Magnificent Milkweed

You are probably wondering how anything with the word ‘weed’ in it could possibly be magnificent. For butterflies, bees and a host of other insects, milkweed is a major source of food. Of course, most gardeners know the importance of keeping such wild species of plants around. The more pollinators that you can get into your garden the better! I think that once you find out about milkweed you’ll agree that it truly is magnificent!

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On one of our evening walks we stopped at a large mass of milkweed plants. The sun was low in the sky and rays of light were bouncing off of the plants leaves. The bees were buzzing in and out of the tiny pink blooms. They worked quickly as if in a hurry to finish before sundown.

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Bees were buzzing!

The sweet scent of the flowers was heavy in the air on that warm evening. We searched for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. There were none to be found. Just the bees and a Japanese beetle or two.

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Evening sun…

Every time after that we searched for the butterfly larvae only to find nothing.

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Lovely pink blooms.

Each year at our local library, the children’s librarian raises many Monarch butterflies in jars for the children. Some years ago she was able to find some to grow in the wild. Last summer she couldn’t find any. After contacting a Monarch butterfly organization, she was able to obtain a quantity of larvae. Each child that signed up named their caterpillar. As the days and weeks went by the larvae would one by one form the ‘j’ shape and start the process of metamorphosis. When we stopped at the library we had to check on ‘Rockland’ or this year the name of choice was ‘Snake’. This year our little guy didn’t make it but our dear librarian found some in the wild to use as replacements.

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Library larvae!
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Our little caterpillar!

One day, we got the call that our morphed butterfly was ready to be released. The library has a dreamy little garden in it’s front courtyard. There we let our female Monarch butterfly ‘Snake’ go. She didn’t take off immediately. She flitted around the library garden with a male butterfly. Landing on hot pink zinnias, tall verbena and prickly purple cone flowers. The late afternoon sun made the whole occasion quite serene. One of the butterflies landed on my sons arm and stayed a while. Finally we let them be. Leaving them so that they could start their long journey southward.

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Beautiful Monarch butterfly!

Benefits of Growing 

Do you have room to allow some wild milkweed to grow on your land? If you do, you will be providing much needed food for the Monarch population as they stop to take in nourishment along the way. Many native plants are being removed from modern landscapes. By supporting native plants and allowing them to thrive, pollinators have a steady supply of food. Farmers are encouraged to leave large shafts of land for native plants to support the very pollinators that are responsible for pollinating much of our food sources. One third of it to be exact! Truly magnificent.

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The wind blown seed stage.

How to Grow 

If you already have a stand of milkweed near your house, little needs to be done to keep it going. In fall, the seed pods will mature and a multitude of seeds will come out of them. Equipped with their own parachute of sorts, the wind will simply carry the seeds to a quiet resting place where the seeds can take hold. This is how the plant reseeds itself on it’s own.

Starting a new patch is quite easy. Seeds and even plant plugs are available through mail order or online. Seeds grow best after going through stratification or a cooling process. Normally they will go through this process outdoors. It is possible to speed this up. “Place seeds into a container of moist soil, cover with a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 3 weeks.”-Growing Milkweed. Milkweed does not like to be moved once planted.

The most common milkweed variety in the New England area is Asclepias syriaca. There are many attractive cultivated types that are useful in borders and perennial beds. We have Asplepias tuberosa that makes a dazzling orange show in our July garden. Bees and butterflies alike flock to this plant. Because it is derived from a wildflower plant, it is also drought tolerant. For more ideas for attracting pollinators go here. I even came across a native pollinator preserve called Peaked Mountain Farm in Dedham, Maine.

Butterfly weed is a pollinator magnet!

If you happen to do any clearing this fall, take notice if you have any milkweed plants. Collect seeds or cast more in other areas if you wish. Maybe next year you will find a few Monarch caterpillars! All because you grew magnificent milkweed!

The gardens here are pretty much demolished after recent high winds and rain. Trees are down everywhere. Many lost power and are still without it. We only lost it for a day so no complaints here. It’s always a good lesson to stay prepared for anything that might come our way. Keep those flashlights ready and some gas for the generator. The weather has now taken on the familiar chill of fall. Feels normal now after an above average fall. The smell of wood smoke drifts through the air at night and blaze orange is the color of the month. Thanks for stopping by Everlongardener this week! Don’t forget to subscribe below for weekly seasonal gardening info.

Hilary| Everlongardener

Beau has legs as long as his body now!

Attract Pollinators In 3 Easy Steps

Some of the hardest work in the garden is done by our pollinators. With all of the challenges we face as gardeners, attracting pollinators to our gardens can be something we may overlook. Why not make your little patch of earth a haven for these garden helpers. Let’s see how you can attract more pollinators to your garden this season with just 3 easy steps!

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Many critters contribute to pollinating. These include bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, bats and birds. In this post we will learn 3 ways to keep these important workers around.

Butterfly weed is a pollinator magnet!

Plant for Pollinators 

Those of us who are flower gardeners tend to plant what we love. The list of flowers that I like is pretty long. Annuals, perennial, bulbs…I really love ’em all. I so often pick the colors and shapes that appeal to me. Although I feel strongly about certain plants, I’m gradually learning what the pollinators prefer. Planting in masses gives pollinators an easy place to forage pollen. Like a giant landing strip to bounce from flower to flower on. Bees love native wildflowers such as wild asters, goldenrod and purple coneflower. Herbs include basil, lavender and oregano. Even trees and shrubs are great, like blackberries, roses and willows offer food for pollinators. Some plants recommended for pasture planting are alfalfa, buckwheat and clover. I’ve been reading a new book called 100 Plants to Feed the Bees. This book is packed with plant info for anyone looking for ideas for a pollinator garden.

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Herb flowers make great bee food!

One place to start is by noticing when food is available for our pollinators. With the very beginning of spring, the insect world quickly comes alive. By mid April, bugs are out and about. What will they find for food? The question really is, what does your landscape have to offer? Spring bulbs and tiny wild flowers are the first to appear. If you hold still and look, you will see them coming to the flowers.

Some pollinators on the rambling rose.

By allowing some areas of your property to go wild, you allow more native plants to be available for the early and late pollinators. These days, more farmers are encouraged to leave bands of wild plants on part of their farms. This encourages diversity and more pollinators.

The tiniest of bees on the Gypsophilia.

A Hospitable Habitat 

Many people put out bird houses and hummingbird feeders. Why not put out something for the pollinators. For centuries, gardeners have catered to pollinators by putting out bee skeps. People keep bee hives for honey and pollination. We have a bat house that houses some of our bat population.

Attract native bees to your garden for extra pollination.

Native bees or mason bees are terrific pollinators. They are solitary bees. These bees do not belong to a hive. In their short lives, they simply lay eggs, pollinate and then die. Since they do not need to bring pollen back to the bee hive, they aren’t as picky as honey bees. This is an example of a mason bee house elbow. The name ‘mason bee’ comes from how they lay eggs in a hole of some kind, then pack mud or clay in front of it. Look close at the holes and you will see that many of them are occupied.

The bees have been busy!

A mason bee house should be positioned toward the east so that the bees can benefit from morning sun. Also, place the house near a source of mud. There are many styles out there. Some can be made from recycled items and others can be purchased. Native bees look for hollow stems and crevices to lay eggs in, so keep some plants standing for them in the fall.

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This is a bee house that was made from recycled and found materials.

This mason bee house was easy to make and can be a great project to do with kids. Learning about bees is fun and kids love them. Last year we even made a butterfly and bee watering station.

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A mason bee house purchased from a garden supply company.

Eliminate Toxins

You may think that you have a very natural environment around your property. You may also think that you have a great home for pollinators. Consider the products that you may be using. Many lawn care products are toxic for bees and other insects. By allowing dandelions and clover to reside in the lawn, you are providing much needed sustenance to our native pollinators. I know that a few of you will cringe over this thought but it’s something to consider. Most of us know that bees have been on the decline for many years and that pesticides are a huge factor. Try seeking alternative treatments or products. There is so much information out there today about how to tackle problems naturally. Your local extension website will cover just about any topic.

Dandelions are among the first flowers available in spring.

It is possible to grow a productive garden using organic techniques. Just because a product eliminates one problem, it may carry future unseen consequences. There is a wealth of knowledge out there and most experienced gardeners are happy to share it with others.

Even common flies pollinate!

Many pollinators play a role in our gardens. It doesn’t take much to make them a safer place to live.

 

A small wild bee looking to lay eggs in the garden.

The hummingbirds are already back in Maine. Time to get your feeders out. Other birds are all making nests in their usual places around our yard. We have been steeling away a little time here and there to work in the gardens but the weather has been very chilly. I hope that you get a chance to take notice of the pollinators in your yard soon. Diversity makes a better garden on so many levels. Thanks for taking the time to see what’s going on at Everlongardener this week. If you would like more gardening tips, subscribe in the sidebar. It’s free and you won’t miss a thing!

Hilary|Everlongardener

Bee and Butterfly Gardens

After many summers of trying to grow winter squash, this year I decided not to.  I had dedicated an entire garden bed to trying to grow my favorite squash, ‘Buttercup’.  One year I had a wheelbarrow full of them but that was never to be repeated.  I could never really figure out what the problem was but it could be less light from trees growing in.  Another thought was lack of pollination.  Since then, I’ve tried to keep adding in more plants that keep the bees and butterflies happy!

Thyme blooming providing food for bees!
Thyme blooming providing food for bees!

Why Important?

Now, I’m no bee or butterfly expert but I do hear a lot about protecting bees of all kinds.  I also haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies in a while.  Why are our pollinators so important to us?  About 1/3 of crops rely on bees for pollination.  This improves yields and fruiting.  You may have noticed when driving by blueberry fields the colorful bee boxes here and there.  Many farmers rent bees to ensure proper pollination.  According to Berkeley University, fruits can vary greatly in size and quality if insect pollination is taken out of the equation.  So many of the things we love, and rely upon, depend on pollination.  Coffee, tea, cocoa!

Helenium makes a great landing spot for pollinators.
Helenium makes a great landing spot for pollinators.

Other pollinators include birds, flies, beetles, wasps, small mammals, bats and moths.  If you ever get to watch a hummingbird moth or Sphinx moth in action, it is truly amazing!  The first time I saw one I actually thought it was a tiny hummingbird!

Butterfly weed is a pollinator magnet!
Butterfly weed is a pollinator magnet!

From the time the bees emerge in the spring they are searching for food.  They start with the first crocus, grape hyacinth, tulips, dandelion blossoms and clover.  As the seasons move on they take on each new flower.

Common marigold.
Common marigold.

Try to keep harmful chemicals out of the garden.  They are deadly to our pollinators.  Once the biodiversity is increased on your property, pest management can improve on it’s own.  Think of making your little space a haven for these wonderful helpers.

A Few Thoughts On Design 

What makes a great bee and butterfly garden?  I was at a garden talk many years ago, I’m not even sure what it was about.  I do remember the idea of planning ‘plateaus’ for pollinators.  This means large clumps of key plants so they can almost hop along from flower to flower, making it very enticing for them.  One of our local Maine gardeners, Lee Schneller, wrote a helpful book in 2009, The Ever-Blooming Flower Garden: A Blueprint for Continuous Color.  She outlines many garden plans that continually bloom.  Her simple formulas are really a fail-proof way to keep things blooming.

Echinacea acting as bee and butterfly plateau.
Echinacea acting as bee and butterfly plateau.

Now, as we think about design, the usual cottage perennial garden will do just fine.  To really keep these insects attention, continual blooms will be needed.  Think large groupings of echinacea, bee balm, and bushels of daisies!

The tiniest of bees on the Gypsophilia.
The tiniest of bees on the Gypsophilia.

Shrubs

Most flowering shrubs usually attract a wide range of bees and butterflies.  Some to consider are Rhododendron, Azalea, Lilac, Button bush, Roses, Weigelia, Privet and Indigo.  Butterfly bushes, with their powdery sweet scent are a favorite of Monarch’s and Swallowtail’s.  Honeysuckle bushes or vines could also be added to the landscape.

Swallowtail butterfly on Rhododendron.
Swallowtail butterfly on Rhododendron.

Perennials

There are so many perennial plants to put in a bee and butterfly garden that you will have trouble fitting them all in.  In keeping with the continual flowering theme, you can start with more traditional plants such as lupine, Day lilies, foxglove, bee balm, liatris and rudbeckia.  Many sedums, such as ‘Autumn Joy’ bloom for months and don’t stop until late fall.  You can also leave room for echinacea, globe thistle, lungwort, scabiosa and gypsophilia.  Wild plants like milkweed should be allowed to bloom.

Big bee enjoying some anise hyssop.
Big bee enjoying some anise hyssop.

Annuals

Although a pollinator garden will do well without a single annual, bees and butterflies adore the bright colors and ready supply of nectar!  Low growing types include allysum, gem marigolds and pansies.  Tall annuals to mix in with the perennial garden are snapdragons, cleome, marigolds, sunflowers, cosmos, verbena and zinnias.  Many of these also make wonderful cut flowers that you can bring in to dress up your table.

Herbs such as Oregano make great bee food.
Herbs such as Oregano make great bee food.

Bulbs

Remember how few flowers are actually blooming in early spring?  You can improve your pollinator population by adding in clumps of squill, crocus and snowdrops.  Mix groups of species tulips, taller tulips and grape hyacinths.  Naturalize some daffodils along your driveway.  The many kinds of allium are flower coated orbs that bees love.  The pollinators will be all over them and you will be so grateful for the spring color after a long winter.

Borage is another beneficial herb.
Borage is another beneficial herb.

Herbs

Bees and Butterflies are not just after the usual flowers.  Herbs are great providers of food for them.  Not just for culinary use, basil, chives, garlic chives, thyme, rosemary and lavender.  So many of them have flowers, think mint, catmint, anise hyssop, borage and sage.  You could even plant comfrey, fennel and oregano.

Great spangled fritillary on echinacea.
Great spangled fritillary on echinacea.

Fruits and Vegetables

The very species you would like to pollinate can also be inviting for bees and butterflies.  Fruits such as blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are covered with flowers.  Fruit trees provide early nectar.  In the vegetable garden, many types have blooms.  Tomatoes, beans, potatoes, squash or cucumbers.  If you need to attract more pollinators to your veggie garden, think about interplanting with beneficial flowers.  Marigolds and nasturtiums are always a great idea.

Tomato blossoms.
Tomato blossoms.

Many seed companies sell mixtures that could be planted near the garden in a band, working as guardians of the garden!  Johnny’s Selected Seeds offers a Bee Feed Mix, a Beneficial Insect Attractant Mix and a Butterfly and Hummingbird Mix.  All are combinations of annuals and perennials tailor made for each application.  Fedco has a Beneficials mix.  John Scheepers sells four different beneficial habitat mixtures.  All of them sound like they would add so much to your veggie, herb or kitchen garden!

No matter how big or small your home garden is, your plants can benefit from more pollinators.  Not only will the plants be more productive but the extra flowers and resulting pollinators can bring so much enjoyment to the time spent outside.

Alyssum is beloved by our bees and butterflies.
Alyssum is beloved by our bees and butterflies.

If you are interested in a more prolific yield, try attracting more bees and butterflies.  Get out there and watch, it is truly a sight to see!  Hope you are all enjoying the weather.  Thanks for coming along this week.  Don’t forget to subscribe by email in sidebar.  You won’t have to find me, my weekly blog will appear in your inbox every week.  See you next week!

Hilary|Everlongardener