not an easy task. I admit, I spent several hours sitting on the porch staring at a hanging, motionless caterpillar. Being new with this whole process, excitement had ruled rational thinking many times.
 
 Low and behold when I stopped trying so hard, I was simply blessed to be at the right place at the right time and out of the five caterpillars I was able to witness the third, and only the third, change into its chrysalis. As the saying goes, the third time's the charm!

Real Life Sci-fi Movie



Chrysalis

 All of my previous ideas of how this happens were thrown out the window when I actually saw it. I had believed the chrysalis formed on the outside of the caterpillar to protect it and while inside this "cocoon" like structure, the butterfly developed. Not quite. The chrysalis is actually the inside of the caterpillar!

  Once the caterpillar has hung in its "J" formation for almost a full day, you will notice the bright yellow, black and white stripes fading and becoming less distinct. A slight greenish hue will take over the caterpillar and the two antennae will begin to thin and wilt in diameter. Just before the transformation occurs, the caterpillar will begin to move, pulling itself up and down as if doing sit ups. The caterpillar's body will begin to shake and quiver.

  What happens next is so odd you will think you are inside your own real life sci-fi movie. The skin of the caterpillar will split open at the head, revealing a bright green jelly like body underneath. As the caterpillar continues to wriggle and the old skin continues to tear and part, the cremaster will reveal itself. The cremaster is a spiny, black appendage at the end of the abdomen. This very important part is what hooks into the silk button allowing the chrysalis to hang.

  Once the old skin is split completely to the top which is actually the bottom of the caterpillar, the caterpillar will stab the cremaster into the silk button. It may take several tries, and some caterpillars fall during this stage if they cannot attach. I came across a funny explanation of this exact process on monarchwatch.org. This description was given during an experiment called, "Monarchs in Space: The Challenges of Microgravity." It was written as follows: 

"Monarchs in Space: The Challenges of Microgravity"

 

Imagine this:You are hanging upside down from the ceiling with the use of socks made of Velcro* and you are wiggling out of your old clothes (you have some new clothes underneath) and just as your old clothes reach your ankles you have to pull your feet out from your socks and jab your Velcro covered feet into a patch of Velcro on the ceiling that is right next to your socks – and you only have seconds to do it and you can’t see what you are doing.


 Hard to imagine and I bet even harder to do!

The second chrysalis from the left has just formed, note the ripples, compared to the smooth texture of the others


  Wow, that is hard to imagine and I bet even harder to do! As stated earlier, some chrysalis unfortunately do fall during this feat. If this should happen and it is not damaged by the fall, you can gently attach the chrysalis to a stationary object by the cremaster with a drop of glue. You could also tie dental floss or any other thin type of thread around the cremaster allowing it to hang. At the very least, you can try to position the chrysalis upright so the butterfly has a chance to form properly. This method may or may not work.

The color variations in each chrysalis coincides with the timing of formation
  Once the adult butterfly emerges, the wings are very soft and malleable. The butterfly will need to hang upside down for at-least four hours for them to dry out and harden otherwise it will not be able to fly. If you choose not to reattach the chrysalis by glue, thread, or another method, you will need to place something like a stick or twig for the butterfly to immediately crawl onto and hang until its wings are dry. Just remember to use caution when touching and handling a newly formed chrysalis. They are very soft and delicate until time allows it to harden.You will be able to see the anatomy of the butterfly in it, such as the wings, legs and eyes. It is truly fascinating.


Green Jewels and Sleepless Nights!

The butterfly is visible and is near to eclose

   I cannot tell you how many restless days or sleepless nights I spent worrying about the caterpillars or my little green jewels. I wondered if the caterpillars had enough milkweed to eat before changing, I stressed that a curious, stray cat would get their claws caught in the net enclosure trying to paw at a crawling caterpillar, knocking the whole thing over. I agonized over the extreme cold nights and sweltering hot days being too much for them. I chewed down all my nails during windy thunderstorms thinking a chrysalis would fall. I prayed that all the butterflies would emerge healthy, free of disease and properly formed. Had they been parasitised by a tachnid fly while in their larval stage or did they carry an OE infection? Legitimate concerns, as these two threats are a common killer of monarch butterflies and usually do not show signs of being present until the chrysalis stage or adult. If that were the case, would I be strong enough to humanely dispose of them by placing the deformed, sick butterfly in an envelope inside the freezer? I shuddered to think.


So many concerns dominated much of the time I spent caring for them but now I know it was the only way to learn, to grow and to understand how to be a better monarch mommy in the future!


The first monarch to emerge. What a beauty.

These two are drying their wings


Family of Five!

  All five of my monarch caterpillars emerged healthy and in perfect condition. Excitement overwhelmed me as I watched each chrysalis undergo variations in color as the adult butterfly became closer to revealing itself. Jewel toned jade green, dulling to a bland, yellow gray and even darkening to a frightening black that anyone would assume was ominous. But then the darkness begins to transcend into a transparency so clear, the obvious, remarkable orange and black butterfly is right before your eyes and you see that it is lovely and good. A gentle tear of the chrysalis and and out comes the butterfly, grasping at anything it can with its new delicate legs. The wings are crumpled and damp and you are surprised and concerned at how small it is. But within a few moments, the wings begin to unfold and expand and you can smile and breathe a sigh of relief. At this moment, you realize you would carry those previous worries all over again, because helping these marvelous butterflies is completely worth it in the end.


"Love is like butterfly, beautiful and delicate... If you truly care for it, you'll do whatever you can to make it happy, even if that means letting it go."  

 

-Scott Pemberton


Saying Farewell



Ready for freedom
  When four butterflies had emerged within a day of each other, I half-heartedly and somewhat reluctantly set out to release them. They were all females, absent of the two visible black dots which are scent glands male monarchs have on their hind wings on each side of the abdomen. I chose a nearby park, which boasted a large open meadow full of native plants the butterflies could nectar on. Houdini was still in its chrysalis so transport was done carefully.


A new home
  Many feelings flooded me that day and as I set each butterfly free, I felt each one of those feelings collide. Accomplishment, happiness, hope, protectiveness, concern, anger, and love, all combining together turning me into an exhausted puddle of emotion. One by one the butterflies gathered their bearings, sitting weightless and patiently on my hand until they felt ready to take on the world. As I gazed at each beautiful one, I felt sadness that it had come to this, where humans now needed to intervene nature to help, because we had intervened to hurt.

 Some of the first flights were cautious and conservative, only amounting to a few feet. But one butterfly took off, soaring high into the trees almost in an instant. I don't know if it was the wind that carried her or her own mighty will but it was breathtaking.

  Smiles and laughter pushed through the tears and prayers were spoke internally and out loud. I tried to envision each of them surrounded by a circle of light and love, that would protect them from any and all harm on their long journeys south. I will never know, but I can only hope it was enough.


Unlike Any Other


  The houdini butterfly eclosed about a week after I released the others. As fate would have it, I decided to stop referring to it as "Houdini" and name it something else. Without any idea if it would emerge male or female, I chose to call it Charlie, after my dog who unexpectedly passed away while caring for the butterflies. When the butterfly finally emerged, it turned out to be a male, the only male out of the five. I knew right then it was more than just a coincidence and that this butterfly was special. I planned to release Charlie at the same park, but after his wings had hardened, he became incredibly eager to fly. He began flapping and fluttering his wings with such fierceness I thought he would hurt himself before we managed to get there. So I set Charlie free at our home and watched him take his first flight straight to our blooming goldenrod. He hung out there for quite a while, taking in the nectar of these important late blooming perennials and eventually took off heading north towards some neighboring pines. I guess Charlie knew where he wanted to be.

"The future depends on what we do in the present"

-Mahatma Gandhi 

  Raising Monarch butterflies has been an incredibly rewarding experience. When I share my experiences with others, it gets lost on some. I hear, "Oh I did that in school when I was a child." Or "That's kids stuff." I have even heard some people ask, "Why?" To me, it's shocking that someone wouldn't know that monarchs are near to becoming the next passenger pigeon and need our help. But then I am reminded of the tortoise and giraffe. These two creatures inhabit the same spaces, they dwell in the same lands. Essentially their worlds are identical but the world seen by the tortoise is nothing like the world seen by the giraffe. Neither is wrong, they just have a different sight line. The ones who ask why are the people I find can be educated the easiest. They don't have a preconceived notion of the monarch, they simply don't know. And anytime I have an opportunity to share the facts and my experiences with someone I seize the opportunity. It isn't about changing people or forcing your ideals on others. It is about giving the facts and leaving the rest up to them. You cannot make it your business to know what they do with the information but it is your business to provide it. Especially when something means so much to you.


You're a Good Man Charlie Brown!


Charlie Brown
  I would like to dedicate this blog post, in memory of our beloved dog, Charlie Brown. He was a loyal, loving, crazy, intelligent, happy, fierce, and beyond adorable Pembroke Welsh Corgi, whom we adopted from a rescue when he was almost 6 years old. I am thankful for the nearly 8 years we had with him and pray that someday we will be reunited.

  The suddenness of his passing still haunts us and we continue to miss and grieve for him. But like the caterpillars in this post, we believe that although his life here on earth may have come to an end, it was really only a transformation into something greater and there was a new beginning waiting for him somewhere else.


  


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Summer Sunflowers & Goldfinches, just for fun


Goldfinch on feeder
If you have a tube feeder that offers sunflower seed chances are that you'll see goldfinches sampling there as well as the thistle feeder more often associated with them.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Helping Our Flying Flowers, a Mission for Monarchs - Part One

By Kristy Belaney

Few things in life are as joyful as watching a butterfly in flight. They seem to dance in the air to a song only they can hear with no rhyme or reason to the direction that they take. The moment you spot one, you become entranced and childlike wonder seems to emerge from deep within your soul. Their beauty begs to be chased and when they stop to land on a nearby flower, you feel like you have hit the butterfly jackpot. You approach with your camera, eager to capture the moment forever in a photograph. But before the shutter sounds, that flying flower is off dancing again, floating away until it becomes just petals in the wind. Butterflies are indeed magical. Their entire existence undergoes periods of change and yet they live without any fear. From egg, to caterpillar, to pupa to amazing butterfly, there is much to be learned by these captivating creatures.

"If you want these orange and black stunners to visit your garden, it is really quite simple.
 Plant milkweed."

Butterflies and moths make up the second largest order of insects behind beetles. There are more than 20,000 different species of butterflies in the world and over 130,000 species of moths. Out of them all, undoubtedly one of the most easily recognized is the Monarch Butterfly. If you want these orange and black stunners to visit your garden, it is really quite simple. Plant milkweed.
Monarch visiting swamp milkweed plant
Monarch on Asclepias incarnata

Monarch butterflies require milkweed to complete their life cycle. Adults will gather nectar and feed from many different flowers and plants but they can only lay their eggs on milkweed and the larvae can only eat milkweed. Without milkweed, there would be no monarchs. Do not be deterred by the title, milkweed is not a weed at all! There are over 100 species of milkweeds all carrying the name “Asclepias” in front of it. If you choose to plant this very important flower in your garden it is also equally important to choose the right variety native to your region and one that is suitable for the space that you have. For example, common milkweed, or asclepias syriaca, is a tall, somewhat invasive milkweed that you may be familiar with growing along roadsides and in open fields. This milkweed spreads by rhizomes underground and can be difficult to manage in a small area. However, if you have the space for it, by all means plant it! The fragrance of the blossoms is amazing and the monarchs and other pollinators love it! But in reality, most people will not have large spaces to work with and their small gardens need tamer varieties.
Asclepias syriaca
Asclepias syriaca

There are 13 species of milkweed native to Ohio so there are plenty of options. Try to select a few different species, for color/texture variety but also for varying bloom times. That way you will be rewarded with flowers throughout the growing season as well as be providing nectar sources to pollinators for longer periods as well. Some attractive, compact plants that are a great choice for residential gardens and landscapes include asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed, asclepias purpurascens or purple milkweed, asclepias tuberosa or butterfly weed and asclepias exaltata, or poke milkweed. As long as you purchase milkweed plants or seeds free from pesticides the monarchs will thank you for it. Please always ask the nursery of your choosing if they have treated their plants with pesticides. If they source their plants from other growers, it is imperative that they also know if pesticides have been used before being shipped to them. Suppliers use pesticides regularly because not many consumers are keen to purchase a plant with holes in the leaves. Pesticides may make for prettier looking plants, but if the aesthetic factor is all you are concerned about, you and the insects would be better off if you simply bought silk flowers.
Orange flowers of Asclepias tuberosa
Orange blossoms of the compact
Asclepias tuberosa

"The single most contributing factor in the decline of monarch populations is the loss of the milkweed plant."


To put it bluntly, monarchs need our help. There are several factors working against them, including the mass destruction of forest land in Mexico where they overwinter, changing climate extremes and pesticide use. However, the single most contributing  factor in the decline of monarch populations is the loss of the milkweed plant. Over the past 16 years, monarch butterfly numbers have experienced a dramatic decline with numbers at over wintering sites in 1997 at 1.2 million adults down to just over 211,000 in 2013. Not surprisingly, the decrease in monarchs coincides with the clearing of habitats naturally containing milkweed. Development encroachment, unnecessary mowing and the widespread use of pesticides along roadsides and farmlands have decimated milkweed plants. With this, the monarchs have fewer plants to lay their eggs, thus ensuring the new generation of butterflies.

Imagine a female monarch carrying hundreds of eggs. She flies tirelessly for miles upon miles in search of a milkweed patch, determined to fulfill her life purpose. With no milkweed in sight, her strength fading away and time closing in, she finally lands. Only she does not land to lay her eggs as she had set out to do, but to die. It is a very sad thought. And that thought is becoming the reality more and more.

Tiny egg under milkweed leaf
A single monarch egg
After about 5 weeks of having two swamp milkweed plants in the ground, I was graced with the visit of a female monarch. She was the first one I had seen all season and as if that was not a blessing enough, she laid 5 eggs on my plants. Monarch eggs are very small, about the size of a pinhead. They can be found by looking on the undersides of milkweed leaves. The eggs are creamy white to clear in color and as the larvae matures in about 4 to 5 days, a small black dot will appear to be poking through. This is the small caterpillars head about to emerge. Once the caterpillar has hatched, its first meal will be the egg. The caterpillar will then proceed to eat the milkweed leaves and stems, growing in stages, called instars, over a period of 2-3 weeks depending on climate.

"I learned that planting milkweed was a crucial step in helping monarch populations, but that you could also take that help to the next level by easily raising the caterpillars indoors."

I monitored my little caterpillars everyday and spent some time reading about their life cycles. I learned that planting milkweed was a crucial step in helping monarch populations, but that you could also take the help to the next level by easily raising the caterpillars indoors. This method increases their likelihood to reaching adulthood from 10% to over 90% by eliminating the threat from predators like wasps, ants and birds. Knowing I could not bare to lose these caterpillars, I decided to try raising them indoors. I found a plastic salad container in the recycling bin, washed it out and poked holes in the lid from the inside out with a needle. I then lined the bottom of the container with dampened paper towels, ( I used filtered water to wet the paper towels because I am overly cautious), and went out to gather my little caterpillars.
first instar monarch caterpillar
A first instar caterpillar

I found four of them, each attached to individual leaves happily munching away. I simply pinched the leaf they were on off at the stem and placed the leaves in the container. Eggs can also be collected this way if you start raising at that stage. If possible it is best not to directly touch young caterpillars. Handling them at this stage can result in unintentional damage or mortality. If you cannot avoid touching them, another option is to use an unused, dampened artist brush to gently lift them into the container. I collected some extra leaves for them to eat and placed the container on the porch out of direct sun. The milkweed leaves were replaced daily, as the caterpillars will not eat dried out leaves. If you must gather your milkweed at one time, the leaves can be kept fresh by placing them inside a ziplock bag and stored in the refrigerator. I also replaced the dampened paper towels lining the container daily. Caterpillars eat a lot, and what goes in must come out. Caterpillar feces is known as “frass”. You will find that at first, this is seen as tiny black flecks on the leaves and paper towel. You do not want the caterpillars ingesting this for obvious health reasons. As they grow, so does the frass. Caterpillars produce enormous amounts of it! They also eat a ton of milkweed! I was not prepared for this and had to eventually purchase additional plants to provide for their voracious appetites.

monarch caterpillar with frass in background
Caterpillar frass on towel
As mentioned earlier the caterpillars grow in stages known as instars. They go through five instars before forming their chrysalis or pupa. During these stages the caterpillar will normally seek out a less active area, usually at the top of the container or along the sides to molt or shed its old skin. Sometimes you can see their black heads appear to look like a button that is about to come off its body. This period is a fragile time for the caterpillar and they are best left undisturbed. They may stop eating and not move much for an entire day. This is normal. You may also notice a strange black and clear transparent film behind the caterpillar. That is the old skin that it has shed and most times, the caterpillar will consume this.
Caterpillar entering third instar
A freshly molted caterpillar


Space eventually became an issue and a larger container to house the caterpillars was in order. Overcrowding promotes disease as well as creates stress for the caterpillars so I searched online and purchased a special butterfly rearing enclosure. These enclosures are sometimes referred to as butterfly pop up tents and most run under $20. They are designed with breathable mesh or fine screen with easy access to the inside for cleaning frass and replacing/watering milkweed. Personally I went with a pvc framed screen enclosure by Apogee called Reptarium. There are several sizes available depending on your needs and for me this was the most attractive and practical design. After a simple assembly, I had a safe place to house my growing caterpillars into adulthood. I placed four small potted milkweed plants inside along with the caterpillars and it has been easy going since. If you can recall, I said I had collected four caterpillars. There were five eggs so I assumed that a predator may have gotten to the fifth one. I checked every so often on the milkweed plantings in the yard and was happy to eventually find the fifth caterpillar alive and well. I call him my little Houdini. He is smaller than the other four but seems to be on a mission to catch up with his brothers and sisters.
Reptarium enclosure for monarch housing
Reptarium

"Although it seems its life is on pause, tremendous transformations are taking place. A butterfly is about to be born."

It has been 3 weeks since that female monarch laid her eggs on my milkweed plants. Watching these caterpillars grow to this point has been extremely interesting and rewarding knowing I have been a helping hand in more ways than one to their survival. The journey is only at the half way point and soon enough these striking black, white and yellow chubby caterpillars will undergo yet another enormous change. When the squirming and wriggling caterpillar becomes still and morphs into that hanging jade green jewel, the real magic begins. Although it seems its life is on pause, tremendous transformations are taking place. A butterfly is about to be born.

*All images are my own and are subject to copyright


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Finding the Beauty in Everything

 By Kristy Belaney

milkweed field - Kristy Belaney
  Yesterday I took a route home I don’t normally take. As I was rounding the corner of a particularly overgrown weedy area, something caught my attention. It was a giant patch of blooming Asclepias syriaca, swarming with bumblebees, moths and other pollinators working away, unknowingly doing their good deeds.

   I paused, took a moment to gather it all in and smiled. I have lived at this address for nearly ten years and never noticed this simple but beautiful gift just two hundred feet from my front door. Maybe if I had seen them before, I would have thought the flowers were cute or enjoyed the pleasant smell they gave off as I walked by. But that is probably where the admiring would have ended. By the time I got home I would have forgotten all about the not so particularly memorable flower. And what a shame that would have been.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Pesticides and the Threat They Pose to Pollinators



Kristy Belaney
Wildflower garden sign
Conneaut, Ohio, USA 
                         
  Bee and Butterfly attracting plants are popping up at Lowes, Home Depot and other garden centers with eye catching tags and labels. These plants are easily accessible and usually already flowering when purchased so it is instant gratification for your money and yard. But the benefits may just end there.

  We have all heard about the massive decline in bee populations around the world and the negative effect this is having on not only bee keepers but on farmers as well. The following paragraph is quoted from The Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Marsh Marigolds Something a Little Different

 Growing Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris) From Seed

 

Beth Reis - Black-eyed Susans Granby Ct
Native Black-eyed Susan's - Granby, CT

  Everyone is familiar with Marigolds (Calendula officinalis) the annual, that Kindergartners start in paper Dixie Cups for Mother's Day. Although, not native to the state of Ohio, USA, it is still by far one of my all time favorite plants. It is not very particular; blooming most of the growing season, adapting well to a wide range of soil, water and sun light conditions.


  On the other hand, the perennial, Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), a native Ohio species which belongs in the Buttercup (Ranunculaceae) Family, has very little is common with traditional Marigold, found in the Aster (Asteraceae) Family. Although, both have unique and personal interpretation of the color gold, you can hardly call them cousins. Each year, I choose a native wildflower that I know very little about to raise from seed, Marsh Marigolds was one of my choices for 2014. Since the germination rate from one seed package was higher than I expected, I decided to get busy and start learning to care for them.

 


Monday, March 3, 2014

Managing Milkweed Aphids

Inviting Syrphid Flies for Lunch!


Syrphrid Fly - Hover Fly
Syrphrid Fly - Hover Fly


  How to best deal with Milkweed Aphids (Oleander aphids) which have a preference for Asclepias species (milkweed) has created a bit of a dilemma for sometime now.

    As an aspiring organic farmer, applying pesticides is out of the question, besides it doesn’t make sense to raise native plants only to exterminate insects one attracts. In addition, there is risk of accidentally damaging butterfly eggs and larvae.

    In the past, I devised a strategy which temporally outwitted those six legged beady-eyed, mustard colored aphids; I sold milkweed plants early in the season, before they flowered. This provided a reasonable solution as typically aphids infest our plants late in the summer. It quickly became apparent that customers preferred purchasing plants in bloom, especially ones they were not familiar with. Another possible course of action was to wipe down each plant. Not only does that mask the problem, I honestly don’t have the time or patience for it.

 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Growing Jack-in-the-Pulpits from Seed


growing Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-pulpit from seed
Arisaema triphyllum - Jack-in-the-pulpit seed

   An Army of Jacks Plus One!

          Propagating Arisaema triphyllum
 
  Last year was an exciting year! I raised enough Jack-in the Pulpit seed that purchasing commercially grown seed wasn't necessary. I must warn you that raising Arisaema triphyllum for seed is a slow process, four years to be exact. If you are pressed for time then by all means purchase a mature plant. Actually you will need two, both a male and female.

  On the other hand if you are up for a challenge, and are interested in raising woodland plants from seed then, Jack-in the Pulpits are a good place to start.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Spring Wildflowers in February

Guess Who is Sleeping in My Garden?


Spring Beauty -Caytonia virginiana
Spring Beauty -Caytonia virginiana

  With the temperature hovering at -3°F° and the snow piling up, it is hard not to dream about spring. I thought this was a great day to bring out the spring wildflower photo album, well really the flash drive. How up-lifting and encouraging it is to be reminded of what lays dormant patiently waiting for spring. I hope that these Spring Beauties bring some sunshine into your home!

 Spring Beauty, Caytonia virginiana were a charming addition to my garden last year. The blossoms didn't last as long as I expected, perhaps the excessive amount of rain we had last spring impacted them. Caytonia virginiana like most woodland species appreciates filtered shade and a nice cozy blanket of leaf hummus. Winter's protection ideally is two-fold, leaves and snow. Other woodland companions like: Jack-in-the-pulpit, Mayapple, Trillium, Wild ginger, Bloodroot, Goldenseal, Wild Ginger, Wild Geranium, Wild Columbine, Dwarf Crested Iris, Shooting Star and Solomon's Seal are also reaping the benefits of an extra layer of icy insulation.