Neighborly Garden News
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Have you seen any Monarchs this summer?
It has seemed many months of summer had passed before I saw any Monarchs flying in my garden this year. I have seen other species of butterflies, but only a few Monarchs, and not until mid-August. This lack of Monarchs is sad and disappointing, despite my best efforts at creating a welcoming garden for them.
Monarch butterflies have intrigued scientists because of their unusual migration habits. Each spring they travel 3,400 miles from Michoacán, Mexico to the northeastern US and up to Canada and then reverse the trip in the fall. Along their northern route Monarchs are mating and laying eggs; each successive generation flying northward to escape the heat and humidity until they reach Canada. So the butterfly you may see flitting around your garden is the offspring of one who migrated to Mexico last winter
As Monarchs begin their southern migration, the butterflies are less driven to mate and lay eggs, instead they feed to build energy for their trip. Most members of the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) family will overwinter as pupae, ready to emerge in spring. Monarchs overwinter as underdeveloped adults; their sex organs do not develop until the following spring. These juvenile butterflies are particularly vulnerable; because they are not protected by a cocoon or chrysalis like other immature Lepidoptera.
Monarch Butterfly Life Stages
As you may know, the only food sources for Monarch caterpillars are members of the Milkweed family. Feeding on species of the Milkweed plant, which contains a toxic sap, transfers this toxicity to the Monarch and gives them protection from predation. The bright orange coloration of adult butterflies also serves as a visual warning to predators that they are not good to eat. Fun fact: Viceroy Butterflies, a Monarch mimic, takes advantage of this visual warning by looking remarkably like a Monarch, but not toxic to predators.
What you may not realize, is that farming and Monarchs co-exist very well. Monarchs prefer young, tender Milkweeds to lay their eggs on, and caterpillars to develop. They will not lay eggs on older, tough plants already forming seed pods. This is because the younger plants have a higher amount of toxic substance, than the older plants, thus transferring more protection to the Monarchs.
Milkweed plants of all species prefer to colonize disturbed areas; they do not compete well in open meadows with other native wildflowers like Goldenrod and Asters etc. So Milkweed growing around a farmer’s hay field, getting mowed down, and sprouting fresh new growth, is the ideal situation for Monarch caterpillars.
In Massachusetts we have 8 species of native Asclepias (Milkweed family) growing in a wide range of conditions. Monarchs will utilize any Milkweed; they have no preferred species, as long as the plants are in groups instead of single plants. This helps them conserve their energy, instead of having to fly distances from plant to plant. Milkweeds have showy flowers; some are even fragrant, in their own way.
Non-native Milkweeds are considered an annual plant in our region, as they typically originate from the tropics. Native Milkweeds are perennial, and will spread through underground roots to form good sized colonies over time. Milkweeds favor full sun, and are not particularly fussy about the soil type, although most prefer to be well drained. Except Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) as the name suggests, grows naturally in moist boggy areas that are open to the sun. These are good for those gardeners having damp conditions, or clay type soil. Swamp Milkweed has been hybridized, and is available in colors from pure white through dark pink.
September’s ‘to-do’ list
I’ve read that July 2020 has been recorded as the hottest July ever. You don’t have to convince me. I can’t remember too many summers where I’ve had to water my potted plants multiple times daily to prevent them from severely wilting. Just a few days after Tropical Storm Isaias last month, the ground was as parched as ever. Massachusetts is still either ‘abnormally dry’ or in a ‘moderate drought’ depending on where in the state you are. In the Pioneer Valley, it often seems the rain clouds split up; some heading north, the rest heading south, and we stay dry in the center. Unfortunately, I believe this is our new normal.
Keep up with watering recently planted, (within the past 3 years) trees and shrubs. Evergreens in particular; both needled and broad-leaved types, are susceptible to winter injury from desiccation over the winter. It is important to provide additional water before we head into winter to hydrate the plant tissues. If you see some browning of needles, and leaves on evergreens, this is the normal cyclical shedding of the older and innermost needles, and leaves of these plants. Don’t worry if you see this browning of the interior needles/foliage of evergreen trees and shrubs during the fall. Autumn is the time evergreens will periodically shed their older needles that have begun to lose their ability to photosynthesize. This is nature’s way of ‘lightening the load’ so to speak, and preserving the integrity of the plant.
Now is a good time to prepare beds for next year. You can clear out weeds and grass by smothering them; let time and winter work for you this year. Use old flattened cardboard and thick layers of newspaper to cover the area you want to become the new bed. Moisten the paper or cardboard, and pin it down, or use rocks to hold it in place. Come springtime, and you’ll be ready for planting the new bed.
Buy garlic sets for planting next month before they are sold out. Once you’ve planted garlic, you’ll always have some bulbs or ‘seed’ to renew your crop. It is a sustainable crop; just reserve the largest bulbs for re-planting, save the small and moderate sized ones for cooking. Planting cloves from the larger bulbs almost always guarantees the biggest heads at next year’s harvest.
It’s ok to prune out dead, damaged, or diseased wood at any time during the growing season. Resist performing a hard pruning on living branches now; this action may stimulate the plant to put out new shoots. Succulent new growth produced in the fall, may not have enough time to successfully ‘harden off’ before the onset of cold weather.
Don’t delay, order your spring bulbs now, and plan to plant them as soon as they arrive. Planting spring bulbs is a fun and easy activity to do with kids or seniors. Most bulbs are good sized and easy to handle, and don’t require a formal layout. Many gardening guides suggest you casually toss the bulbs in groupings; and just plant them where they land for a natural look. Sunny, well drained areas work best for most bulbs. It’s very cheerful; seeing the shoots sprout and bloom in the spring, when everything else is bare.
Early fall is the time mice will be looking for winter homes, and bringing their germs and pests with them. In the Northeast, the White Footed mouse is the reservoir for the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Lyme disease is contracted when Blacklegged ticks feed on infected mice, then bite people. We utilize Damminix tick tubes to rely on the natural nesting instincts of mice to deliver tick controlling insecticide directly to the host animal and the ticks it infects. Biodegradable cardboard tubes are filled with permethrin treated cotton. Mice will collect the treated cotton for their bedding; the permethrin from the cotton is released onto the mouse’s fur, ticks that feed on the mice are exposed to the insecticide and killed before they can spread Lyme disease to you, your family and pets. Please contact our Damminix specialist, Scott Higley, for more information.
Need help with the fall garden chores? Want to get those weeds out once and for all? Contact our office to schedule your fall clean-up. email@example.com (413) 548-5586
Scientists improve organic gardening methods
If you grow organically, as I do, you know how hard it is to combat garden pests on your crops. Organic growers run into common garden insects and diseases that can be difficult to manage with organic tools. Plant scientists working together with researchers from Cornell University and the University of Kentucky are developing strategies to manage garden pests utilizing biocontrol methods. Their goal is to highlight innovative ways of addressing this problem, while also improving sustainability.
This study focused on a real scourge of the garden; cucumber beetles and squash bugs. Besides the damage that these pests wreak on the cucurbit plants they will devour; these insects also carry bacteria in their gut that will cause wilt diseases of cucurbits. (The cucurbit family of plants includes squash, cucumbers, and melons) Left unchecked these insects will decimate organically grown crops. Organic pesticides are not that effective on these insects, as conventional pesticides. Hand picking helps to some extent, but it is easy to miss some, and squash bug larvae bore into the stems and stay hidden until it is too late.
Striped Cucumber Beetle
Squash Bug and eggs
The new research is focusing on the use of ‘mesotunnels’. This is a physical barrier comprised of nylon mesh fabric suspended on hoops placed about 42 inches above the ground. Somewhat similar to a floating row cover, made of spun reusable fiber. The difference being that row covers, or ‘low tunnels’ don’t allow pollinating insect’s access to the plants without having to temporarily remove the coverings when the plants begin to flower. Protection from pests is only available for a few weeks; after the covers are lifted the bugs move in. ‘Mesotunnels’ can stay in place throughout the growing season, without having to remove them. For commercial applications, the ‘mesotunnels’ are equipped with boxes of bumblebees to ensure complete pollination.
Adding bees to help with pollination
Other strategies being tested are the use of living mulches, and recycling crop debris, for weed control. Weeds, besides being thieves of soil moisture and nutrients, often harbor disease causing organisms. Minimizing weeds and the labor costs associated with weed removal is an important aspect of organic crop production. Organic farmers plant clover or rye seeds to create living mulch, which also adds back necessary nutrients to the soil. Amazingly the researchers are studying the use of benign bacteria and fungi that work to induce disease resistance in cucurbit plants, as well as viruses that will attack the bacteria that cause plant disease. Using fire to fight fire, so to speak.
These ambitious ideas are at the forefront of organic techniques that combined with conservation of our resources, are the ideas that will help us move agriculture/organic gardening into the 21st century. Every step we take towards minimizing chemically based agriculture is one step we take towards preserving our Earth.
Thinking of spring 2021 seems a long way off, but spring blooming bulbs need to be planted months ahead of their actual bloom time. Daffodils have so many variations of color and form; I don’t think you could ever grow tired of them, and all varieties of daffodils are naturally deer and rodent proof. We don’t have too many problems with hungry deer in Deerfield, but the voles are voracious! I steer clear of tulips and crocus, which are very attractive to rodents over the winter. Many other varieties of spring flowering bulbs are deer and rodent proof as well, and are very easy to plant. Rule of thumb for planting depth is: 3 times the width of the bulb is the correct depth of the planting hole, for any fall planted bulb.
Camassia or Wild Hyacinth is a US native that is naturally deer and rodent resistant. Camassia produces upright racemes of 2 inch star shaped flowers in shades of ivory, blue and purple. They typically bloom after daffodils, and before our summer perennials start their show. The Wild Hyacinth will naturalize and multiply when they are in a favorable location; full to partial sun and they prefer soil that is on the moist side, but not in standing water. Grows 24-30 inches tall depending on the variety.
Camassia leichtlinii alba
Galanthus or Snowdrops are our true harbingers of spring. Like their name says; these spring beauties will start to bloom while there may still be snow on the ground! They are very tolerant of less than ideal locations; partial shade, and wet soil. They will naturalize and spread in drifts if you plant them in groups of 10 or more bulbs. Blooms March through April, and will grow 5-8 inches tall.
Narcissi is the genera of bulbs we call Daffodils-the amount of varieties of this garden staple is astounding, there are literally hundreds of cultivars in an array of shapes, heights, and colors. Fortunately for us all Narcissi are naturally deer and rodent resistant. Narcissi will bloom from early April through June, depending on the variety. Daffodils like full sun to partial shade, and well drained soil. The height can vary widely; there are true miniatures that range from 6-8 inches tall, and large cupped varieties that can grow to 16-24 inches tall.
Daffodils come in an array of sizes and colors
Alliums or Flowering onions are a diverse family of deer and rodent resistant bulbs that are a great addition to your bulb garden. Depending on the variety, Alliums will grow happily in dry, chalky soil, or moist soil, but all prefer a dry period during their dormant phase through our summer, and full to part sun conditions. Allium flowers bloom in congregate masses of many tiny flowers, which are very attractive to pollinators. Bloom time is May through August, depending on the cultivar, and they make wonderful cut flowers either fresh or dried. The ‘giant’ Alliums can reach upwards of 3 feet tall, and the more diminutive types can be 6-8 inches tall.
Allium unifolium likes moist soil