Wild Ones Photo Contest

Each year the national Wild Ones organization (Nan and I belong to the Cincinnati chapter) sponsors a photo contest. Since the purpose of this organization is to promote native plants and natural landscapes, the contest recognizes winners in seven categories: Children, Flora, Pollinators, Photos by Kids, Non-residential Landscaping, Residential Landscaping, and Scenery. Three photos are awarded prizes in each category.

I admit it was Nan’s idea to send a couple of my photos in to see how they might fare … and two of them were chosen! My photo a common buckeye was awarded second place and my photo of a honey bee earned third place … both in the pollinator category.
You can see the photos below.

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Monarch nectaring on tall verbena

Both of the last two years my wife, Nan, has written in the Hamilton County Master Gardener newsletter ComPOST about the experiences we have had in our little half acre working to attract and preserve the monarch butterfly population. This year it is my turn to reflect a bit on what kind of year 2012 was for our little friends.

Let’s start with the BAD. Why not? I don’t need to tell you that the summer was hot and dry – too hot and dry in many areas for good monarch reproduction. Chip Taylor of the Monarch Watch organization says, “It is now clear that fall population will be on the low side. We have received many comments on the poor quality of the milkweed available to monarchs for the last generation. The low number of nectar sources that will be available to monarchs moving through the lower Midwest in September is a concern. Some fall flowers have already bloomed, some have died and many of the others are stunted and just barely alive. There will be nectar but it will be harder for the monarchs to find.”

Actually, our personal experience was that we didn’t just have fewer monarch butterflies, we had virtually no monarchs in our yard this summer. We saw one or two early but word on the street seemed to be that it was so warm so early that they just went on north. Some areas in Canada reported record numbers early in the year. But, whatever the reason, despite growing several kinds of milkweed, we had no butterflies until a handful stopped in our yard on their way south in September. That is a far cry from the 150 or so monarchs we released as they eclosed from their crysalis’s in the summer of 2010. Others in the midwest had similar experiences. One garden blogger that I read recently wrote about the lack of butterflies this summer in his yard. You can find a link to that post here.

So, let’s move on to the GOOD. Even though we are very interested in helping the monarch population survive, we enjoy all kinds of butterflies and have planted the host plants for many of the native butterflies of our region. So, even though we have not had monarchs this summer, we have had a good variety of others and it has given us a new appreciation for the beauty and variety of these little creatures. As all gardeners know, creating diversity is a good thing!

But what about the UGLY?

One day at the end of August I realized that there were Giant Swallowtails laying eggs on our Wafer Ash in our backyard. And soon enough, we spotted first eggs, then tiny caterpillars; barely visible and looking like little smears of bird poop! We brought these little guys inside and fed them both Wafer Ash leaves as well as leaves from a Rue plant we have in our yard (also a host plant for the Giant Swallowtail). These caterpillars as they have grown have had the same effect on Nan and I as the first Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars we ever saw in our yard … you just can’t help but break out into a big grin when you look at them. They are gloriously and wonderfully made! And they become the largest butterfly native to our area.

So, even though the summer seemed to be a bust early on. We have had a lot of GOOD along with a joyful bit of UGLY at the end.

Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar on Wafer Ash Leaf

Noah’s Garden

Sara Stein and her husband moved into a property that most realtors would describe as “having enormous potential for improvement” and proceeded to “improve” it, clearing brush, mowing, and doing the things that most of us do when we garden. After a few years, they noticed that the quail and pheasants were gone. So was most of the other wildlife. And in time they realized that they were the cause of these disappearances. They had taken away the homes and protective cover of the small creatures.

Noah’s Garden is the narrative of the author’s work to restore her 5-acre lot in upstate New York to something resembling native vegetation. It turns out that restoring a habitat involves a lot more than just planting some native species and calling it good. Habitats are interactive systems, and having the right native species for the area in the right numbers and the right combinations are all important.

In this small book, Sara Stein tells how to preserve enough of nature to keep some of its wonders alive. Noah’s Garden is not a scolding rebuke against “foreign” plants in the landscape, nor against any particular type of landscaping at all; though she does enlighten the reader with an insightful critique of why the typical suburban “blandscape” is so hostile to wildlife, pointing out that sprawling suburban landscapes have been enormously destructive to native habitats as they are displaced by the monocultures of lawn and easy-care shrubs and trees.

The good news in Stein’s book is that she believes that the suburbs and native habitats can co-exist, and lays out some plans for them to do so.

This book may well change the view from your patio. Stein writes convincingly of the necessity of good stewardship of the land stolen from prairies and forests to make our backyards. She documents her own journey from being a conventional American gardener to a naturalist, ecologist and native-habitat restorer. Along the way, there are lessons to learn. Here’s one of them:

“How much water does it take to quench a butterfly’s thirst? Give a dove a bath? Provide a laying place for toads? No more than a puddle.” But where are the puddles? Where are the dirt roads that you splashed in during your youth? Probably paved over with excellent drainage. The sad truth is that we’ve improved away our toads, doves and butterflies. (And when is the last time you worried about running barefoot in the backyard because of all the honey bees on the clover?)

Restoring natural habitat requires that we learn from nature. The value of this book is that the author provides some of that education with a good bit of humor and a bunch personal experience. Read the book and, when you are finished, dig into Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home for even more ideas on how to make your space on our planet a better place for all God’s creatures.

Rambunctious Garden

Book Cover Image
Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

According to author Emma Marris, rambunctious gardening is proactive and optimistic; it creates more and more nature as it goes, rather than just building walls around the nature we have left. In this precocious look at our role in the natural world (past, present, and future) Marris walks a thin line between debunking (or at least rationally considering) the various approaches to “saving nature” and advocating for a more thoughtful approach. Using wide-ranging examples the author describes an increasing awareness in the field of ecology that the traditional goals of conservation are not only unachievable globally but also too narrow. She defines those goals as largely focusing on preserving pristine wildernesses by turning back the clock on them to an arbitrary “baseline” date before modern civilization and “non-native” species, arrived.

Marris’ argues for a more adult and more hopeful view. She argues that the whole notion of “pristine wilderness” is really untenable in practice since humans have always altered the ecosystems around them and that nature is everywhere, constantly in flux. She makes this argument by describing visits to several leading-edge conservation projects and honestly analyzing their goals and likely outcomes. While she admires the motivation and efforts of some of the best-known environmental activists, she objects to their hard-line public approach to conservation and argues for a more nuanced approach — one that does not assume that all human influence on the planet is bad. In the author’s view, the “all or nothing” approach of those who want to revert to a more pristine world only sets us up for a lifetime of mourning what has been lost (and likely cannot be regained).

Instead, the author prefers to adopt a mindset that considers the gardener a net plus in our own ecosystems. As a gardener, you are increasing the diversity of plant species on your property. If you work at it, the soil ends up more nutritious and rich than when you began. You can also garden for many different goals: to support wildlife, to increase the diversity of your property, or to give precedence to natives over exotics.

Gardeners are on the front lines of this battle. There are people who want exotics and people who don’t. That’s not to say that some plants aren’t real headaches—even “invasive”. But nature will generally sort itself out, though in some places gardeners will need to work harder than in others. But putting it back the way it was is largely a futile quest. Better to understand that change over time is always part of the equation and do what we can to move that change in a positive, more hopeful direction.

This is not a ‘how to’ book. It won’t necessarily help you get exactly the ‘look’ you are going for in that new bed you are digging for next year. But it will give you a better idea how you fit into the created world around you and help you take a more hopeful view of what you do in your own space as a gardener.

2011: Monarch Update

An update from Nan:

Last year I wrote an article about Monarch butterflies and how Mark and I do what we can each year to encourage them to visit our backyard garden. We plant several different types of Asclepias, the host plant for the Monarch, and we then bring the caterpillars indoors to increase their chances of survival. We then release the adult butterflies for the cycle to begin again. Eventually, in mid-September, the newly eclosed adults leave us and migrate to Mexico. This year we released more than 75 adult Monarch butterflies. This is about 40% fewer than we released in 2010.

We’ve been doing this for 4 or 5 years now and we learn new things every year. I think the most important thing that we learned this year is how important the state of Texas is to the Monarch migration. When spring arrives each year, the butterflies overwintering in Mexico take flight, take in nourishment and most begin to immediately mate. This allows them to deposit eggs on the milkweed that is found along the HUNDREDS of miles they will cross in their northern migration through Texas. These are butterflies that have been overwintering for months. They are the same butterflies that traveled up to 2500 miles in order to reach Mexico. They have not eaten in months. Instead, they are living off the fat they have stored from last fall during their journey south. (The generation of Monarchs that make the journey south and begin the return trip live up to five months, while all other generations of Monarchs that populate our gardens in summer live only two to six weeks.) And so, their one mission is to mate, begin the journey north and LAY EGGS! The vast majority of these butterflies will lay eggs in Texas and soon die. Mission accomplished.

Now, imagine that Texas is suffering from a drought. And temperatures are WELL above normal. The milkweed is suffering from the dry conditions and the butterflies cannot stand the extreme temperatures. Some of the migrating Monarchs will die before they are able to find suitable amounts of milkweed. Those that survive decide to move farther north to find better conditions, only to find those areas north are still too cool and/or rainy for the Monarchs or the milkweed. That is exactly what happened this past spring and so the experts watching the migration had low expectations for a ‘good’ Monarch year. Despite that, as I said earlier, I thought we had a decent turnout in our own little corner of Monarch country.

The story doesn’t end there though. When September came around, Texas was still experiencing drought along with very high temperatures. Monarchs ‘bulk up’ during their migration south and again, Texas takes up hundreds of miles of that migration. Important miles. This year, because of its hot, dry summer, it did not have as much nectar to offer the butterflies.

Now, all we can do is wait and see how they fare on the mountaintops in central Mexico – and hope for a perfect Spring. Especially in Texas. We can do our part by planting milkweed for them before they arrive here starting in late June. I know Mark and I will be waiting for them with anticipation….and plenty of milkweed!

2010: A Great Year for the Orange and Black

A report from Nan:

My husband, Mark, and I have been rooting for the Orange and Black for the last 4 seasons or so. We do what we can to help out…we grow food for them, we provide housing and a nice place to hang out. They’ve done OK for the last few years, but this year was an exceptionally GREAT year. It just seemed to all come together this year for the Orange and Black. Of course, if you follow sports, you know that I cannot possibly be talking about the colors of the Cincinnati Bengals. What I am referring to is the beautiful colors of Danneus plexipus. The Monarch butterfly.

Mark and I have become Monarch ‘enthusiasts’ over the last several years and have done what we can to help increase the monarch population. We plant milkweed – Asclepias tuberosa, A. incarnata, and A. curassivica – throughout our gardens and we monitor the number of caterpillars produced each year. The summer of 2009 was a disappointing summer for our beloved monarchs. We’re not sure why, but most likely because it was a wet and cool summer (wow, do you remember that after this year’s hot, dry summer??) and we only saw a Monarch or two throughout the 2009 season. In comparison however, this year was phenomenal. We ‘incubated’ about 130 monarch caterpillars this year, lost a few of them to the parasitizing tachinid fly and watched about 125 monarch butterflies emerge in our backyard.

Usually starting in late July or early August, after the milkweed has been busy growing to its full beauty, the holes in the leaves begin to appear. Those holes…what a beautiful sight! The eggs have hatched and the caterpillars are eating. This is what we’ve been waiting for! The cleaned, plastic bins are inside our Monarch Room in our lower level and they are ready to become a safe haven for these first instar caterpillars for the next 10-14 days or so.

We bring the caterpillars in, place them in one of the MANY bins we have, and provide fresh milkweed leaves 3-4 times a day. Each bin has a volume of at least 16 quarts and is covered with a small window screen that serves two purposes: to keep the caterpillars INSIDE the bin and to provide a place for the caterpillar to ‘hang’ so it can complete its metamorphosis. We limit the number of caterpillars in each bin and we bring in fresh milkweed leaves. The caterpillar frass is removed at least once a day.

We have had the pleasure to watch many caterpillars grow through their 5 instar stages, hang in their signature “J” shape for hours before they pupate and ultimately emerge as beautiful adult butterflies. We are still learning as we go and are doing our best to recognize and eliminate parasites such as the tachinid fly and the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). We will continue to learn more each season as, hopefully, more and more Monarchs make their way back from their habitats in Mexico. And, as all good fans, we hope more and more gardeners join us in cheering for the Orange and Black in 2011!

Notes From An Accidental Tomato Farmer

Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer

Book Cover ImageMy dad grew up on a farm, but I did not. When I was too small to help (or care very much about helping) I remember my dad having a garden with some vegetables in our backyard. But when I was eight, we moved to an eastern city without room for a vegetable garden, so what I learned about local food production growing up was largely drawn from the brief experiences my siblings and I had each summer as we visited grandparents in the midwest.

I still don’t have a vegetable garden, but I have experimented the past two or three years with growing some tomatoes. And this year I’m experimenting with some heirloom varieties—largely as a result of reading Tim Stark’s book Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Farmer. Though I didn’t grow up in a family that grew its own food in the backyard, I did grow up in Eastern Pennsylvania which is, apparently, a primo spot for tomato growing. Tim Stark figured this out back in 1994. Stark did not imagine he would be a tomato farmer. He started out as a management consultant and would-be writer. In 1996, he started growing tomatoes on a whim, growing hundreds of plants in his fourth-floor walk-up under fluorescent lights. That’s when tomatoes took over his life. After getting booted by his landlord, he took them home to the family farm in Pennsylvania. “Farm” is putting it generously—at that time he had 2 acres dedicated to growing—land he did not even own. Twelve years later, he farms tomatoes like Cherokee Purple, Green Zebra, Garden Peach and Hillbilly on 12 acres in Amish and Mennonite country not far from where I grew up. And what he grows on those acres get shipped every week to the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC. His tomatoes have made him a favorite of chefs throughout the city.

Heirloom is largely a collection of anecdotes put together from 14+ years of farming without chemicals in Pennsylvania and selling the produce in Manhattan. What makes these anecdotes matter is that, in addition to being a good writer, Stark sees himself as a farmer. And being a farmer isn’t the easiest job out there these days. Stark’s stories are about farming in the 20th/21st century, with its ups and downs, gains and losses. “After 12 years of growing vegetables, I have learned to accept that every farming season presents a unique set of conditions that invariably prove to be, on the whole, less than optimal.” The stories are at once compelling and downright funny. But most wonderful is the beautiful description of the land and the soil, and tender portraits of the people who grow the food we eat.

And as for tomatoes, Stark says that it’s the ugly tomatoes — the ones that “tend to split and crack and get beaten up a lot” — that taste the best. “The uglier, the better,” he says. So this year, I’m trying to grow some real ugly ones!