Creating a Monarch-Friendly Garden

Last weekend, I had a chance to speak at the Duluth Garden and Flower Society (MSHS District 8) Spring Luncheon in Duluth. The luncheon attracted about 80 enthusiastic gardeners from Duluth, the North Shore and the Iron Range. It was a fun event and I was honored to be asked to talk about MSHS, Northern Gardener and gardening trends.

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Monarchs seem to like annuals, such as zinnias, but native plants are best for them.

One of the host groups was the local chapter of Wild Ones, a national group that promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity. Wild Ones does a lot to educate and encourage the public about planting nature-friendly landscapes, including Monarch Way Stations. Wild Ones will even certify a garden space as a way station, if you provide what monarchs (and other pollinators) need. Whether you get your garden certified or not, it’s a good idea to learn about what it takes to attract pollinators. I decided to do a little inventory of how my own garden stacks up.

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If you want Monarchs, plant milkweed. It’s what those caterpillars need.

Larval plants: Monarch caterpillars require milkweed to grow into butterflies. It is their only food source. Wild Ones recommends having two types of milkweed in your landscape. I have lots (and lots!) of common milkweed on and near my property, but I think that is the only type. I’ll be looking this spring for either seeds or plants for swamp milkweed or prairie milkweed, both of which would do well in different parts of my landscape.

 

Joe Pye weed is one of the summer plants Monarchs use for nectar.
Joe Pye weed is one of the summer plants Monarchs use for nectar.

Early, mid and late food sources: Of the six early necatar plant shrubs Wild Ones recommends, I have one (serviceberry) in my yard, but there is pussy willow in the ponds near here. Of the eight recommended early forbs, I’ve got three (lupine, beardtongue and phlox). Not bad on early plants, but it could be better. Of the 36 shrubs, vines and perennials recommended for Monarchs for midsummer, my landscape has nine—again, not bad, could be better. Of the 10 plants recommended for late summer, I have three (goldenrod, aster and ironweed). Here’s the list of plants, in case you would like to see how favorable your landscape is for Monarchs.

Other landscape features to include for Monarchs include:

  • No pesticide use
  • Grasses (I have lots of those)
  • One or more water source, such as a birdbath or a puddling spot
  • Let things go a bit in the fall. Do not be quick to clean up flower stalks, grasses or leaves that may provide overwintering sites for beneficial insects.

How welcoming is your landscape for Monarchs and other pollinators?

Winter Sowing Native Plants, Two Ways

A week ago, we had a few days of pleasant 30-degree weather here in Minnesota, perfect weather for winter sowing native plants for the meadow I maintain behind my house. The meadow has been challenging, to say the least. There is a lot of weed pressure near it (and in it). It’s been one of those garden projects that reminds you just how small and ineffective you are compared to Nature, with a capital N.

So, I was thrilled to see that Prairie Moon Nursery, where I bought most of the plants and seeds I’ve used in the meadow, was offering a Jungle Prairie Mix of seeds. According to Prairie Moon, the Jungle Mix  “includes the most robust and competitive prairie plants available. The Jungle Prairie is perfect for a weedy ditch, a privacy screen, or for just establishing a profusion of flowers while providing habitat for wildlife.” Sounds good to me.

Seeds waiting for spring
Seeds waiting for spring

I ordered enough seeds for 2,000 square feet to spread on the meadow. I also liked that this is a project they recommend you do during winter — a time when I’m less busy in the garden anyway. (Prairie plants tend to need stratification to germinate — that is, the process of breaking the seed coat by repeated freezing and thawing — so sowing them in winter allows the process to happen naturally.)

The directions for spreading the seeds call for dividing your area into smaller spaces so that the seeds are more evenly spread. I visually divided the meadow in four, then mixed one-quarter of the seeds with a filler material and spread it on each section by tossing it as evenly as I could. My husband raised the issue that birds would eat the seed, but we did not see any increase in bird activity after casting the seeds. We have a feeder not too far from the meadow, so hopefully they will get their sustenance there.

While working on that type of winter sowing, I dug out some of my seeds from last year. I found several kinds of seeds that work well in the meadow—lupine, prairie coreopsis, rose milkweed, and asters, among others—and decided to sow them in traditional winter sowing containers. That way I can place them in the meadow, where I think they will look best. (Read the first paragraph of this post again and ask yourself: Why is it so hard to let go of control?)

Anyway, I have complete instructions on winter sowing in containers on the blog and followed them, using a fairly light potting mix, which included potting soil, perlite and vermiculite. Three of the winter sowing boxes are outside now and more will be added as we empty lettuce containers and milk jugs here.

Will you be winter sowing this year?

 

Update on the Meadow Project

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This is a section of the meadow with about two-thirds of the flags in. The flags mark where native plant plugs have been planted.

I was out in my meadow area the other day when some neighbors walked by on the path and asked, “What are those orange flowers you’re putting in?” Those are insurance — a guarantee that I won’t accidentally pull one of the native plants I’m putting in this wild area.

The meadow is a somewhat neglected space that over the years has gotten overgrown with invasive or unwanted species, especially giant ragweed and my personal nemesis, wild parsnip, a nasty invasive that can lead to blisters and burning on skin that touches it.  (Trust me on that one. It hurts.) Last fall, I knocked back the weeds using a combination of cutting and chemicals. I mowed the field this spring, and have been hand pulling (or cutting) regularly to keep the weeds down while my natives take root.

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Flats of plugs from Prairie Moon Nursery.

The natives will be planted in two waves. The first are these gorgeous plants I bought from Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona. I ordered a total of 152 grasses and forbs as plugs to make sure that the meadow had a decent start. I also ordered seeds for a number of forbs (that’s the technical term for wildflowers) and have been starting those using the winter sowing method. I’m guessing it will be another two to three weeks before I get a chance to plant those.

This is a big, slightly costly, work-intensive experiment, but I’m enthusiastic about it. I’m really hoping for a space that provides habitat for birds and beneficial insects as well as beauty for all the folks who walk by our garden. So far, it has inspired a lot of conversation and a few people offered tips on making sure the natives take hold. For instance, at the suggestion of one walker, I mowed a part of the meadow to make sure my plants get plenty of sun. We’ll see how things go as the summer progresses. In the meantime, if you see my orange flowers, imagine waving grasses in fall, or blooms in pink, yellow, purple and white in spring and summer that will replace them in seasons to come.

 

Update on the Winter Sowing Containers

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Lots of germination; lots of rain.

I wrote some time ago about starting native perennials in winter sowing containers, and thought now would be a good time for an update.

Given our horrifically long winter, the plants in the containers are still pretty small. The good news is, germination occurred in almost all of the 28 containers. The two that have not germinated yet — and I do not expect them to — got pretty water-logged and the seeds may have rotted.

Because of the long winter, I did not end up following the usual winter sowing procedure. Normally, winter-sowers will put their plants out sometime during the winter and leave them there until it starts to warm up. Gradually, they will open the containers up, closing them at night to keep the plants warm. Minnesota springs are not usually gradual and this one was light-speed. On May 2, we had about 10 inches of snow on my garden and a temperature around 28. On May 14, the temperature flirted with 95. (Are we crazy to live in this climate? Very likely.) In any case, once it started to warm up, I just took the covers off of the winter sowing containers and called it a day. Of course, since then, it has been cooler, grayer and pretty wet.

I’ll let the plants get up to size and then, over time, transplant them out to the meadow where they will add color to the grasses and other plants I purchased from Prairie Moon Nursery.

My experiences with winter sowing have always been mixed. It does work — no question about it — but it does not work as well as starting plants under lights. It’s great for a situation like this one: I want a lot of plants and I want them cheaply.

What’s been your experience with winter sowing?

 

 

The Meadow Project

sunflowers in meadow
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This is the area I’m hoping to improve this year, with more wildflowers and native grasses.

The biggest garden project I have planned for 2013 is to plant more prairie-style plants in the meadow behind my house, which runs adjacent to a city-owned walking path. While I planted wildflowers in it when we first moved out here, this area has become overrun with wild parsnip, giant ragweed and a few other real bad-boys of the plant world. I’ve undertaken some steps to remove the invasives and plan to replace them with grasses and wildflowers native to Minnesota. My hope is that this area will provide lots of nectar for butterflies and bees, seeds and nesting sites for birds and beauty for all the humans that pass by it each day.

I’ve ordered both plants and seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, which is one of several outstanding native plants nurseries in our area. Why order both plants and seeds? Insurance — plain and simple. The plants will come in May, all ready to grow, having been started and nurtured by the pros at Prairie Moon. That’s great, but the plants are not cheap. Seeds, on the other hand, are cheap, so I’m hoping to get more plants at a lower cost by growing some myself.

sunflowers in meadow
Sunflowers have done well in my meadow, but I’m hoping to add greater variety of native plants.

Since most wildflowers require what’s called cold stratification, winter sowing is the perfect method for starting wildflower seeds. Cold stratification means that the seeds need to experience the cold of winter before they will germinate. I put out a call on Facebook for some milk jugs to use for winter sowing, and so far — thank to my friends Betsy and Marcia — I have about 25 jugs.

The idea behind winter sowing is that you create a little greenhouse for the seeds, by filling the milk jug with very wet potting soil, planting the seeds, sealing it up and putting it out in the cold. The seeds will freeze and thaw and refreeze as the weather moves from winter to spring. Eventually they will start sprouting, at which point you begin exposing them to more air and opening up the little greenhouses.

Tomorrow I’ll write more about how to set up winter sowing containers. Here are the seeds I’ll be starting in my containers:

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

Sweet Joe Pye weed (Euptorium purpureum)

Short’s aster (Aster shortii)

Nodding onion (Allium cernuum)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

Common ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata)

White prairie clover (Dalea candida)

Spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata)

Meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis)

What are your favorite prairie plants?