Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Digging Up Stuff and Saving Butterflies

My days are full as a gardener.  My sewing machines are collecting dust and cobwebs! Oh how my life has changed since my last lecture in November.

All of you have read that butterflies are at great risk these days because of insecticide use and new agricultural practices. Other pollinators are at risk as well, including 'hive collapse' affecting honey bees.
Mt. Pleasant Village Campus in 2012 in the early stages of our gardening project.

Now that I am part of a large gardening project at the new Mt. Pleasant Village Campus in WI, I realized that perhaps I could help the butterflies a little. Our building has been recognized for it's environmental practices; heating/cooling systems, carpet of recycled tires, plumbing system, rain gardens/bioswales to collect and absorb parking lot runnoff, the list goes on and on. I am very proud to be a part of this project. So with the help of some of my Master Gardening volunteers we may help butterflies too.
Photo by Logan Martin, view of village hall and natural landscape at the rear of the building.
Not long ago I clicked on a facebook link that included ideas about what we can do to support Monarch butterflies. So I began researching ways to add plants that might appeal butterflies. We can plant milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, and other varieties of the plant which can bloom in Wisconsin. This is a good website for information about milkweed. Other native plants can also be planted to draw the butterflies with their nectar.
Image from Wikipedia Monarch page.

There are many reasons that Monarch populations are in decline, losing habitat in forests of central America, but mostly it is because of humans destroying milkweed plants in their nonstop expansion in the world. This USA Today article has a chart showing the dramatic decrease in Monarchs. For their great beauty, these little animals have a fatal flaw, they only eat milkweed!
Colony of monarchs from

We need to plant milkweed. Perhaps it doesn't need to be in your front yard, but one can find appropriate places to put it.  As I drive around Racine, I see where people have added it to gardens at the base of their mailboxes.  We could put it in naturalized areas that aren't mowed, medians in the roadways, along tall fences, in the back edge of a garden, because these plants get 3-4 feet tall. We also have to help protect existing habitat, fields and reduce mowing in natural areas to allow the plants to reach maturity. For all the teachers out there, how about putting some along the edges of play areas and sports fields? Parking lots might be another good place, if you can get permission.  I bet you can think of other places to grow milkweed.

I have waited all summer to see a Monarch in my yard!  This is scary, they used to be everywhere. On a hot August day, there would be butterflies, dragonflies, hummingbirds and bees buzzing in my gardens.  So where are they this year? They are disappearing from our world. Here are two more recent articles  about their population drop. On August 24, I was sitting outside, cooling off after an afternoon of weeding, and one finally arrived and checked out the sunny part of my garden.  That same day I also saw a Sphinx Hawk Moth. At last.......

Near a construction site near my house, I saw some milkweed that needed rescuing. So one Sunday afternoon, I dug up about 8 plants and brought them home.  Right now, they are growing on my deck.

One of the milkweed plants that is currently living in a sunny spot on my deck.

Eventually the pots will be transplanted in the naturalized area at the village hall.  When I watered the pots the other day, I was thrilled to find that new little plants were beginning to peek through the soil. This is wonderful to see.  But if you are planting them in small areas at home be warned that they are vigorous plants!

Milkweed can also be started from seed or by root. I found this website to be helpful. Start watching for milkweed and collect a pod or two just before they open. We plan to release seeds this fall, this winter when snow is on the ground, and next spring. Here is a site that has seed to sell at modest prices.  This person shows how he got the seeds to germinate/sprout; as well as other info about milkweed and butterflies.
Mature milkweed with pods

Butterflies have fascinating life cycles. Here is one website that I found that shows the stages from the egg to the butterfly. It includes a video of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. Learning about their metamorphosis will help you understand about the importance of milkweed.

How can you add some milkweed to your life?

Ann Fahl