More Wildflowers

More Wildflowers

by Sandy Swegel

The fields and meadows of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado are awash in wildflowers this year.  Lots of moisture in the Fall and Spring has turned our mountains into riots of color that started early and keeps going and going.  We, gardeners, keep playing hooky from our weeding tasks to hike along mountain meadows and enjoy the beauty of nature that doesn’t have to be weeded or watered.  We also get excited about how wildflowers make us very happy and we try to plant more of them in our gardens.

There’s a deeper story to the wildflower bloom.  It’s that we’ve actually been having longer wildflower seasons for years now.  I look at a good wildflower season as a reason to rejoice and do more wandering and hiking.  Scientists at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory looked out their windows in Crested Butte, CO forty years ago and said, “Hmmm. What’s that about?” “Let’s collect some data.”  So for the last 39 years, they sent out scores of graduate students to count wildflowers.  They recorded when the flowers first bloomed, how many flowers were produced, how long the flowering lasted, etc. Now many years later, the wildflowers are telling an important story about climate change.  Turns out we do have more wildflowers.  Almost a full month’s worth more.  The flowers bloom earlier in the Spring and last longer in the Fall.

It’s still too early to know exactly what it means that we have an extra month of wildflower season.  Clearly, this is evidence of climate change. But what it means is less clear.  We get the first bloom six days earlier than 40 years ago. That means birds and pollinators have food earlier.  But we still get the same number of flowers which means the actual amount of nectar hasn’t changed.

Up in Crested Butte, the scientists still look out and ask “Hmmm? What’s that about? Let’s collect some data.”  Graduate students still count the number of flowers in little 30 foot plots across the mountain.  A new study is putting tiny radio transmitters on hummingbirds to see how their feeding is changing.

Meanwhile, the wildflowers give us abundant beauty …and… hard data that climate change is happening, rather rapidly.

Photo Credit: www.constantinealexander.net/2014/03/rocky-mountain-wildflower-season-lengthens-by-more-than-a-month.html

 

 

How to get your Neighbors & Friends Interested in Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You have finally come to understand how important pollinators are and why we need to protect them.  One of the challenges we who value pollinators face is how to educate other people to care too.  Unfortunately, we’ll start to ramble about how bad chemicals are or how GMO crops harm the environment and if we pay attention we’ll notice our listeners’ eyes are glazing over and they’re looking for a quick exit.  Even with other people interested in the same topics, it’s not long till people get that bored “You’re preaching to the choir” look. When you’re passionate you want other people to be passionate too, and maybe take to the streets in pursuit of your cause…but that rarely happens.

So what can you do to educate others about protecting pollinators?  I’ve learned a lot from watching Niki, a member of our garden group, over the years.  Over time she had inspired many people to put in pollinator habitats or at least to stop pouring chemicals on their lawns.  And she did it without preaching.  So taking inspiration from her over the years, here’s an action list on how to gently inspire others to protect pollinators and the environment.

Make a demo garden in your front yard.  It was a slow start for Niki.  She lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and her decision to turn her front yard from perfect green grass to a xeric native habitat caused some upset in the ‘hood. At first, people thought she was bringing property values down with all those weeds.  But she kept the garden tidy and explained every plant she grew to anyone who stopped by.  She invited the kids over to watch butterflies.  She explained to people who asked why she was doing what she did.  Her friendly attitude and a “come pick out of my garden anytime” attitude built relationships.  Neighbors on their mowers noticed they were out doing yard work every weekend and she wasn’t.  Then she started to tell people how much money she was saving by not watering the lawn and using chemicals.  That changed a few people’s minds. She added in the info that you could protect your trees without the expensive sprays the tree companies wanted to do. Soon the whole neighborhood was just a little more pollinator friendly.

Teach the kids
Kids have open minds.  Have an inviting garden with butterflies everywhere, and kids will stop to look around.  They’ll ask questions and they’ll tell their families about the cool stuff they learned today.

Give away free stuff.
It’s pretty easy to collect seed from native plants or to put seed you have in little envelopes to give away.  People in the neighborhood learned they could get free seeds for lots of low-water flowering plants if they stopped at Niki’s.  They also learned they could get free plants.  She started seeds in her living room or dug up self-seeding plants and put them in tiny pots and gave them to anyone who would learn how to take care of them. Soon, that’s native food sources up and down the block.

Offer Free Public Classes
Soon the neighbors had all the free seeds and plants they could use.  So the next step was to offer free classes to the public. Our library offers meeting rooms for public groups for free so soon Niki was offering 2-hour Saturday classes on “Chemical-free gardening” or “Make your own natural cleaning products.” Another 2-hour Saturday project was the free Seed Swap in January which invited everyone to bring their extra seeds and swap with one another.  Gardeners meeting other gardeners is often all it takes.  Lots of people came to classes because they wanted to save money or have a safer environment for their kids.  They all left with that info and with an understanding of why chemicals can really hurt bees and other pollinators and how there’s an easier way to do things.  Not preachy…but well-researched information.  A heartfelt story about the impact of pesticides in Kansas on monarch butterflies all over the world helps people want to do the right thing.

Be generous with your time to talk to others
Soon gardeners and community members learned Niki and now her gardening circle friends would come to talk to their neighborhood association or school about native bees and butterflies.  Or they’d look at your suffering tomato plant and suggest a natural home-made remedy.  Everyone got on an email group together and ended up teaching each other about natural gardening and making homes for pollinators. Local media people saw the library classes and now had someone to call when they needed a radio show or newspaper article.

Photo Credits:

www.huffingtonpost.com

www.valleyviewfarms.blogspot.com

 

 

 

Pollinator flower mixes

Heirloom vegetable seed

Wildflower mixes

 

 

Stalking the Wild Monarch

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Show and Tell time.
It’s time to take the kids or some curious adults outside and prove your superior knowledge of the ways of nature and introduce them to butterfly eggs.  It’s been a good milkweed year in the wild this year. Lots of spring rains followed by warm days have made the perfect home for milkweed plants.  Milkweeds are growing in my garden and along roadsides and ditches.  If milkweed plants are fully grown…mine are in tight bud about to bloom…you can walk up to almost any plant and look under the leaves and find little tiny white monarch butterfly eggs.

Milkweed plants, Asclepias, as you probably know are the ONLY host plant for the monarch butterfly.  The butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of the leaves. The eggs hatch hungry little larvae that chew up the leaves.

The larvae get big and fat and eventually form pupae, also on the underneath side of a milkweed plant.

Finally, “ta-da” a monarch butterfly emerges.

I have two favorite kinds of milkweed plants in my garden.  The “showy milkweed” Asclepias speciosa with the big pink seed head you’ve seen in fields, and “Butterfly weed” Asclepias tuberosa which is my favorite because it’s bright orange and looks good in the dry August garden next to the Black-eyed Susans.  It also makes a great picture to see a Monarch butterfly on one of the orange flowers.

Monarchs are happy to choose either of these two “milkweeds” or any of the other more than 100 different species of milkweeds around the world. So you can pick the flower you like and grow it in your own garden. Grow it and the monarchs WILL come.  I’ve had good luck with fall or winter direct sowing of the seeds that easily grow into blooming plants the next year.  After that, they reseed themselves gently.

Video links
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_profilepage&v=9Q2eORu1hP8

http://www1.teachertube.com/viewVideo.php?title=Monarch_butterfly_laying_eggs_on_milkweed&video_id=51640

And, just in case there are any monarch butterflies out there that don’t know how to do this, here is an instructable!

http://www.instructables.com/id/Monarch-Butterflies-Egg-to-Butterfly/

 

 

 

Pollinator Week 2014

Seven years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of this week in June as “National Pollinator Week” marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles, etc.

Often overlooked or misunderstood, pollinators are in fact responsible for one out of every three bites of food that we eat. In the U.S. bees alone undertake the astounding task of pollinating over $15 billion in added crop value, particularly for specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables. Beginning in 2006, pollinators started to decline rapidly in numbers.

BBB Seed Company (Boulder, CO), The Colorado State Beekeepers Association, Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association, Boulder County Beekeepers Association & 16 garden centers/stores from Fort Collins, Boulder, Denver & Colorado Springs are teaming up to celebrate National Pollinator Week! We will have a Pollinator Table set up at all 16 locations during Pollinator Week June 16-22nd with pollinator literature, brochures, pollinator wildflower mixes and more. On Saturday, June 21st from 10am-2pm, some of the garden centers listed below will have a beekeeper there to answer any questions adults & children may have about pollinators, planting for pollinators, protecting pollinators, etc! Come help us Celebrate, Honor & Protect our Precious Pollinators!

So visit your local nursery or garden center during Pollinator Week, pick up some seeds or flowering plants and learn about the vital role of bees and other pollinators!

Locations in Larimer County include:

• Fort Collins Nursery, Fort Collins
• Bath Garden Center, Fort Collins
• Gardens on Spring Creek, Fort Collins
• JAX Ranch & Home, Fort Collins
• JAX, Loveland

Locations in Boulder County include:
• Flower Bin, Longmont
• JAX, Lafayette
• McGuckin Hardware, Boulder
• Harlequin’s Gardens, Boulder
• Sturtz & Copeland, Boulder

Locations in the Denver area include:
• Country Fair Garden Center- Colorado Blvd

• Nick’s Garden Center & Farm Market
• Tagawa Gardens

Locations in Colorado Springs include:
• Phelan Gardens
• Rick’s Garden Center

 

Make Your Own Mud Puddle

by Sandy Swegel

I’m always in search of how to do things more easily and efficiently in the garden. Once again today I was at the garden center eavesdropping and heard a typical customer question: ”What should I plant to get pollinators to my yard?” The answer the garden center owner gave surprised me.  I was expecting a list of bright colorful flowers that were good sources of nectar and some host-specific plants for butterflies. Instead, I heard the best and simplest answer to this common question: “There are lots of good plants to use,  but the most important thing you can do is provide a good source of water.” He then elaborated that it couldn’t just be a birdbath or water fountain…it needed to be shallow and ideally have the minerals pollinators crave.

So the quick and easy way to get LOTS of pollinators to your yard is to make mud puddles.  Or if you’re a bit tidier, a water sand bath.

Any way to get small puddles of water will work. You’ve seen this when flying insects gather around a dripping spigot, or when there’s a ledge in your water feature that water flows slowly over. In nature, pollinators gather along the edges of streams and lakes.

To mimic nature, take a plant saucer and fill it half with sand and fill with water to just over the sand.  The sand is the source of minerals and gives an easy surface to rest upon.  Bees especially will drown in deeper water.  To make it extra nice, sprinkle compost over the sand to add extra nutrients.  If you’re out in the country, a nice flat cow patty will do the trick…Put it in a big round plant saucer and add water.

If you’re in a very dry climate like me, the water evaporates much too quickly in hot weather.  The customer I was eavesdropping on at the garden center had a burst of inspiration: “I’ll put one of my drip lines in it so when I water the plants, the “puddle” will get water.”

A less elegant solution is to take a one-gallon water bottle and put a pinhole in the bottom and place it on some bare soil. Fill the bottle and water will drip out slowly keeping a mud puddle going.

I’ve put out an attractive saucer with sand, and a water bottle over bare dirt to see which works better. So far, the plain wet dirt is winning when they’ve got a choice. Now, why do I suspect they’d probably like the wet cow patty the best.

 

 

Pollinator mixes

Heirloom vegetable seed

Wildflower seed mixes

 

Hummingbird Moths aka Sphinx Moth, Hawkmoth or Hornworm

by Sandy Swegel

When we think of pollinators, we think of bees and butterflies, but one of the larger groups of pollinators are moths.  They go from flower to flower looking for nectar and their hairy faces and bodies pick up lots of pollen that get taken to the next flower.  Most people think about moths just when they notice the moths flitting around the porch light at night, but gardeners see moths all the time without even realizing it.  The little white “butterflies” around our veggie garden are cabbage moths.

One of the most intriguing moths in the garden is the Sphinx moth or hummingbird moth.  It hovers especially over flowers, especially at dawn or dusk, looking for super sweet nectar. Most people think it’s a hummingbird the first time they see one.

Unique Facts

They are the only moth that “hovers” over flowers like hummingbirds do, fluttering their wings rapidly while they “drink” nectar.  This is why they are called “hummingbird moths.”

They can fly very fast, up to 30 miles per hour. They can also fly swooping down as hawks do. This is why they are called “hawkmoths.”

They are big. Their front wingspan can be eight inches and their proboscis (for feeding) can be 10 inches.

They are more active at night but you can see them during the daytime too, especially around twilight.

They find their flowers from a distance by their scent.  They love sweet-smelling flowers.  Once close up, the use their vision to find white or light colored flowers. They often feed on the same flowers by night that the hummingbirds use during the day.

The weirdest thing about the hummingbird moths is that their larval form is a hornworm. Gardeners see them most often as the dreaded tomato hornworm.

They get their name The Sphinx moth because the larvae will raise the front portion of their body up when you disturb them, causing it to resemble the Egyptian Sphinx.

Flowers that are Pollinated by Hawkmoths:

Evening Primrose
Moonflower
Azaleas
Four O’Clocks
Peonies
Bee balm
Honeysuckle

These amazing hawk-sphinx-hummingbird moths are so useful in the garden, that now I have to let some of the tomato hornworms live just so I can have more moths around. Yikes.

Extension Fact Sheet about Hawkmoths

How to Start Mothing

Pollinator of Month

Slow Motion Video of Hawkmoth

How to Rear Sphinx Moths

 

 

Butterfly Love

by Sandy Swegel

 

I have friends who are serious eco-tourists.  They were the first people I knew to swim with dolphins.  Then they starting swimming or boating with whales, petting them and picking lice off whales. This year the trip de rigeur was down to Mexico where you can be surrounded by tens of thousands of flying monarch butterflies.  We mere humans don’t have wings, but down in the monarch migration zones, it’s almost like having wings. My friends were awed and literally touched by clouds of fluttering butterflies.  They appreciate and LOVE butterflies in a new way now.

 

The best thing about butterfly love? Or bee love or whale love?  It’s going to be what saves species.  When I was a kid, studying butterflies involved using straight pins to pin dead butterflies to styrofoam blocks.  Kids now go to nature camps or butterfly pavillions or good schools and become so aware of what magical creatures butterflies are that children become society’s butterfly protectors.  Last summer a friend wasn’t watching where she was going and was going to accidentally stomp on a butterfly as she was tromping in the garden.  One of the kids playing nearby wailed “Stop! Watch out! There’s a butterfly!”

 

So, find some ways to experience butterflies up close.  In Denver, we’re lucky to have a Butterfly Pavillion.  Almost as intense is a 3-D IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies” now showing around the country.  Saving species, or saving the world is really pretty easy when the first step is learning to love our earthly companions.   The kids will explain it to you.

Photo credit and link:  http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/home/

http://www.monarch-butterfly.com/

 

 

 

 

 

A Wild Thicket

by Sandy Swegel

When it comes to our gardens, we Americans are of a divided heart. Deep in our ancestral memories are the manicured gardens of Europe.  We swoon over the groomed roses and delphiniums of England, We admire the orderliness of rows of Tuscan poplars. We see the almost mathematical grid of Versailles echoed in Jefferson’s Monticello. We use raised beds to confine our vegetables just as the medieval cloister gardens were enclosed.

 

 At the same time, we Americans are a frontier people, dazzled by the wildness and grandeur of raw untamed nature.  Grassy plains and dense woodlands and mountains majesty tug at our hearts even as we tend our suburban plots.

 

To fill the needs of our wild nature souls, I think it’s always good to have a wild area in our yard. One that manages to thrive only on what nature provides and provides a haven for small wildlife.  Generally, there is some place in your yard that already refuses to be tamed. Someplace wild plums keep sprouting and sumacs come unbidden.   This is the area to encourage in your yard – your secret garden, if you’d like – or just the area you see from your kitchen window reminding you that beneath the dishes and chores and children and jobs, you have a wild spirit too.

 My favorite thicket started with the wild plums that kept coming back. Over time, a couple of chokecherries worked their way in, and the patch of lemon balm appeared all on its own.  Birds planted wild roses. Squirrels brought in nuts. I decided to play along with nature and seeded an unruly pollinators’ hedge filled with the nectar and pollen-rich flowering plants that bees and butterflies crave. I let the wild queen anne’s lace have some space in the back and I didn’t pull the dandelions. I did plant one of those tall dark purple butterfly bushes for structure and I seeded a buffer zone of grasses and wildflowers to create a neutral zone of sorts between “The Lawn” and “The Thicket.” 

 I don’t really “garden” the thicket but over time I’ve planted some naturalizing crocus and daffodils and a handful of seeds a decade ago that keep the spring display stunning.  About the only care I give the area is water during really dry spells and a birdbath of water because butterflies and birds and bees need something to drink.

 I am proudest of my tended garden…the showy beds of vegetables and annual flowers, the elegant stretches of roses and flowering shrubs and tulips in Spring. But deep down, it is my thicket that I love the most.

 

Stalking the Wild Monarch

by Sandy Swegel

It’s Show and Tell time.  It’s time to take the kids or some curious adults outside and prove your superior knowledge of the ways of nature and introduce them to butterfly eggs.  It’s been a good milkweed year in the wild this year. Lots of spring rains followed by warm days have made the perfect home for milkweed plants.  Milkweeds are growing in my garden and along roadsides and ditches.  If milkweed plants are fully grown…mine are in tight bud about to bloom…you can walk up to almost any plant and look under the leaves and find little tiny white monarch butterfly eggs.

Milkweed plants, Asclepias, as you probably know are the ONLY host plant for the monarch butterfly.  The butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of the leaves. The eggs hatch hungry little larvae that chew up the leaves.
The larvae get big and fat and eventually form pupae, also on the underneath side of a milkweed plant.
Finally, “ta-da” a monarch butterfly emerges.
I have two favorite kinds of milkweed plants in my garden.  The “showy milkweed” Asclepias speciosa with the big pink seed head you’ve seen in fields, and “Butterfly weed” Asclepias tuberosa which is my favorite because it’s bright orange and looks good in the dry August garden next to the Black-eyed Susans.  It also makes a great picture to see a Monarch butterfly on one of the orange flowers.

Monarchs are happy to choose either of these two “milkweeds” or any of the other more than 100 different species of milkweeds around the world. So you can pick the flower you like and grow it in your own garden. Grow it and the monarchs WILL come.  I’ve had good luck with fall or winter direct sowing of the seeds that easily grow into blooming plants the next year.  After that, they reseed themselves gently.

Video links http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_profilepage&v=9Q2eORu1hP8

http://www1.teachertube.com/viewVideo.php?title=Monarch_butterfly_laying_eggs_on_milkweed&video_id=51640

And, just in case there are any monarch butterflies out there that don’t know how to do this, there’s an instructable!

http://www.instructables.com/id/Monarch-Butterflies-Egg-to-Butterfly/

 

Black Swallowtails

by Sandy Swegel

I’m very proud of my mama.  At 80+ and on oxygen 24 hours a day, she’s still making valiant efforts to keep her brain functioning.  She led a busy life, but now that’s she’s older and can’t get around easily without oxygen tanks, she is learning to observe what is in front of her.  Today she called me very proudly and announced that she had found five huge caterpillars on her dill plant in her tiny courtyard garden down in New Orleans.  She was never a gardener but at this point in life she loves watching butterflies through the window and had watched over the last few weeks wondering why the butterflies were all over the dill plant.  She called because she wanted to know what would happen next and what she should do or not do.

I pretty much said do nothing except maybe to make sure the cat kept the birds from eating those fat plump caterpillars.  And then I googled and found these great pictures of what’s going to happen.  She’s going to have to look around because the butterflies might make their home on some sticks or weeds or even under a tiny fountain.  She’s promised to take pictures…but photographer Bob Moul made a great website about what you should look for if black swallowtails are all over your dill, parsley or fennel. http://www.pbase.com/rcm1840/lifecycleofblsw  It only takes a few weeks from huge caterpillar to new butterfly!

Usually, it’s the very young and the old who have the wisdom to notice nature’s miracles like butterflies…but I’m going to check the dill and parsley too. If you don’t have time to stalk your dill plants, here’s an awesome time-lapse video of caterpillar to butterfly!  The first part of the video is all about frenzied eating.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrowLvvmmds